Tony Cummings spoke to India's leading worship leader SHELDON BANGERA
Recently Cross Rhythms' radio stations began playing "Jai Jai Naam Yeshu Naam" by Sheldon Bangura making it the first track sung in Hindi selected for the CR playlist. Sheldon's skilled blend of East and West has caught the ears and touched the hearts of hundreds of thousands of believers in his Indian homeland and now the Mumbai-based worship leader, singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, having been signed to Integrity Music, is impacting the international Church.
Sheldon was born and raised in the city of Mumbai. His family were nominally Christian and his parents sent Sheldon Tees to Sunday school. However by his teenage years he had decided that religion was boring. For Sheldon and his friends, Western music, particularly hard rock, became a far more fulfilling pursuit. With some friends he formed a heavy metal band. Explained Sheldon, "The band were mostly Hindus, but not really connected to religion, not practicing their faith. When you're playing in a band, I guess music is the only religion at that point. It was a heavy metal band. We in India subscribe to a lot of things from the West, so we were into metal. I was a church boy, so I tried to keep away from the Satanic or anti-Christian music; but music is such that what you listen to you begin to act out. That's the challenge. You feed your system good things it will give you good output; but if you begin to feed hatred and violence and sex, things like that, you begin to go down that road."
Sheldon continued, "I had friends on drugs and I had lost a couple to suicide and overdoses. I was in a dark, hopeless place; I wanted to be alone. Day and night I just played my guitar and didn't go out. I had flunked a year in college, and I was sitting at home - I had a year break to clear my papers. Then one day I was invited to a prayer gathering. I was pretty allergic to prayer gatherings, coming from a rock band and that lifestyle, but they invited me to come and be part of the worship team. I took a taxi, cigarette in hand, sitting with my guitar and amplifier, heading out for a prayer meeting. But I didn't know what I was getting into. At that prayer gathering I met with the reality of Christ as something that I couldn't run away from.
"On the stage, I felt like I was the unholiest among all the guys there: I was the only guy doing drugs and smoking and drinking. The Holy Spirit just moved in that prayer meeting and a lot of people were touched; the presence and the power of God was taking over that place. For me it was a very awkward but yet a very powerful moment. All my life I'd heard about Jesus, that day on 7th August 2004, my eyes were witnessing that reality."
After his dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit Sheldon returned home from the meeting that night in turmoil. "The big question for me was 'how am I going to face the same friends, the same habits? I really want my life to change, but is it really going to change?' There was a voice inside my head that said, 'It has changed, and it will never be the same.' I was clearly hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit. I knew something had happened that night and my life was never going to remain the same. I remember coming back home that night; I spoke to my dad and said, 'I don't want to speak to any of my friends right now. I need some time and space.' I went into my room and for the first time in many years I opened my Bible. The words from the Bible began to jump out, and I had a fresh experience of the living aspect of God's word. From then on I was so hungry I just wanted to know more, I wanted to discover what is this that I'm going through. I started plugging into every possible prayer meeting, fasting meeting, healing deliverance meeting - anywhere God's word was preached. Soon I was part of a local church where I began to steadily grow, mentored and discipled."
That church, Mumbai's United Basel Mission (UBM) is still Sheldon's homebase today. The church also has the name Christa Krupa, in the Kannada language, which is spoken by around 45 million people in southern India. Because of the cosmopolitan, multi-lingual nature of Mumbai, UBM conducts meetings in three languages, Kannada, English and Hindi. Sheldon is clearly proud of UBM's forward looking approach. "The church is growing. If you ask me particularly about my church, we have initiatives where we are reaching out to people in the slums. We're constantly looking for opportunities to reach out to new people. The church at large in India is growing: there's more people turning to Christ today than there ever was. We're living in good times but we're living in challenging times as well - opposition and persecution."
