Symphony Hall, Birmingham: African Sanctus

by 5:4

i wish i could remember how i first came into contact with African Sanctus. All i can be certain of is that it was at least 25 years ago, as i took part in a performance of the piece (being in charge of the tape part) given by Coventry Philharmonic Choir way back in 1994. i definitely remember how i first came into contact with David Fanshawe. It was in the late 1990s, while i was an undergrad at Birmingham Conservatoire, and Fanshawe came to talk about his work to all the composers, followed by a more intimate conversation with those (surprisingly few) who wanted to stay. Various things struck me during this time with Fanshawe. He was by far the most enthusiastic composer i had ever met – and for the most part, he still is. But that enthusiasm wasn’t primarily directed inward, toward his own work and musical thinking, but outward, to the multitude of people, cultures, practices and music that he had encountered and recorded during his famous travels around north Africa. The fact that Fanshawe was also one of the genuinely nicest composers i had ever met (and again, pretty much still is) only added to the extent to which that outward love and zeal he expressed felt infectious.

This is more than just an anecdote. At Symphony Hall last Sunday, attending the 50th anniversary performance of Fanshawe’s 1972 electroacoustic magnum opus African Sanctus, it struck me as never before how much the piece, among other things, is a vivid self-portrait of its composer, as i had experienced him on that occasion. Throughout most of its thirteen movements – based on the traditional sections of the Mass – it’s the African recordings that take precedence. They form the core of the work, the warp of its fabric, with Fanshawe’s material (for choir, guitarists, piano and percussion) forming its emphatically secondary weft. Moreover, the manner of Fanshawe’s music is often directly informed by the tone of the recordings; African Sanctus is not principally music concerned with clarity or refinement but with joy and exuberance from the shared communal act of music-making.

Ex Cathedra, CBSO SO Vocal, Jeffrey Skidmore: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 16 January 2022 (photo: Hannah Fathers)

For this anniversary occasion the piece was performed by Birmingham’s finest Ex Cathedra, augmented by members of local choir CBSO SO Vocal, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, and it was clear from the outset that they didn’t merely understand but had fully embraced Fanshawe’s unquenchable, zealous exuberance. It took a while to come to terms with the paradox of seeing such a well-presented group of singers unleash such wild shouts and ululations, gabbling through Fanshawe’s rapid-fire syllabic writing before turning on a dime to switch into gentle, mellifluous music. The composer would have known that some – both performers and listeners – would find these stylistic volte-faces a challenge, but here there was never any doubt that the tilting and veering between such disparate modes of expression made absolute, coherent sense.

That being said, i was struck afresh by Fanshawe’s even-handedness in his structuring of the African and Western materials. Though often placed together, working hand-in-hand in a courageous act of cross-cultural dovetailing, a great deal of African Sanctus consists in alternation and juxtaposition, allowing both musical worlds time to be heard on their own terms. Many, if not all, of the recordings continue to speak with a moving immediacy, placing us intimately alongside the cattle boy singing to the accompaniment of his Bazenkop harp in the ‘Love Song’, uproariously plunging us into the midst of the melée in its various group dance sequences. Fanshawe’s music tentatively weaves around these powerful passages, in a kind of hocketting call-and-response, one of the most effective being the climactic choral episode in the Gloria, which works as a surprisingly logical extension to the opening sounds of an Egyptian wedding. Sometimes, Fanshawe’s material is merely introductory, as in the ‘Chants’ movement, comprising 30 seconds of pseudo-organum followed by over three minutes of Kenyan and Ugandan chanting and the wonderfully rude sounds of cattle. The only occasion when Fanshawe puts his own music directly in the spotlight is also, unfortunately, its most weak section. His setting of the Lord’s Prayer always was too overloaded with cheese, but today – unlike pretty much everything else in the piece – sounds horrendously dated, like a bland bit of rock opera tragically rendered by an evangelical church band. Stylistically it’s not inappropriate – Fanshawe’s music encompasses the history of western church music, from organum to this – but despite the best efforts of Ex Cathedra and soprano soloist Katie Trethewey, this movement continues to sound completely out of place.

