18 Jun

African Sanctus

Still enjoying the afterglow of Wednesday night’s performance of David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus at the Linder Auditorium. What a workout. What a musical challenge. In rehearsals more than one choir member was heard to say “What was this guy on?” and others, floundering a bit for a familiar footing, “Why aren’t we rather doing Haydn, or Mozart?”. Part of the difficulty is that the choir is only one of the many elements that make up this eclectic work and its full scope and significance only become apparent when all the bits come together. On Wednesday night it did just that – all came together ­– the taped soundtrack, the dancers, the Djembe drums, the lighting, the soprano soloist, the electric guitar … and it was completely obvious why our musical director had chosen this piece and not one of the more customary works from our repertoire. African Sanctus is a total emotional, musical, philosophical experience.

First performed in 1973, African Sanctus is at turns exhilarating, poignant, abrasive and lyrical, as it follows Fanshawe’s travels in North and East Africa in the late 60s, from Sinai to the southern coast of Tanzania. He encounters the African tapestry … the daily tasks, the important rites. He records the songs that accompany the quotidian and the ritual. He is granted permission to include these in his own setting of the Latin Mass. The result is a wholly original fusion of dramatic music and dance, blending live and recorded sound, Animist, Muslim and Christian song: the Kyrie is introduced by the Call to Prayer ­– Allahu Akber – and sung to a taped underlay of “I witness there is only one God”, “Ashhadu anna la ilaha illa ‘llah”; distant war drums in the Sudan lead into the Agnus Dei; an exquisite Rain Song from Gulu, Uganda gives way to the most excruciating Crucifixus, driven to its terrible climax by a catatonic electric guitar. Conflict yields to peace.

African Sanctus is a unique and extraordinary combination of cultures, religions and musical traditions whose power has filled Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House and which continues to enthral music lovers the world over.

The performances were held in the Linder Auditorium, Johannesburg, with the Symphony Choir of Johannesburg joined by an instrumental ensemble, the Vuyani Dance Theatre and the stunning voice of soprano Magdalene Minnaar, under the baton of Maestro Richard Cock.

What better way to acknowledge Africa Month, which has just ended, and the African Union Summit which is currently taking place in our city. What a perfect way to say “No” to xenophobia and to celebrate our African-ness, our diversity and the underlying unity of all peoples.

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