GUEST BLOG: "Nelson Mandela's Impact on Choral Music" by Ben Allaway
Date: December 16, 2013
NELSON MANDELA'S IMPACT ON CHORAL MUSIC, by Ben Allaway
Nelson Mandela's passing is very poignant for me because he had a great influence on my early interest in arts activism. I wanted to learn about how choirs could help raise awareness of social issues such as apartheid, and there were terrific things happening with choirs in the struggle in South Africa. I had helped create an anti-apartheid chapel service at St. Olaf College in 1985, and participated in divestment protests at Princeton University when I was a graduate student at Westminster Choir College.
Then, Paul Simon released his GRACELAND project with the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Inspired by Nelson Mandela, their tour drew huge crowds in the U.S. and Europe, singing about Mandela and popularizing the divestment and anti-apartheid movements (though there was controversy because Simon broke the UN and African National Congress cultural boycott when he came to South Africa to work with black musicians, the idea being that true cultural exchange can only be between people who are free. He seems to have been largely forgiven for this since his work did much to help South African musicians, and brought the anti-apartheid movement millions of new supporters). As institutions began selling off South African stocks, the financial losses began to have a real impact on the South African government. The song-filled, joyful protests were working!
GRACELAND was also planting seeds of exotic African choral sounds in the ears of all who heard this incredible music. I wanted to understand how Ladysmith made those sounds! They began doing television commercials and became famous in the U.S. For me the concept of collaboration between African choirs and western artists was heartening, as I had long been drawn to African and African-American music, and was interested in writing original works in those styles. If a white musician like Paul Simon could do this, so could I!
As the decade progressed, freedom movements around the planet began to accelerate. Then, within nine astounding months in 1989-1990, we saw China’s terrible Tiananmen Square massacre crushing hopes for greater freedoms there, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the freeing of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of incarceration. Apartheid in South Africa soon fell, as did communist Russia. The unimaginable seemed to be happening every day.
Singing had been a big part of the protests at the Wall in East Berlin, often led by Kurt Masur, who later became music director of the New York Philharmonic. In South Africa, the freedom songs which sustained the anti-apartheid movement for decades while Mandela was in prison now came in wave after joyous wave upon his release. To celebrate, I commissioned two dancers to portray Nelson and Winnie Mandela walking to freedom for a multicultural service for the Iowa Choral Directors Association with the choir singing, “He’s out now!” in English and Xhosa.
The sense of progress for all humanity was palpable, and the power of song to express this was not lost on the choral community. Leonard Bernstein, another role model of mine in arts activism, led an East-West rendition of Beethoven's ODE TO JOY in Berlin when the wall came down, changing the word "Freude" to "Freiheit," turning the song into an ODE TO FREEDOM. Conductors were looking for material for their choirs to perform to join this celebration. Many brought out songs from the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo published an arrangement of the African National Anthem, N'kosi Sikelel'i Afrika, with assistance from Nick Page for World Music Press. Then out of Sweden came Anders Nyberg's faithful arrangements in FREEDOM IS COMING: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa, published by Walton.
Nyberg had spent years in South Africa learning and recording these songs at marches and other events, and made good arrangements of them for his choir in Sweden. I was so taken with them that I immediately began using these simple yet powerful choral songs with my choir at Waldorf College Choir (Iowa). The students quickly caught the enthusiasm and passion of the music.
After singing them for a while, they were having great fun, but there was something missing in their performance. It finally dawned on me that they really didn't know enough about apartheid, South Africa, or Nelson Mandela. These songs were joyful and exuberant because it was the only choice of an oppressed people struggling to sustain a freedom movement-- it was sing or die. I began talking with them about Mandela, about the terrible suffering of his people under apartheid. I showed them the film, "A Dry White Season," which graphically portrayed the effects of apartheid on a white teacher and the family of his black gardener. After seeing this film, the choir sounded very different when they sang "It doesn't matter if they should jail us, we are free and kept alive by hope!"
