David Fanshawe's 'African Sanctus' - meant to be experienced


By CARL J. HALPERIN : Special to The Herald-Sun, Durham, NC, Apr 11, 2001 : 8:49 pm ET


British composer/explorer David Fanshawe's now three decade-old work "African Sanctus" -- heard over the weekend in Duke Chapel -- represents the culmination of his personal artistic journey and the latest in a long-line of such works from composers of the established "standard" classical repertoire.


In today's parlance, it's the ultimate tax-deductible artistic enterprise: see a corner of the world, preferably extensively -- as Fanshawe did and then set the seeds of the sojourn to music, illuminating the global community-at-large as one giant brotherhood of man. Long before taxation, Mendelssohn did it , writing "Fingal's Cave" while visiting the Scottish Isles, and Berlioz did it in his own unique way with the semi-autobiographical tone-poem "Harold in Italy."


There is a major difference, however; for unlike these works, the "African Sanctus" project, with a decidedly up-to-the-minute twist, is an engagingly multi-media, multi-culturalized work of art. But just how David Fanshawe went about it is an amazing tale of fortitude and strength. When I asked how he summoned the courage to enter primitive villages, assimilating with and ultimately befriending the native peoples he encountered, he replied with a like-minded integrity of purpose: "I knew I had to do it."


Fanshawe's epic four-year journey -- something of a contemporary Odyssey began in 1969 with his traversal, in an appropriately cross-shaped pilgrimage, of the area leading from the Mediterranean through Kenya and Uganda and from the heights of the Sudan to the coast of Egypt. With the help of some local non English-speaking guides, a camera and his stereo tape recorder, Fanshawe captured the sights and sounds of his trek with amazing clarity and insight. He then fused these elements into the traditional Latin Mass setting, adding choruses, soloists, orchestra, indigenous drums, and an on-going visual display of the results of his time spent gathering these basic materials. In today's era of short-attention spans, Fanshawe's foresight in accompanying the music with images of the singers, dancers, musicians, and others heard on the background recording was an ingenious touch, adding the all-important element of putting an actual face to the work.


The 13 movements of "African Sanctus" bear witness to the diversity of musical styles -- from prayerful to celebratory -- that are to be found there. I was struck by the sound of many of the traditional instruments heard in Fanshawe's recording and by their relation, here and there, to various European Renaissance instruments such as, to take but two antiquated examples, the sackbut and crumhorn; Fanshawe, in his pre-concert remarks, further illustrated this connection by pointing to a traditional Western ostinato (a musical phrase heard repeatedly and usually in the bass) which is found naturally in the African dance rhythms he recorded so long ago. As the cradle of civilization -- and likely the birthplace of all music, as well -- Africa is the obvious starting-point for a work which melds Western polyphony with the sounds of man's primitive beginnings.


Fanshawe would appear to have been influenced, in his orchestral writing, by the spirits of Stravinsky and perhaps even Andrew Lloyd-Weber, among others, and there were places where a downbeat or a chanted text was reminiscent of previously encountered material. This is not a bad thing, it's a natural thing, for in the same way that the 16th-century Europeans -- unwittingly -- incorporated tribal rhythms into their music, we all are a product of our experiences: what we hear and see on a daily basis makes a permanent mark on our inner though processes.


Fanshawe's creative endorsements, though varied, made themselves felt by producing a work of art that is at once both accessible and understood. Those who participated in bringing Fanshawe's vision to life were numerous.


Marlette Buchanan was heard in five of the work's extended sections, exhibiting a soprano of range, color, and flexibility that gave voice to the cry of the African people, doing so majestically. Master Drummer Sowah Mensah -- from Ghana, a country not on Fanshawe's original route -- added a touch of realism to the proceedings, brightly-robed and spiritually at one with the music.


The Duke Chapel Choir, similarly garbed in vests of many colors, rang out jubilantly where called-for and mournfully when recounting the ending of life's ultimate path. Joining them, the Durham School of the Arts Treble Choir added in the element of youthful exuberance that balanced the work like a bookend. Leading all with the aid of headphones (for the pre-recorded sections), Rodney Wynkoop's precision and authoritative control were admirable.


There is no adequate way in which to describe the full impact of Fanshawe's creation. It is not meant to be read about or merely to be listened at * it is meant to be experienced live, to be simultaneously seen, heard and lived, much in the way that Fanshawe did when giving birth to this all-encompassing, world-embracing project.


The last word on all this must come from the Masai Milking Song text heard within the tenth movement of "African Sanctus," in which a lone voice intones: "The cow, when giving milk, does not consider the race of the person who will drink it. The cow gives freely to all people."