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'Alleluia Aotearoa'
– why I like it

Hilary Refveim

This year,  2003,  marks the 10th anniversary of the launching of the major indigenous hymn collection  'Alleluia Aotearoa'.  The article reprinted here first appeared in the  Winter 1998  issue of  'Music in the Air'.     John Thornley,  publisher/editor,  has made it available again for visitors to this site to read and enjoy.
   Hilary Refveim  has spent a lifetime servicing the musical and pastoral needs of church and community,  work which,  in her own words, is largely  'unpaid, unrecognised and undervalued'.


On a warm Sunday morning the tropics,  words of an ancient hymn dried up in my throat:

O Lord I cannot see
Vouchsafe me light
The mist bewilders me
Impedes my sight.

Unease stirred about me.   If I barely understood the archaic language of the Victorian era,  I wondered how the locals managed.   We communicated on a daily basis using only simple straightforward words and sentences.   I glanced through the open door that framed cerise bougainvillea tumbling over giant orange hibiscus.   Dark green foliage fanned blue skies.   ‘That’s it!’  I decided and snapped the book shut.   ‘I’m not coming again!’   After thirty-five years of regular church,  I experienced total turn-off.

On furlough in New Zealand in 1992,  I joined a singing group at Ngaio Union,  Wellington,  who were diving like delighted dolphins through the newly published Alleluia Aotearoa hymn Book.   Sunday by Sunday,  after thorough preparation,  hymn songs were presented during a special slot in the service.   As familiarity grew,  the congregation was invited to join in the chorus and then gradually as a style was absorbed,  the final verse.   Even the most reluctant can manage the following:  ‘Come into the streets with me’(22),   ‘Here we bring small or great’(62),   ‘I will comfort you’(67),   ‘O Jesus I sing your praise’(80),   ‘Just a cup of water’(83).

I returned to Fiji revitalised and launched  ‘Let justice roll down’(85).   In this island paradise,  where a registered destitute receives an allowance of one dollar a day and many others struggle on the poverty line,  this song is bordering on revolutionary and post coup days it was risky.   The music was greatly simplified for guitar and even though that was all we had for accompaniment it was adequate.

On our return to New Zealand we gave away our  Alleluia Aotearoa  to the pastor,  for it was clear there was a wealth of up-to-date material in the words of the hymn-songs,  for prayers,  for phrases for a repeating response,  for calls to worship,  blessings and benedictions.   For the same reasons,  copies of Alleluia Aotearoa can be found in Scotland.  One in a religious community in Edinburgh where it suits their contemplative style:  at Longniddry and at Falkirk with Sue Paterson,  formerly in ministry at Ngaio,  Wellington,  and a pioneer in Celtic worship.   It was she who first prodded me to keep on with Alleluia Aotearoa back in 1992.

In a recent conversation,  a newcomer to Alleluia Aotearoa remarked upon the strong dance element contained in the music.   There is indeed a wide range of songs that beckon dancers:  from a graceful invocation to the Spirit to the joyfully wild,  from stately procession to line dance.   Yes!   Can’t you envisage  ‘Come into the streets with me’(22) or  ‘In the presence of your people’(70) for Palm Sunday or like celebration,  for small group entering the worship space in line dance form?   It has the potential to invite others and build a conger.   ‘We are the wheel’(145),  set out as a round by Betty Wendelborn,  is also a set piece where dancers form the spokes of a wheel.   It is suitable for all ages.  I’ve seen ‘If I take the wings of the morning’(68) danced,  free flow,  by a young adult using trailing ribbons that soar with the  ‘wings of the morning’,  that flick,  furl and fold in expressing the imagery of the hymn  –  flying over the sea,  reaching the gateway of heaven,  descending to the portals of hell,  concealing and dressing in the clothing of night,  and bringing freedom from despair and darkness.

My second copy of Alleluia Aotearoa was enticed from me because of dance.   It can be found in a rural backwater of Melbourne.   During the evening of a wedding celebration,  it was the most natural thing to gather about a piano.   Short on music,  I hauled out my Alleluia Aotearoa.   The singing led to dancing.   Colin Gibson’s setting to Shirley Murray’s ‘Loving Spirit’(94) lent itself to be played in a graceful waltz tempo and to prolong this beautiful song,  I kept ending on the dominant till they were ready for the next.   Likewise two other waltzes,  ‘Jesus I sing your praise’(80) and ‘Let’s praise the Creator’(86),  the latter,  as it happens,  a wedding song.   What could be more party time than the boogie dotted rhythms of Cecily Sheehy’s  ‘The kingdom is within you’(137).   And to end with,  there’s a choice for the last dance:  ‘Now unto him’(102),  with a Vera Lynn style singer,  or the quieter ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’(138).