After his conversion Sheldon began working hard at college studying engineering. His passion for Christ continued to grow and for a season all music making stopped. He remembered, "I gave my guitars away, I deleted all my music, and I wanted to start afresh. All I did was attend prayer meetings, gatherings. When they needed me to play, I would just help out with some back-up guitar or whatever. But as time passed - a year, a year and a half - I sensed the Holy Spirit tell me, 'I want you to pick up the guitar again.' As I did that, I started playing and worshipping God. I never had any intention of going big with it, but as I started, God would give me new songs. I have to tell you that Hindi is not a strong language for me, but the Lord started giving me songs in Hindi. It was astonishing and amazing to me. I started writing songs during that private time and devotional worship time, which started to spread; young people started getting connected to these songs, singing them in their youth meetings."
More and more Sheldon became a zealous communicator of spiritual truth. And not just in song. He said, "During my student life I led a friend of mine, a brother and his sister, to Christ. The girl was heavily ostracised by the family, beaten up by her parents and relatives. There was a lot of tension there. The father came to me and threatened me; he said, 'If my children become Christians I'm not going to spare you. I won't leave you alive.' There is challenge but there is a joy when people receive Christ. Jesus said we would have to go through some of this."
The persecution of Christians by Hindu fundamentalists is sadly a reality in some parts of India. Explained Sheldon, "In the cities it's cosmopolitan; because of education this kind of opposition is still pretty low. But in the rural areas - oh man - you could lose a family member for their commitment to Christ. In all our WhatsApp groups and social media we learn that persecution is very common: almost every day we hear stories - a certain pastor was beaten in a certain town. This is daily news for us. We've got to still love people, we still love our brothers; we love this country, we were born here, we've been raised here, we love these people. We love them unconditionally. But it's a tough call. We have a lot of respect for pastors and for people who go through intense challenge."
Sheldon's recording career began in 2007 with the release of the 'Har Ek Praja Panth' album. Explained the singer/songwriter, "We didn't have much money but with a couple of friends whatever we had we put together and we put out an EP which did really well. People loved the songs, and this began to connect with the young audiences. These songs made people think, had a secular approach but eventually connected with the Gospel. People loved that kind of stuff. I've always been very involved in the local church; I was taking Bible studies and discipling young people, spending time just loving and raising up young people. I was also working in an engineering company, doing a job and running Bible study groups. Eventually God took that ministry to a bigger scale - he took it national and for the last couple of years we've seen that ministry go international as well. There was a point where, with a mutual understanding with my pastor, I had to hand over my responsibilities to someone else who could take over from there, because God was going to use me nationally and internationally. That's been the journey over the years."
In 2009 Sheldon released the 15-song album 'Kaisa Tera Pyar Hain'. More and more requests were coming in for Sheldon to minister in worship all over India. In 2011 Sheldon met up with an English record company executive who was to play a key role in expanding further the songsmith's ministry and influence. Said Sheldon, "Ephesians 3:20 says, 'Our God is able to give exceedingly and abundantly above what you can ever ask, think, or imagine,' and that's what happened to me. John Pac at Kingsway Music, they're called Integrity Music now, happened to hear some of my music and he was intrigued. He wanted to explore if we could work together. He suggested I did a translation project, testing the waters. He said, 'Let's try to translate some songs from English to Hindi.' Believe me, I never knew I had the grace for that project: God had thrown light in a new area in my life."
Sheldon continued, "Translation was not an area I knew I could do anything in - Hindi was not my strong point. But I kept sensing God saying, 'My power is made perfect in your weakness.' John Pac shared the idea. I gave it a shot, I took a couple of songs and tried to translate them. I did "Worthy, You Are Worthy" by Matt Redman first, because that was a simple song. John really loved it. He sent Tim Hughes' "Here I Am To Worship". 'Try this.' That was fairly okay. Then he dropped me a bomb; it was Stuart Townend's and Keith Getty's 'In Christ Alone'. There's a lot of words; you have to do justice to the theology. I gave it a shot, and it came out pretty okay. We ran with some modifications - modified and re-modified. Sometimes it's a seesaw: on the one side you have singability - the ability for congregations to sing it - and on the other side you have the literature, the depth of the theology. It's a very fine balance. If you go too literal, you lose the congregation; if you go too congregational, you sometimes lose the sense of what the original songwriter is trying to say."
