By Nancy Cawley Zugschwert
eth•no•mu•si•col•o•gy [eth-noh-myoo-zi-kol-uh-jee] \ n (1950) 1: the study of music that is outside the European art tradition 2: the study of music in a sociocultural context (from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition).
To John Benham Jr. ’64, Ed.D., there is much more to eth•no•mu•si•col•o•gy than a dictionary definition can convey.The professor of worship and ethnomusicology at Liberty University in Virginia and adjunct professor of music at NWC found his vision for the field at age 10—about the same time as the first ethnomusicology degree programs were being developed.
“As I was walking home from school one day I actually stopped in the middle of a field and felt God was calling me into a dual role in music and missions,” explained Benham, who grew up in Michigan. He remembers the moment with clarity, but it took years for the reality to emerge.
A WINDING PATH, A VISION FULFILLED
At Northwestern, Benham studied music education under Dr. William Berntsen. He taught music before entering grad school in Denver and later returned to Northwestern—this time on the new St. Paul campus—to chair the music department from 1971 to 1975, although, Benham reflected, “I was still not sure where God was leading me.”
His path meandered a bit: learning instrument repair, leaving NWC for a position at Cal State Fullerton, then six years later returning to Minnesota with his wife, Merridee (Matson ’63) and their family. He retired from teaching, opened an instrument repair business and took the worship position at Grace Church Roseville (Minn.), ready to live a normal life and raise a family…or so Benham thought.
While in California, Benham had the unique cross-cultural experience of directing music at a Jewish temple. After that, the trajectory toward his music/missions vision began to speed up. In 1989, he accepted an invitation to go to Indonesia to teach a group of 400 ex-headhunters and animists. “When they became believers they started singing and the music just flowed out of them,” Benham said, and he realized more clearly than ever the power of music, in a specific cultural context, as an expression of worship.
The trip proved to be pivotal. “I essentially came home and quit everything,” Benham remembered. He sold his instrument repair business, resigned his church position and started a ministry called Music in World Cultures (MIWC). “It was the fulfillment of my age-10 vision.”
Twenty-two years later, MIWC is an international faith-based organization at the forefront of advancing the use of music as a strategic tool in developing cross-cultural relationships.
PRESERVING MUSIC IN SCHOOLS AND CULTURE
Over the years Benham has also served as a consultant to the music education industry. Born in response to cuts proposed in his kids’ school district, he developed illustrations to show decision makers how cutting these programs would actually cost more. Benham’s efforts have helped preserve $72 million in funding for music programs across the nation. He recently published Music Advocacy (Moving from Survival to Vision), a summary of his experience as one of the nation’s most successful advocates for music education.
Benham developed the ethnomusicology curriculum that is the backbone of MIWC, and which he now teaches at Liberty. “Ethnomusicology is the anthropology of music,” Benham noted. “Where the typical musician studies the music, we study the culture of the music.We are looking at the context, use and function of music in the culture.”
Understanding music in this way helps achieve the MIWC mission—and illustrates the realization of one young boy’s vision: Using music as a means of accessing culture for breaking down barriers and building bridges to establish cross-cultural relationships.
Visit Music in World Cultures online at www.musicinworldcultures.com.