African Sanctus

The other day I was writing about the importance for me of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in opening up new musical horizons. Now, with news of the death of the composer and musicologist David Fanshawe, I’m drawn back to another album of the 1970s – African Sanctus – that was seminal for me, one of the first sparks to set alight a love of African music.

In African Sanctus the Latin Mass is juxtaposed with live recordings of traditional African music, which Fanshawe had recorded himself in three years  journeying up the Nile to Lake Victoria. The work, in 13 movements, blends field recordings from Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda and Kenya with elements from the western Catholic mass.  The lp sleeve notes described the music as being for an ensemble of  ‘African tapes, choir, operatic soprano, light soprano, shouter, African drummer, rock drummer, two percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and Hammond M-100 organ’ which was pretty far out for 1975.

African Sanctus was premiered live in London in 1972, and really took off after a BBC TV documentary three years later (be good to see that again), and the release of the lp, which became a bestseller. The work was ahead of its time in many respects:  using backing tracks with live performance was uncommon; in effect it introduced sampling; it brought world music to the attention of people like me; it fused genres; and it scored pop, ethnic and classical instruments and vocal styles together.

African Sanctus is a synthesis of Christian and Islamic tradition, but also fuses references to religious and spiritual traditions which are far older than either.  For Fanshawe, a key moment in its conception came at the beginning of his 1969 journey.  He was in Egypt and, sitting in a Christian church, he heard the muezzin of a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer, and imagined this sound placed in counterpoint with Western choral harmony. And so, on the Kyrie, Fanshawe layers a western choir singing the Kyrie over a recording of the muezzin in the Mohammad Ali mosque in Cairo in a way that is totally respectful to both traditions. This one track crystallizes Fanshawe’s vision of  shared humanity, and seems even more pertinent today.

‘It informs both listener and performer about African music and its relationship to Western polyphony and captures the eternal and spiritual soul of music. It is an event, a celebration of power and energy, both visual, aural and multi-cultural, now performed live all over the world. For David Fanshawe there are no musical barriers.’
–  official African Sanctus website

African Sanctus was first performed in London in July 1972, and was later played on BBC Radio on United Nations Day. On Easter Sunday, 1975, a documentary about the making of the work was broadcast on BBC1’s Omnibus programme. Made by composer and film-maker Herbert Chappell, this charted Fanshawe’s progress recording the work in North and East Africa, and coincided with the release of the album. The two men retraced Fanshawe’s original journey and tried, largely unsuccessfully, to find the musicians he had recorded on his original trip. The documentary was nominated for the Prix Italia.

David Fanshawe – only 68 when he died – created something new: he didn’t force European rules onto the African material, but found a way of creating a sense of real equality between the two traditions, a symbiotic relationship reflecting his humanist message. In the original lp sleeve notes David Fanshawe wrote:

African Sanctus began to evolve in the heat of summer whilst I was riding with Bedouin nomads across the desert towards Egypt on a camel. That was in 1966 when I was studying at the Royal College of Music. Since then I have been on many hair-raising journeys and have recorded music from well over 50 tribes in Arabia and North and East Africa. African music is fascinating, weird, and wonderful, but like so much folk-art it is rapidly vanishing and one of the main reasons why I wrote African Sanctus was that I felt, quite simply, that instead of just recording tribal music I could preserve and create my own music around it, thus adding many more colours and variations which would express my adventures and love of people in a composition where African music, African songs and dances, religious recitations and ceremonies would live within the heart of a work conceived along ‘Western’ lines in the form of a Mass. The driving force is one of ‘Praise’ and a firm belief in ‘One God’.

African Sanctus attempts to fuse different peoples and their music into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise. It reflects the changing moods of music today and I hope moves with the times, for we are all living and sharing life together on a very small planet.

My journeys are always exciting. Means of transport varies from walking, donkey-riding (terrible strain!), camel-riding (even worse strain!), paddle-steamer, canoe, jet, light aircraft, sailing dhow, and endless trucks and lorries across remote deserts and scrub. It is a relentless search. In 1969 I hitch-hiked down the Nile through Sudan and into Uganda. In many ways that safari was my most fruitful; practically all the recordings – all extremely rare and valuable – in African Sanctus stem from that journey. In 1970 I returned again, travelling in a huge arc towards the Indian Ocean and ending up in a dug-out canoe on the Tana River. Whilst on the river I unfortunately hit a hippopotamus on the head with my paddle, the canoe upset, the tape-recorder drowned, and I was pursued hotfoot to the river bank. Finally, I sailed across the Ocean to the Island of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf where I had the good fortune to meet Judith who is now both my wife and travelling companion.

In 1972 with the help of the Sir Winston Churchill Memorial Trust we both returned to East Africa and were initiated as European members of the Taita Tribe (a proud moment), got lost in the bush when my light aircraft crash-landed due to failing light, were thrown into a Tanzanian prison for recording the Royal Drums of the Sukumu Kings minus our shoes, and finally returned to the Phonogram Studios, London, to record the final version of  African Sanctus.

The work began as a composition for choir and African tapes and was given an exhilarating first performance by the Saltarello Choir in July 1972; this performance was later broadcast on United Nations Day, October 24, 1972. Since then the work has developed (or moved with the times), as I have added twice as many drums and group. Now it is even being developed as a stage show based on the break-up of tribal law.

We have all been experimenting at the studios and I owe special thanks to sound engineer, Peter Olliff, whose patience and artistic wizardry have created a final balance between the African and European elements at all times, a most critical one. I hope African Sanctus will stimulate and inform both listener and performer and that the total sound will reflect the music and people of Africa. What others have said in words, I have tried to say in music.

There are hundreds of hours’ worth of songs, dances and rituals, an entire ethnological treasure-trove, that David recorded painstakingly around the world belonging to tribes and communities in developing countries whose heritage since then – the 60s, 70s and 80s – has since disappeared. He has saved for posterity the voices of their ancestors and the musical footprint of their existence. David’s passion for the music of other cultures was never touristic, he had a deep respect for the people and cultures he engaged with and believed that the recording of their music was an act of love and admiration, which it was. As every decade passes since he conducted his monumental task, his contribution will seem ever greater, ever more precious, to rank alongside that of Bartok in Hungary or Evgeniya Lineva in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. His own composing paid tribute to his research into other cultures but retained an authentic, heartfelt Britishness, confirming the truth that it is only by appreciating one’s own culture that one can truly relate to those of others, as equals. He will be sorely missed as a musician, friend, composer, but beyond the personal, his contribution to the preservation of now lost musical wonders of the world was a towering achievement that can never be matched or repeated. The world of music is a hugely poorer place without him.
– Howard Goodall – composer and broadcaster.


2 thoughts on “African Sanctus

  1. Gerry, you write so eloquently. I am preparing some notes for our choir’s performance of the African Sanctus. We are a community choir, although an ambitious one it would seem! Could I take some snippets from your blog to incorporate in my write-up? I wouldn’t want to give credit like an academic paper, but would be happy to list a thank you for your website and print the link.

  2. Thank you for your very kind comments on the post, Marlene. You are very welcome to quote – I’m happy that my words will complement a performance of the African Sanctus. I hope it goes well!

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