A requiem for African identity

‘I’m very conscious,” says composer Paul Hanmer, “that by setting Setswana lyrics to the music, I’m not creating a ‘typical’ Mass —but then, I’m not of that tradition.” Hanmer is describing some of the choices he made while composing his new work, Mass for the 1st Peoples, which premiered as part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival last week.

Alongside the Setswana lyric, the work also features passages for the udu (water vessel) drum of Nigeria’s Igbo and alludes to chord structures and rhythms more often associated with South African popular music. Multiple other points of reference include Mozart, the 15th-century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem and the strandlopers of Churchhaven, all of which Hanmer equitably embraces as components of his — and the music’s — African identity.

Google “African Mass” and two works pop up most often: Father Guido Haazen’s 1958 Missa Luba, and David Fanshawe’s 1972 African Sanctus. Both raise all the issues of appropriation and exoticisation that weigh down so-called World Music.

Franciscan missionary Haazen based some of his work on the compositions of a Congolese teacher, Joachim Ngooyi, and more on kasàlà praise-songs, repurposing traditional practices for a Catholic end. The singers were named The Troubadours of King Baudouin, after Congo’s last (Belgian) colonial ruler: a man who certainly knew about, and may well have ordered, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

Haazen recounted teaching them Western musical aesthetics, among which Wikipedia lists “beginning and ending at the same time [and] singing rather than calling”.

Fanshawe cut tape of African singers from his own anthropological recordings into his Sanctus; they were never told about this use. Unlike Ngooyi, their names were never even recorded, so they had no entitlement to royalty revenue, although the Fanshawe estate, now the music’s sole owner, states that it has donated to African charities.

However well-meaning both these producers of “African Masses” may have been — and Haazen fought fiercely to have the status of Congolese song acknowledged in his church — their works reduced its source music to merely another African raw material export for the West. As Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes noted long before, in his 1940 Notes On Commercial Theatre, “You’ve taken my blues and gone/ (…) And you mixed ‘em up with symphonies/ And you fixed ‘em/ So they don’t sound like me.”

When an African composer such as Hanmer creates a Mass, the situation is very different. He holds the agency to represent his own identity. And the very diversity of sources Hanmer’s music acknowledges is the essence of what makes it sound like him. Growing up in Cape Town, “my father took us to those sung Masses at St George’s Cathedral a lot; I remember hearing the Fauré Requiem and the Bach St Matthew Passion there. When I think of church,” he recalls, “I think of the Methodist hymns I heard until my mid-teens, and then those Masses.”

Hanmer had met trumpeter Phil Cox — a soloist in the Mass — some time ago, and composed a track for Cox’s 2014 album Top Drawer. By the time Cox and choir conductor Tim Roberts approached him to write the Mass, he had already drafted what was to become the Epistola (letter) section: the music emerging from collaboration with Cox, guitarists Mauritz Lotz and Louis Mhlanga, and bassist Peter Sklair; the ideas from the letter he had long wanted to write to his late parents. (Hanmer’s mother had died in 2009; his father in 2015.)

“The idea for the letter then became more generalised to the ancestral First Mother and First Father; to first principles, proto-crops, those ancient kilns on the Melville Koppies: the foundations of everything. I ended up with something that was nothing like a letter from St Paul anywhere!”

The Setswana lyrics call out: “Grandmother and grandfather, as our ancestors, where are you?/ We need to be strong / and we cannot do it without you.”

Hanmer discussed with Cox and Roberts what was required to give the music “an affinity with the Fauré [the other item on the programme] in terms of the forces needed: we needed quite a dark sound”. He had heard baritone Aubrey Lodewyk on a birthday theatre trip to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

“I loved the way he talked to the audience in English, Italian, Afrikaans and Setswana, and the quality of his singing. I knew I wanted to write for that voice.”

The same was true of the other vocal soloist, soprano Magdalene Minaar: “She has such a lovely, deep soprano sound. With that, in the Graduale (23rd Psalm) I can present a simple, open, D Major melody: the feeling of Beethoven’s Pastorale.”

Hanmer has not composed for voices in this format (16 choristers and a small orchestra including basset horns, additional percussion and a harp) before. “One reference point was Bach. Another was just trying to imagine what different things those voices could do: harmonies, interruptions, interjections.”

In contrast to Haazen’s 1950s efforts to smooth his choir’s sound, Hanmer’s Sanctus pairs the basset horns in antiphony against Minaar’s voice, while the follow-up to his Vers Consolationis is “lively, full of interactions between the rest of the choir and the altos — almost a dramatic dialogue”.

To the listeners packing the St Francis of Assisi church in Parkview, Johannesburg, that sixth section evoked powerfully the singing at a community funeral, complete with handclaps.

The 10-movement work took Hanmer more than a year to write. He compiled or wrote the texts himself, not necessarily in their final order, and then ordered them in “mostly that standard, ancient order of service: another set of first principles. In the end, the Vers Consolationis, with English rather than Latin words, turned out to be the most autobiographical for me. It really addresses my parents: ‘How still they keep/ When will they sleep/ When will the morning come when they awaken?’ ”

The concluding Responsorium is Hanmer’s favourite part of the work. “It’s basically one big I:IV:V [the chord sequence more often associated with marabi and mbaqanga]. I’m hoping everybody will relate to it. Magdalene sings deep, Aubrey sings impossibly high, and there’s a small woodwind and percussion passage that calls up the strandlopers as I imagine them at a place like Churchhaven.”

The music invokes both apprehension and hope: “Free me, Lord, from death eternal/ on that day of dread …”

Although Hanmer is still known better by audiences for his jazz compositions, he’s also been writing chamber and orchestral works for nearly a decade. The process grew from his participation in the 2008/2009 Bow Project in Grahamstown, which invited composers from diverse musical backgrounds to transcribe and reimagine the songs of NoFinishi Dywili with her uhadi, a bow and gourd.

Writing the Setswana setting for the Epistola, he says, “had resonances for me of that Eastern Cape sound”.

Next, he’ll be working on a piece for the Youth String Orchestra of Freiamt in Switzerland, and a sonata for flute and piano for United States-based prizewinning South African flautist Cobus du Toit.

The Mass for the 1st Peoples, however, will hold a special place in his musical thinking for a long time. “It made me think about so much. That appeal to the ancestors in the Epistola – ‘Please help us/ we need you’ — addresses greed, loss, the degeneration of the environment, climate change and its refugees, as well as the human mortality that all requiems address.”

African identity in Hanmer’s requiem is a beautifully nuanced, complex thing. He draws not only on African foundation narratives and musical idioms but also on the multiple layered experiences of a composer of colour growing up in an apartheid city where the St Matthew Passion played in his local cathedral. All of those are equally part of him, and inform his music.

“When you’re composing,” he concludes, “you’re dealing with memory — but also with the distortions of memory. In the music, I let that happen.”

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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