My current well thumbed copy has been used during Christmas week to keep customers’ impatience and exasperation at bay  –  and I was not busking  -  while in long queues in a downtown bank.   While the rest of the town was piping out and wearing thin the well known carols,  Alleluia Aotearoa was able to offer something refreshingly different.   As people left the bank,  some actually thanked me.   And now,  in a collection of its own and also from the NZ Hymnbook Trust,  over fifty carols from Aotearoa,  Carol our Christmas (1996).

When music is well constructed with good harmonic movement,  it is possible to treat it pianistically.   David Dell’s ‘Love to the world’(93) is a good one to start with.   Using upper registers and a little licence,  it is possible to vary the melody and cycle along on top of a steady left hand;  or make tempi or rhythm changes.   If the spirit moves,  improvise.  One of the most satisfying and simple adaptations I’ve done was with ‘Great ring of light’(57),  arranging it for a piano duet for a seven year old.  Instead of monotonous numeric counting,  I sang the words while practising.   By the time we were ready for performance,  he had absorbed something of the solemnity and mystery of God in six descending semibreves.   Thank you,  Colin Gibson,  it’s one of my favourites.

I have not totally abandoned all former hymn books.   It is that the refreshing writing of words and music in Alleluia Aotearoa has woken me up.   My approach in selecting hymns for worship is more thoughtful and careful.   A subject index is essential.   It is such a frustrating waste of time searching to match service material with appropriate music.   Take,  for example,  the topic of Spring.   Springtime is worth singing about after a long,  wet winter.   It doesn’t rate a mention in With One Voice.   Unbelieveable,  isn’t it!   There is an added dilemma as well.   The symbolism of spring is connected with new life and new beginnings which are connected to Easter.   But Easter is in April and not our September–October spring.   Will you and your church spin off your axis if you sang Easter songs in our hemisphere’s springtime?   Why don’t you?   Think about it!   At long last we are at least carolling comfortably about our upside down Christmas:

Carol our Christmas an upside down Christmas;
snow is not falling and trees are not bare.
Carol the summer,  and welcome the Christ Child,
Warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air  (9)

What does one do when the words are just what you want but the music not suited or liked?   A good reader can present the work differently as a spoken piece.   Very often the sentiment,  story or message comes across with greater clarity.   The music can be used as background introduction and conclusion.   A softly played accompaniment with a slight pausing can be read over.   It must be well rehearsed until speaker and pianist or percussionist synchronise comfortably.

I have never used ‘Is there no other way?’(73) or ‘Is this the end of the world?’(74),  two songpoems about war and peace,  as songs.   The texts,  the words alone,  stand by themselves as poems of despair.   I find the realism grim and overpowering and am physically unable to sing them.   Having said that though,  they’d make excellent rap;  so the dark cloud has a silver lining for a rhythmic or intoning delivery

Is this the end of the world?   What do we do?
Fighting and war in each land  –  fighting for who?
Silently Planet Earth dies,  used and abused.
Where is the Christ who was battered and died,  that we might live?   (74)

Is there no other way but this
when drug and truncheon,  tank and gun
impose belief,  or seek to force
their iron rule on everyone?
Must we take up the stone,  the knife
and at the last the winter bomb,
protect our own by taking life,
pit all our strength against the strong?    (73)

In the matter of pastoral visiting this hymn book has become a prop and comforter.   One can usually find a piano in the rehabilitation ward of a hospital and what joy is transmitted when swinging into Colin Gibson’s  ‘Every day’ (36)!   Staff walk the corridor with lighter gait;  faces peer round the door at the old ‘joanna’ usually lost and forlorn in the far corner and the figure bending over the walking frame staightens.   In quiet private moments of conversation,  prayer or reading the hymns as poetry,  there are deep wells of love and healing to be discovered and shared:

God is our city: it won’t fall
though nations are locked in deadly war.
He rescues us at early dawn.
                   (67, ‘I will comfort you’, words by John Weir)

Who is moving through the silence,
gentle as the summer rain?
Who is standing in the doorway,
knocking, asking to come in?
             (157, ‘Who is moving through the silence?’, words by John Weir)

Like the pastor in Fiji,  mining for the wealth contained within requires constant use.   The language in this hymnbook has nudged me theologically;  the nurturing spirit going hand in hand with the music has touched and changed people’s lives.

People of Aotearoa,  Alleluia!


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