Out of Africa

By David Patrick Stearns

Most people who fall in love with lands far from home are content to take snapshots. But while in Africa, British composer David Fanshawe brought back the sounds around him as he recorded his journeys, tribe by tribe, chant by chant, rainstorm by rainstorm, in music now heard on tape in conjunction with his singular setting of the Latin Mass, African Sanctus.

It's a far cry from Handel's Messiah. The Choral Society of Montgomery County is braving the rhythmically and technologically complex work - coordinating Fanshawe's African tapes, slides and ethnic instruments - in performances at three venues tonight through Saturday. With a budget of $35,000, the Sanctus is the most expensive project mounted by the organization.

"It's very much in line with my philosophy, that music really has the power to build bridges that you can't build any other way," said Judith Willoughby, founder and artistic director of the choral society. "Music brings people together."

If these performances have the size and feel of a millennium-turning event, that's part of Willoughby's thinking. But chances are she would perform the piece anyway, since its significance hardly stops at its being a symbolic meeting of two worlds. Since its 1972 premiere, African Sanctus would not have tallied 1,200 performances had it not also deeply engaged its audiences.

Willoughby discovered the work in the form of isolated movements at choral conferences. She first conducted a small-scale performance in Montgomery County three years ago, which whetted her appetite to mount the Sanctus full scale. The result? The 50-voice Choral Society of Montgomery County joins 23 voices of the 70-member Temple University Children's Choir and a battery of live percussionists in conjunction with 400 slides of some of the Africans heard on the tapes.

In addition to learning the highly rhythmic music, the choir members have learned to acclimate their ears to the sounds on tape that they will play off in performance; speakers are positioned around the stage to make sure the choirs can hear them. And in order to give the proper entrance cues, Willoughby will wear headphones for some movements. So much for her hairdo. "Anything for art," she said.

Composer Fanshawe obviously agrees; he has gone to extremes worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. Recording folk music on site is a long-respected activity: Composer Bela Bartok once tied a Victrola onto the back of a donkey and headed for the mountains. But Fanshawe's 1,000 hours of recordings - taken from 50 tribes along the Nile in a southward route to Lake Victoria in the late '60s and early '70s - were made amid quickly shifting political situations, where research permits issued by one regime were often not recognized by another.

Still, Fanshawe kept taping, and as a result was once imprisoned in Egypt. "But whenever I got to the villages, I found nothing but cooperation. They got a buzz from being recorded. They enjoyed themselves. And I enjoyed myself," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Wiltshire, England, prior to his flight to Philadelphia for the performances.

Dangerous encounters

In less-enjoyable moments, the 58-year-old composer survived a plane crash in Kenya, was rescued from a black mambo snake by an 8-year-old guide, and once paddled his canoe over a submerged hippo: "It reared up, and the canoe went over. Then I was chased up a dune palm by the angry hippo. I lost my tape recorder and a lot of tapes."

The physical and mental constitution for such adventures may be in his genes: "My family served in India for 150 years. I was born there, and my father came back to England during World War II. It's completely natural for me to go off wandering around with a tape recorder in very remote places. I was never frightened or alone, except during those six months on a camel. That was lonely."

Fanshawe composed film soundtracks for the BBC for many years, so he's a seasoned recording engineer, enabling him to achieve remarkable sound quality in adverse recording conditions. The flexibility demanded of composing different film scores also made him uniquely poised to "compose" a meeting between what he feels are two equal but different cultures.

His approach to both was elemental: The Latin Mass has been the basis and inspiration for composers for most of the last thousand years, while the African music on tape is essential to everyday work and worship. "It's not dissimilar to a film score," he said.

The juxtaposition of the two can be startling, even puzzling, at first impression, but thoroughly sensible on a second. In the "Crucifixus," for example, in which Jesus purifies mankind with his blood, the African tape has a rain song with the cleansing sound of a monsoon in the background.

A category of its own

Due to its hybrid nature, African Sanctus has never found a place on conventional, high-profile classical-music grids. Unlike Handel and Haydn choral classics, it's not remotely suitable for collaborations with symphony orchestras since it requires only eight instrumentalists in addition to the recorded voices. It's available on compact disc, but on the small, independent label Silva Classics. Critics either love it or hate it. "There's nothing much in between," Fanshawe said.

The piece is also vulnerable to accusations of cultural imperialism of the kind that dogged Paul Simon when he used South African singers on his Graceland album. To this, Fanshawe has a number of answers: He's hardly profiting off the Africans (at least to the extent Simon's best-selling album did); he paid the villagers for their services; and he gives 4 percent of his royalties to African AIDS organizations.

Sadly, that's the only way he can share his money with people recorded on the tapes. Many of them, he said, are dead either from AIDS or as a result of the many civil wars that have racked the continent. "I know that," Fanshawe said. "I've gone back and tried to find them." In a sense, African Sanctus has become an unintentional requiem.

He frequently revises the work to make performances easier, more efficient, and more adaptable to different forces. But it's hardly his only project. He has collected twice as much music from the Pacific Rim, from which he is assembling an even larger work titled Pacific Odyssey. He continues to lead a life of travel, having supervised 500 African Sanctus performances (including the forthcoming ones in Montgomery County), while his activities as an ethnomusicologist and speaker mean that he leaves Philadelphia for Zimbabwe.

But as much as he thinks of himself as a citizen of the world, he confesses that he knows emerging nations better than his own. Based in the United Kingdom with his three children and wife, Jane, he's a bit of a stranger in his own land. "I've hardly been to Ireland or Scotland. I don't know the Lake District. And I love cities."