“We would like to share a song with you!” I look around at the faces of those surrounding me, and they’re not the faces I’m used to seeing in the audience as I perform with my Sweet Adeline chorus back in the United States. There are no sequins or sparkles, and the smiles are not adorned in “Love that Red” lipstick … but smiles there are!
The faces I see staring back at my little chorus are adorned with bandages, wires, and tubes. They are lying in hospital beds, and some have just returned from the operating room. We live on a hospital ship ported in Benin, West Africa. Our home, the Africa Mercy is part of a Christian charity called Mercy Ships, whose mission is to provide life-giving surgeries, hope, and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. Our chorus onboard the ship, called “Key of Sea,” is comprised of nurses, ship deck hands, schoolteachers, x-ray technicians, cooks, chaplains, and high school students. We have come down to the hospital wards located on the third deck of the ship to sing some barbershop chords for the patients.
They look a little quizzically at each other at first, raising eyebrows and nudging neighbors as they eye the group of "yovos" (the term for white people in West Africa) who have offered to share a song. Many of these beautiful African people are such wonderful singers with impeccable rhythm. (It is said that every African is born with a drum inside him or her.) So it seems that while they're used to singing for guests and for each other, they don't often get “yovos" who want to sing for them. Big, curious eyes look up at us as we blow the pitch and dive into “Good Old Acapella.” The basses keep the "do-wop" rhythm of the tune in their rich, low voices, and as the other three parts join in, smiles start to spread across the faces of the patients, and some of them pull out phones to record the song, and some let out a little giggle – not a “this-is-silly" or "you-sound-funny" kind of giggle, but a giggle of wonder and surprised delight.
Barbershop music does that to me, too. Maybe it's the lilting, skippy rhythm or perhaps the harmonies that are so tightly wound together that you can't pick out one from another, but it's just so hard not to be delighted and happy when listening to barbershop music. When we hit the last chord, the patients all begin clapping and grinning. Most can’t speak English, but they make the sign with their hands that we understand to mean, “Again! Sing it again!” One of the nurses in our group reported later on that week that a woman who recorded the song had been listening to it all week and could now sing along!
My favorite moment of singing for the patients is going down to the wards to sing the barbershop version of “It is Well with my Soul.” This is a song that is known throughout the world. Even though they don’t speak English, the patients know the words to this old hymn. I have never experienced a more appreciative audience (or had a harder time keeping my emotions intact in order to finish a song) than I do while singing and watching these men, women, and children with horrendous physical deformities. Some have had tumors that have been growing inside them for years, some have their heads wrapped in bandages, some have their legs in full body casts, and some have massive dressings over burns. Yet they sing along with the words, “Even so, it is well with my soul.”
When we finish
and leave the ward, a patient
stops us in the stairwell to sing it again for him so he can record
it. He just needed to take that song, that music, that message, that
feeling with him.
That’s what I, too, needed this year as I left home and traveled for the first time to West Africa. I needed to take barbershop music with me. I found Sweet Adelines and barbershop singing six years ago, and now I can’t imagine life without those ringing chords. So I took it with me to Benin, and I introduced it to other singers who love it too. Most importantly, I found an audience who loves our unique music … who needed it.