Beating the drum of worship
Latin percussion element adds spice when Francis leads
JEFFERSON CITY—John Francis is a Latin percussionist who can do spectacularly imaginative things on a conga drum, to the glory of God alone, as the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) worship specialist.
Francis looks at passages of Scripture like Romans 11:33-36 and Philippians 2:6-11 and sees male-oriented hymns on honor and allegiance drawn from the richness of the early church—an emphasis that is sorely lacking in much of today’s female-oriented songwriting.
“We need to reach men more in that aspect because I think their homes will be better when they strike allegiance to their Lord and Master, when they want to honor the Savior and live like Him,” Francis said. “I think drumming is such a primal language for men that I think it’s a natural.”
Last year, Francis went to an associational boys’ camp in Missouri and was told to lead worship for one hour. He remembered thinking to himself at the time, “Van Halen can’t keep these boys entertained for an hour!” But he knew he had to try.
“We drummed,” he said. “I brought as many toys as I had. They played them. They sat on the floor and played their seats as drums. We used five-gallon buckets as drums. The hour flew.”
Francis, 40, is not your typical Missouri Baptist music minister in that he graduated from a state school (Eastern Kentucky University) and played trumpet and Latin percussion in a touring pop group, the Young Urban Professionals out of Lexington, Ky., for seven years. His musical influences during that time could be classified as Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine. (Estefan, a native of Cuba, is billed as the Queen of Latin Pop.)
Every musician in the Young Urban Professionals except the drummer and Francis was Jewish.
“It was one of those large party bands,” he said, noting that he, as a Baptist, somehow was blessed to fit into their oddly moralistic worldview.
The band played regularly in about five states, with Francis performing on the horn for a good three years.
“They noticed that I had pretty decent rhythm, so the manager of that group said, ‘We want you to take Latin percussion lessons,’” Francis said.
His teacher was James Corcoran, a Latin percussionist from Hawaii. It only took a few lessons for Francis to get hooked on the genre that has its roots in African tribal music.
“More than Afro-Cuban, my style is definitely more Cuban,” he said. “I have some CDs that I’ve driven my family crazy with because there’s not a word of English in them, and sometimes the recordings are fairly poor, but you just play along and really hear some of the neat stuff that they’re doing. One thing you have to say about being on an island is they really kind of made up a lot of interesting things. They’re stuck there, and there’s not a lot of (outside) influence.”
Francis served six years as minister of music at First Baptist Church of Troy before joining the MBC staff in June 2006. One of his going-away presents from the church was a conga drum he describes as “sturdy.” Often he will lead the MBC staff and MBC singers and/or instrumentalists with it.
“It’s still a foreign object in our worship many times as Baptists, but I have brought Latin percussion instruments in the most traditional settings and it has never, ever seemed to have been a problem,” he said.
“From the beginning of life we have a beat. We have a heartbeat. Everything is based on beat, and I think using percussion in music is so important because it is that very prime beat that provides the music the momentum that it needs to really propel.”
When a man hears a worship lyric like, ‘You are beautiful beyond description, too marvelous for words,’ it is not unusual for him to recoil.
“It is written very, very effeminately, and I don’t mean that as a slur or a slam,” Francis said. “I could sing those kinds of songs with no problem, but a man just walking into the threshold of Christianity needs to have an allegiance, needs to sing about honor and strength. When they do that, they become more and more passionately in love with the One they honor, with the One they strike their allegiance to. So allegiance and honor is kind of like a primary language that leads to love later on down the line.”
Francis can play a warm, deep sound in the center of his conga before switching to a vibrant sound on the rim that very well may stir the soul.
“I do think guys warm up to it because I think drumming does reach a masculine side of the heart,” he said. “Quite frankly, the modern-day worshipper is not reached on that side of who they are very well.
“Drumming just has that tendency to bring out the best in guys. I’ll play congas at a church and it is so much more men that come to me and say, ‘I love the drumming.’ In my mind I say, ‘Yeah, I’d say you do, because that is something that really reaches out to you.’”