Posted by Kristy on July 29, 2015

Brazil Trip Breaks Boundaries

Team helps create indigenous-style worship music



When MIWC Founder John Benham finally reached Altamira, Brazil in late May after almost a day of air travel, he was met by intense heat and humidity, as well as by SIL missionaries Isaac and Shirley de Souza and SIL ethnomusicologist Heber Negrao. (SIL is a faith-based language services non-profit organization.)

The team of four boarded a 20-foot aluminum motor boat to take them up the Xingu and Iriri Rivers to a tribe of Kara people. This particular tribe petitioned the Brazilian government with documents signed in thumbprints, asking for permission for Benham’s team to visit.

Dodging_Trees_and_Boulders_Up_the_Iriri_River.jpgWith permission secured, the boat took off, bounding through sometimes narrow river channels, its passengers trusting the driver to avoid the boulders and trees in the water (pictured).

Upon arrival in the village, Benham and his team studied the existing music use in the tribe and found the “keepers of the music” seemed to be three men who act as area shaman and healers. Each song the men sang served a specific function and purpose, meaning music was not something to be done outside of these events.

During the Sunday worship services at a new church in the village, the de Souza’s sang dozens of American and Brazilian songs they had translated from English and Portuguese into the local language. While the children seemed to enjoy them, the adults were not very enthusiastic.


The team faced a crossroads: continue to translate Brazilian songs into the Kara language (following the lead of local schools that are teaching the newest Kara generation the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture), or attempt to use the indigenous music's characteristics to create biblically sound worship songs in the Kara language that sounded Kara? At stake, they determined, was the people’s perception of God would it be Brazilian or Kara? How that would affect their personal relationship with the Lord?

Using simple lyrics “happy, happy, happy be I, Jesus is good,”  from a Brazilian song, the group created a tune using the Kara music system and its unique pitches and meter.

Village_Scenes_2.jpgWhen Benham first sang the new song, the room full of Kara became quiet until a man pointed at Benham and said, “This is a good man. This is Kara!”

Asked if the song sounded like it came from outside of the village, the same man answered, no.

It sounded like it was Kara, he said. Sing it again.

The team did the same thing with another song, using the Kara music system to compose a worship song. All ages of tribal members now seemed enthusiastic as they were finally hearing songs not only in their own language but, finally, in their own melodies.

Negrao and Benham created nine songs in all, including two for the school to teach lessons on hygiene and obedience to parents and teachers, both based on a biblical perspective.


As days went by, the songs spread through the tribe, sung while believers worked, played and worshiped.

Isaac de Souza said, “When they sing the old songs they sing very softly, as though they were afraid of the spirits, but when they sing these new songs of the believer they sing out with a sense of freedom.”

Shirley_Kman_Isaac_Kman_Heber_recording_traditional_songs.jpgThe small body of worship songs now available in the Kara tribe quickly led to believers establishing a deeper understanding of the personal nature of God because they could see God was not just Brazilian, but Kara as well. 

Benham said one evening a woman visited Shirley de Souza asking her to pray for a sick child, though the mother had been advised to go to see the tribe’s healer. This mother told Shirley she had informed the advice giver that there was only one God and He has all the power. Another mother visited the next night with the same request.

The team left the Kara tribe feeling confident the people had learned the process for making a song. The model, teaching and encouragement influenced the believers in the village to work together to make new songs on their own. A summary of the Kara music system was left with the de Souzas, so they could assist the Kara if called upon.

While this is just the beginning of Kara songs for worship and discipleship, MIWC is hopeful the framework set up will continue to provide an understanding of God’s desire to have a personal relationship with the Kara people.