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Jo'Burg Days: The Sounds Of Africa

…I listened with tears in my eyes as I heard all the vitality and endurance of Africa in the music, along with the beauty of what can be achieved when its people are doing what they enjoy most, dancing and making music together…

Barbara Durlacher is deeply moved by a performance in Johannesburg of composer David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus.

The sounds of Africa are very special, evocative and mesmerising, and once heard are never forgotten. Living in a big city, the sounds of nature are becoming more and more difficult to find: frogs croaking by the pond at night, crickets chirping at noon, birdsong at dawn.

On the Highveld where there is no prevailing wind. We don’t even hear the moan and whisper of the winter winds in the eaves, or feel a sneaky puff squeezing it’s way through an ill-fitting widow. With all the ugly sounds of a big city, one feels very detached from the ‘real’ Africa. But one natural sound nobody can escape during our wonderful summers are the enormous thunderstorms when the lightning flashes, and the thunder crashes and rolls around the heavens louder than anywhere else.

So, when I had the pleasure of attending a performance of the Johannesburg Symphony Choir performing David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus, conducted by the well-known Richard Cock, with South African Soprano Hanli Stapela singing the solo part, accompanied by the young and agile dancers of the Ballet Theatre Afrikan, the sounds of Africa embodied in this imaginative work caught at my heart.

The performance was electrifying, and the young dancers stunning with beautiful bodies and amazing dancing skills. The music is vibrant and different, with strange rhythms and syncopated beats. Sometimes loud and chanting, it embodies the sounds and textures of the veld, the smell of the dust and the feel of the tall golden grass as it swishes through your fingers. One hears the muezzin’s five-times daily call to prayer, combined with the sound of a tropical thunderstorm, the sweet chattering of African voices, and the hoarse croaking of frogs. If listened to with an open mind, if one allows one’s imagination to roam, it can be a wonderful experience.

I first heard about this music years ago in Cape Town and subsequently was able to catch a TV documentary in which the composer and a film crew re-traced his original journey through North Africa down to Uganda and Lake Victoria. They accompanied him as he searched out indigenous music and tribal songs, and filmed him recording them in what was later to become his beautiful mass, “African Sanctus”.

And here I'll quote from what the composer David Fanshawe says in the program notes...

"In 1969 I went to Africa for the first time with the idea of writing a major work which would combine my love of travel, adventure and recording, with my composition. On the hill of the citadel in Cairo, overlooking the Nile one evening, I suddenly heard in my head the unlikely combination of a western choir accompanying the Islamic 'Call to Prayer'. [When I lived in Cape Town in the ‘70s each morning as the sun rose, from the near-by mosque came the notes of the Muezzin’s call to prayer. When the call sounded during the performance many memories of those days came flooding back, bringing a lump to my throat for all that was lost].

..."My object at that time was to travel up the Nile to Lake Victoria, record traditional music and one day, hopefully integrate selected recordings into my own music. Armed with a stereo tape-recorder, rucksack, camera, tapes and very little else, the journey was to be achieved by hitch-hiking. Travelling southwards I soon realised it was not going to be easy. Music permits were unobtainable and I was locked up as a spy. My equipment was confiscated but ultimately they found me innocent of spying. Also, first attempts at recording were most depressing as everyone seemed to own a transistor radio! In spite of initial failures however, I pressed on.

"On reaching Khartoum I decided to go west, having learned about some mysterious mountains which were believed to be like 'Paradise'. Much of the time was spent on the back of a camel and on one particular moonlit night on top of the Marra Mountains it seemed my prayers had been answered, for I happened to hear some remarkable chanting in the wilderness. I parked the camel under a 'bird song tree', scrambled up the mountain as fast as I could and recorded four men sitting on a prayer mat swaying from side to side. They were in a deep trance and I don't think they ever knew I had actually been there. From that moment the whole shape and purpose of my journey took on a new dimension. I decided to turn east to the Red Sea and double back on my tracks..."

"...Desert sounds, frogs, equatorial rains and thunder were all to play an important role in communicating the atmosphere of my travels into the overall musical tapestry. An unorthodox setting of the Latin Mass was to make its final form in the shape of my travels. These thoughts came to me as I ventured towards the 'source of the Nile's music' - Lake Victoria.

" In 1970 I returned to East Africa; but it was not until the Spring of 1972 that this work was actually written... On the 19th April 1973, on the shores of Lake Victoria, I met a remarkable African of the Luo tribe named Mayinda Orawo - the 'Hippo Man'. He made a great impact on me and I decided to (call the completed) work African Sanctus (Holy Africa)..." [end of quote from program notes]

David Fanshawe repeated parts of his journey for the television film crew, and the documentary showed him re-living his travels as he fearlessly hitchhiked his way southwards. Flagging down vehicles, scrambling aboard and then settling down to quiz everyone he met about local music and musicians, it was during one of these hitchhiking journeys that he first got to hear about 'the Hippo Man'. Following these scraps of information, his search took him closer and closer to Lake Victoria until eventually he tracked him down. Many people had heard of this legendary figure, as he was well known locally as a successful "witch-doctor" who always dressed to impress his customers.

When found, he proved to be a formidable figure in a towering headdress of feathers and porcupine quills edged with an large 'frill' of hippo teeth. Two larger teeth shaped like miniature elephant tusks framed his eyes and forehead and curved down towards his nose and mouth, making him look exotic and powerful, an effect even more pronounced by protuberant lips and the long-stemmed clay pipe clenched between his teeth.

I listened with tears in my eyes as I heard all the vitality and endurance of Africa in the music, along with the beauty of what can be achieved when its people are doing what they enjoy most, dancing and making music together.

Everybody’s musical tastes are different; this music may not appeal to some, but it struck a chord in my heart. Listening to Richard Cock conducting the Johannesburg Symphony Choir in this realisation of "African Sanctus" made me envy the conductor’s ability to bring such a complex work to life.

Praise must also go to David Fanshawe for his determination in tracking down the tribal melodies he was sure were there; and the talent that enabled him to create such an unusual souvenir of his years travelling in North-African and the Levant. In harmonising these sounds of Africa he has achieved a unique and beautiful tribute, through interweaving the contrasting threads into a tapestry of subtlety and power.

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