It Began in Africa

Three decades after its conception, David Fanshawe still finds African Sanctus very much in demand

There must be something in the British psyche that compels them, as soon as they're of age, to trundle off to exotic locales across the globe. Wherever you go in the world, it seems, you always manage to run into a traveler from the U.K. So when a young graduate of London's Royal College of Music headed down the Nile River in 1969, he could've easily been chalked up as just another participant in the national pastime. Except that this intrepid Brit packed a professional-grade tape recorder in his rucksack and took lots of divine inspiration along with him.

Four years later David Fanshawe emerged from his odyssey with a trunkload of field recordings and a musical composition he had written called African Sanctus, www.africansanctus.com a work that weaves together recordings of tribal ceremonies with the Latin mass. "I found the music I recorded in those days to be so moving I wanted to share that music with other audiences," says Fanshawe from his home in London. "I wanted to extend that craft to a composition which fundamentally looks at the commonality of music and points out that there is one harmony, and the message really is peace and praise to one god."

In 1973 he recorded the often beautiful, sometimes joyously chaotic piece with a full choir, a children's choir, an operatic soprano, an African drummer, a rock drummer, an electric bass and guitar, keyboards, tenor sax, harp, and taped field recordings, though not all at the same time. It's an ambitious work, not just in terms of its production but in its attempt to bring together the religious music of several seemingly disparate cultures, that of the Anglican church and of numerous African tribes. When you listen to the movement "Kyrie: Call to Prayer," which effortlessly combines the liturgical hymn Kyrie with the Azan -- the Muslim call to prayer heard five times a day from mosques all across the Islamic world -- you're struck by their similarities, not just in pitch and melodic structure but in their nearly identical opening lines. "God is most great! Lord, have mercy," says the call to prayer. "Come to prayer! Christ, have mercy," follows the Kyrie.

African Sanctusdocuments the joyful sounds of African people like this Masai girl
David Fanshawe
African Sanctusdocuments the joyful sounds of African people like this Masai girl

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It's exactly this juxtaposition that inspired Fanshawe to conceive African Sanctusin the first place and to set out through Africa to create it. His Anglican faith, along with his life in music, can be traced back to his days at St. George's Choir School and as a boys' choir chorister in Windsor Castle from the age of eight until his voice broke at thirteen. He later spent five years in the film industry, working his way up from tea boy to sound engineer while writing music for short films, before going off to the Royal College of Music in 1962 to study composition.

But it was on a trip to Jerusalem in 1966 that the seed of African Sanctus was first planted. Fanshawe was attending mass at the Anglican St. George's Cathedral and listening to the Kyrie when he heard an imam's voice from deep in the old city singing the "call to prayer" in the same pitch. "And neither side wanted to hear the other side," observed Fanshawe of the occasion. "Until I set it to music."

On his recording trip three years later, Fanshawe purposely charted a route over the east African landscape that took the form of a cross. Starting at the mouth of the Nile at the Mediterranean south, he traveled down to Lake Victoria between Uganda and Kenya, moved back west to the mountains in West Sudan, then journeyed east to the Red Sea. Along the way the indomitable Fanshawe used his boyish charm and enthusiasm to develop a rapport with the people he encountered, enabling him to record many of their ceremonies. The result was a collection of more than 1000 tapes documenting the culture of more than 50 tribes, including the Dinka, Shilluk, and Nuer tribes in the Sudan, the Acholi people of north Uganda, and the Masai and Turkana of Kenya.

"The work really is a geographical piece in one sense," says Fanshawe, who chose the Nile because of his fascination with rivers and river life. "It's a cross-shaped pilgrimage because I carved a cross and I was very well aware of making that commitment to my faith. So the cross dictated where I should go."

Originally known as African Revelations,the composition was first performed by the Saltarello Choir in 1972 in London to an enthusiastic audience but mixed reviews from the press. Upset by the critical reaction, Fanshawe decided to go back to Africa to rethink the piece and revise it. "It needed a lot more. It was a good idea, but it needed more thinning out," he says. "Too much was happening." He sorted out the mix, removed the excess clutter, and came away with a new version that received much better reviews when it was performed the following year.

Two decades later in a 1994 BBC documentary entitled African Sanctus Revisited, Fanshawe retraced his steps, looked up the old tribesmen, and found to his dismay that many of them were either dead or killed in wars that have raged across the region for decades; or, as in the case of the Bwala dancers from North Uganda (who were heard on the album and in the original performances), victims of Idi Amin's genocidal reign in the late Seventies. He also found that their ceremonies and the accompanying music were dying off. "So much of the music I recorded in Africa you could not record today," he says. "And that is due to progress and change and education.... Call it what you will."

The wayfaring Fanshawe illustrates his point with a story of a boat trip to the northern Cook Islands, where he slept on a trunk filled with videos. "It was the first time videos had reached the island of Pukapuka," he says. "I had this experience all over the Pacific. Once the islanders started watching movies, they didn't want to practice their traditional dances."

Fanshawe has done his part to preserve some of the world's endangered music by making field recordings in India, Southeast Asia, and West Africa, keeping them in his personal archive in England. His most extensive project has been the ten years spent scouring the South Pacific from Papua New Guinea to the Republic of Yap, recording between 4000 and 5000 hours of music.

But as time goes on and its popularity continues to grow, he finds himself drawn back to African Sanctus. The 1974 album version has become one of the Philips label's all-time best-selling classical records, and the piece has been performed over 1000 times to date.

"When I first started doing performances they were sporadic. Now there's usually a performance, sometimes more, every week. It's extraordinary," he marvels. "This is because there's much more understanding and sympathy for world music, and people are much more willing to embrace other cultures and realize that there's not just white music."

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