It no doubt took some courage to seek to blend the two worlds together, but quite apart from its musical effectiveness, there’s a profound importance in the way boundaries are acknowledged yet rendered moot in African Sanctus. Western superstitious religious beliefs are mingled with those of Africa in a bold, even rather rash, act suggesting that all of it springs from a deeper human need permeating all cultures. The Kyrie remains one of the most striking examples of this, the singers emerging from and continually enfolding around an ongoing Muezzin call to prayer; calls to two different, separate, inviolate notions of ‘god’ – or to something real and tangible, universally shared by all of us?

Infinitely more meaningful than half-baked, phony religious notions of ‘ecumenism’, African Sanctus proclaims, and demonstrates, what could be called an intercontinental ‘sonic friendship’, where worlds don’t so much collide as collaborate. The accounts of Fanshawe’s travels suggest the African peoples found him a charismatic, engaging and sympathetic figure, and were glad to share their sounds and actions with him, and in turn keen for him to share them with the wider world. The fact that some of the African performers died soon after the recordings were made – from a mixture of natural and violent causes (due to political oppression and persecution) – only makes their pristine preservation all the more valuable. Artists borrow, steal, copy, imitate, mix, blend, meld, distort, conflate and integrate disparate, seemingly disjunct and incompatible, ideas all the time. Just as acousmatic composers take field recordings as the basis for complex soundscapes interweaving the referential and the abstract, in a similar way Fanshawe harnesses his recordings as both factual reportage and the inspirational basis for a free-wheeling, yet always sympathetic, response.

Keneish Dance Company: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 16 January 2022 (photo: Hannah Fathers)

i’m not sure i’ve ever known a piece where the act of sitting still and just listening felt more wrong. i said before about how Fanshawe’s recordings plunge us into the heart of the action, and it was therefore an excellent decision to incorporate into this anniversary performance the Keneish Dance Company, who responded in their own way to many of the movements. i watched them vicariously, more and more convinced that the only way to experience African Sanctus properly is to sing it and dance it, to join in with the rituals and movements in another wild (and, in my case, no doubt visually ridiculous) act of cross-cultural collaboration.

This superb performance by Ex Cathedra et al. powerfully demonstrated how much African Sanctus encapsulates the attitude and character of its composer (who died in 2010), simultaneously painting a portrait of Fanshawe’s journey throughout Africa. More importantly, though, the performance revivified, celebrated and paid homage anew to all the groups and individuals (plus a host of noisy cows and frogs) from Uganda, Egypt, Sudan and Kenya whose lives and actions, half a century on, continue to resound, as fresh, vital and full of joy as ever.


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Chris L

Simon, you’re full of surprises! I honestly regarded African Sanctus as the kind of thing you’d run a mile from.

I just hope the “identity politics” ideologues don’t get wind of this post, otherwise you’ll be inundated with exactly the kind of BTL comment you don’t want! While I accept that cultural appropriation is a genuine phenomenon, and there are clear examples of it (e.g. Caroline Shaw’s incorporation of imitations of Inuit throat-singing into Partita without employing, paying or even crediting any bona fide throat-singers), “borrowing” from other cultures is a very nuanced issue, and I’m sure Fanshawe (while himself not free of controversy during his lifetime) would have been horrified to have his intentions so lazily misrepresented as to have found himself lumped into the same category as Shaw’s blatant not-even-by-your-leave.

Unfortunately, when said ideologues are abroad all nuance flies out of the window. I recently sought the opinion of one of them on Tippett’s use of African-American spirituals in A Child of Our Time. Surely, I thought, it would be clear to this individual that Tippett was aiming to unversalise the suffering explored in his oratorio by quoting songs that had cross-cultural resonance? Nope, they were having none of that: according to them, had Tippett been a white American who’d grown up around such music, what he did in ACoOT might just have been acceptable; otherwise, it simply wasn’t excusable, full stop. What tosh!

Last edited 10 months ago by Christopher
Chris L

Well, now you’ve put me on the spot, I’m not sure myself. Perhaps something about its (over?)earnestness and evident desire to be all things to all people? But I’m clutching at straws, really, as I happen to like the work myself…

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