The resulting Integrity Music album 'Nachoonga (Undignified)' proved to be a major success for Sheldon across India. "Around the time of 'Nachoonga''s release John Pac went to be with the Lord. But John had introduced me to the whole Kingsway family; there were fantastic people like Jonathan Brown, Adrian Thompson, Les Moir, Freddie Strong. The entire team helped me connect when Worship Central came down here and made a tour of India. That was a great blessing. My musicians were part of the conference; we were attending the workshops and the conferences. They didn't play with me on stage. English musicians backed me, and it was a real honour playing with the Worship Central musicians."
Sheldon's 2015 album 'Raaja Hai Mahaan' (meaning 'Our King Is So Great') features 12 songs, nine sung in Hindi and three in English. It has received wide popularity among India's churches and Integrity Music have given it international distribution. The Cross Rhythms radio hit "Jai Jai Naam Yeshu Naam" is a particular standout while one reviewer called Sheldon "a real breath of fresh air and a stunning new voice in modern worship". The Cross Rhythms reviewer enthused, "The music is an enthralling mix of East and West featuring traditional Indian instruments alongside the usual guitars, drums and piano. Bangera's voice is confident, natural and unique, and even if you can't understand what he's singing, his melodies are catchy and his joy at praising God is palpable. 'Pause (God You Are Great)' is probably the best of the English tracks. Other highlights include 'Ayr Mere Maan', an uplifting Tim Hughes-style soft rock ballad featuring a gorgeous violin solo, and 'Stuti, Gao Stuti' which is driven by heavy, distorted guitars and dramatic piano."
Sheldon admitted to being rather taken aback by Cross Rhythms decision to put "Jai Jai Naam" on its playlist. "I was certainly surprised when you told me you were picking up this song. I expected one of the three English tracks on the album. One of them Integrity picked up to be on the Essential Worship collection for 2016, which is an honour. I was really surprised that a Hindi song would make it to a western radio station." But not that surprised.
Today Sheldon is able to support himself and his family from his worship ministry. "Gradually, I would say, we're coming to that place where we can live comfortably and also give back into God's kingdom. It's been such a fantastic journey to be able to share God's favour and witnesses. Favour is that one thing I'd like to talk about - God's favour. When his favour is on us, he opens unusual doors and unusual opportunities. 'Nachoonga' was an experiment, but the Lord took it to another level. When I watch the YouTube video today, and I look at the number of views and the testimonies in the comments, I never would have dreamed when I was recording or translating it that this would be the impact, that this would be the reach. God is able to do more than we can comprehend. If we have our hearts right before him, if we're doing it for him, then he's going to make a way. Ultimately, the Lord will provide."
Sheldon's wife Anita sings BVs with the singer/songwriter. Although he tries to be available as often as he can to his church, he is on the road nearly every weekend. "I used to be more available to the local church, but of late I'm on the road most if not all weekends. I was just chatting with our road manager today, and we're trying to say no to a bunch of events this year so we can be more available to the local church. It's been a transition - from doing more church stuff and one or two travels to now travelling every weekend. This year we'll be covering about five countries: we're looking at Canada, US, Kenya, New Zealand, and Dubai. We're trying to not pick up more than this. We've done tours in the Middle East, and it's difficult to get visas for a whole band, so I travel with a shorter line-up - a couple of musicians, a road manager; sometimes it's just my wife and I. We're doing New Zealand later this year where just my wife, my baby and myself will travel and do a couple of events there. For most events in India we travel with the band. We've also been able to start this Christian music festival in Mumbai called Jaago. It's called the Jaago Movement and it's growing slowly; we're moving to a space where we can host our own events. Jaago takes place in Mumbai but strategically we know the whole of India is open to us. As the Lord shows us a certain region or state, we start moving in that direction and work with local churches to host events in that particular city. We started with about 1000, but now we have anywhere between five to 10,000 young people attending an event. There God has been slowly taking this to the next level. Where you want young people you're going to have music, and worship music in India is at a strategic point where it's just waiting to burst out. We are some of the forerunners of that."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.