The Taliabo Story…
Delivered from the Power of Darkness

On the remote island of Taliabo a church had been born out of the darkness of animism and headhunting. Where ritual sacrifice had taken place, the Taliabo now sang hymns of praise to God, their Savior. On John Benham’s first visit to Taliabo (in 1989) to assist Steve and Mary Lonetti with teaching on worship and music in the new church, he recalls that “although Lonettis reassured me that I would be safe, the travel guide described Taliabo ‘one of the last bastions of primitivism,’ and that the last head-hunting foray was 1987, only two years before my arrival.”

Reaching across cultures with music…

Music allows us to reach across cultures incredibly quickly…if it’s understood. John recalls, “On the first night of my visit, the people sang one song…and stopped. Steve Lonetti was surprised, as the congregation usually sang for up to three hours. I thought I might be a distraction to the worship. Then I tried raising (singing) a song in Taliabo, but the people didn’t respond…I thought I had made a mistake by moving too quickly. I stopped because they did not join in with me. Steve told me to sing it again, but this time, all the way through. As soon as I had finished the first verse, they joined in with me, and we sang God's praise together for nearly three hours.”

Breaking down barriers…

Naku Nama, one of the men in the tribe, told me, “You are my music teacher, and I want to learn much from you.” Music is such a powerful tool for discipleship…it wasn’t long before the believers were gathered on the porch in the mornings, waiting for me to get up and sing with them.

By this point, the believers had created so many new songs, that it was becoming almost impossible to remember all of them.. It was clear that MIWC needed to assist the local church in developing a written record of the music.

Building bridges…

The effectiveness of the music missionary was so strong. By the time John returned to Ambon after the first trip to Taliabo, the local missions group leader told him that their were eight invitations to visit other tribes and islands. The vision for Music in World Cultures was born.

Training the local church…

In 1990, John returned to Taliabo with a printed hymnbook of the tribe’s songs. When the local musicians saw the book, they recognized immediately that the words in the book were their songs. John then sang their hymns from the book, but they didn’t understand how he could sing the music, since he didn’t know the songs when he left the first time. Very quickly, one member of the tribe figured out that John had developed a notation system for the tribe. Their response to him: “You can’t leave until you teach us how to read music!” And that’s what we did.

Music as a tool of outreach…

Neti Nina, one Taliabo women was excited to have the hymn book and said, “These songs that we have made have come up from our heart. They are our language and help us remember God’s word and teach it to our children and grandchildren.”

When we sing we pray…

One of the elders of the church said, “We are so glad to have the hymn book, because now we can plan for worship and our services are much less confused. We also have forgotten some of the songs we wrote earlier, and this helps us to remember them.”

Broadening the vision…

After the 1989 trip, it was clear that the ethnomusicologist played a crucial role in assisting the work of the resident missionaries. After Taliabo, we visited the Lauje people, who lived on the island of Sulawesi. In John’s words, “I was told that relationships with the tribe would take a very long time to establish, and perhaps it wasn’t worth my time to come, since I was going to be there for just a few days. The people were very shy and somewhat fearful of Caucasians, because of tribal beliefs about spirits inhabiting white people.

The next morning, I began to make pan pipes out of bamboo, and the people began to gather around me to see what was happening. Some walked as far as three hours to see the visitors. Soon, the local musicians brought their instruments and we began to play songs together. Because of music, we didn’t have to focus on language acquisition. This allowed us to establish relationship much more quickly. This tribe was very different from the Taliabo, and we had to use a completely different approach. Understanding of culture was essential.”

On subsequent visits in 1991 and 1995, we visited the Tugutil people on Halmahera and returned to Taliabo. By this point, the Taliabo church had composed over 200 hymns and were known by other tribes as “the singing people.” By the time we left, they had learned the basics of writing their own music and further developing music for worship, discipleship, and evangelism.

Unfortunately, the current political situation in that portion of Indonesia has shut down our access to Taliabo and other nearby islands. We continue to pray for their church and look forward to the possibility of returning.