When we had the chance to sing at the national ACDA convention in Phoenix in 1991, I believed it was important to program a set of these songs to show choral directors how accessible and transformative these songs could be. It was a great joy to share this music, and I took pride in following the African choral practice in which the conductor sings a solo with the choir. I called out "Amandla!", the Xhosa word for "Power!" which Mandela used to rally the people, the choir echoing me back in strong four-part chords, proclaiming in that hall the power of choral music to change the world. The next day Larry Kaptien's choir from Boulder gave an entire program of ethnic music, complete with costumes and drum procession, and ACDA roared it's approval. The stage was set for the globalization of choral music.
Timing was everything. The great international social euphoria inspired by Mandela and others and the heightened interest in ethnic music happened to coincide with a growing IFCM (International Federation for Choral Music), with it's first World Symposium under its belt in 1987. Others were scheduled for that Summer of 1990, and again 1993, which featured African groups. The great demand for new repertoire was met by choirs from all over the world coming to these World Symposia, often touring the following years to ACDA conventions in the U.S. The new music was exciting, challenging repertoire which great conductors wanted to do. This also raised the bar for American composers and publishers to discover new sounds themselves, and led to a revitalization of many aspects of choral repertoire, publishing and performance practices in America.
The new political freedoms around the world also led to freer movement of choirs to and from former communist countries, so much so that China did not want to miss out on this tourism and began relaxing restrictions to allow more groups to visit there. The internet, the perfect vehicle for communicating in a rapidly expanding, complex global society, enabled the spread of knowledge about everything, including the ever-growing body of repertoire, knowledge, resources and performance practices related to world musics for choirs.
The ACDA experience in Phoenix galvanized my commitment to working in the area of ethnic music as a conductor and composer, and I resolved to do some field work in Africa to get first-hand experience with the music and the people. A year later I was in Kenya--Nyberg and others had a big head start in South Africa, so I looked elsewhere--on a commission from the Institute for Peace and Human Understanding of Capitol University. I was listening to singing in Masai huts in the darkest night I had ever experienced, visiting choir rehearsals, services and concerts. I heard many fine choirs and interviewed many artists about the role of singing in African culture. One man said, "Ben, your songs in America, they are baby songs-- one hundred years old, two hundred years old... We have been singing our songs since the beginning of time!"
The resulting composition was a 30-minute work called BANDARI: Inside These Walls. The last movement, Freedom Come, a choral embodiment of Nelson Mandela's reconciliation process in South Africa, continues to sell in the thousands of copies each year after 20 years in print. In a very real way, I owe my success as a published composer to the inspiration of Mr. Mandela and the fabulous cultures of the African continent that his movement opened up to me.
In 1993, it was with tremendous joy that I managed a U.S. tour of the Muungano National Choir of Kenya under Boniface Mganga, and brought them to Chicago to sing for Nelson Mandela at a fundraising event for the African National Congress. He was helping the ANC win the right to vote for black South Africans. Muungano sang a South African protest song, honoring Mandela's influence in Kenya's growing multi-party political movement. Though I did not actually speak with Mr. Mandela, having a role in the choir's presence and performance for him was enough for me. I helped connect Boniface with earthsongs publishing company (way out ahead on ethnic repertoire) and Anton Armstrong, and am delighted that their music is now widely performed throughout the world.
The ensuing years have only deepened my love for choral music of all cultures, and I have done my best as a composer and arranger to provide some useful music to choirs interested in this area. My main publisher for this part of my work has been Santa Barbara Music Publishing, and I am forever indebted to Barbara Harlow for encouraging me on this path. Many other arrangers, composers and publishers have made fabulous arrangements available, and some have entered the choral canon, such as Baba Olatunji, Wendell Whalum and Barrington Brooks' arrangement of Betelemehu published by Lawson-Gould.
Being caucasian, I have given much thought to the ethics involved in writing and performing music influenced by cultures other than my own. I like Duke Ellington's view that there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music. For a long chapter on this with a helpful graphic "spectrum of authenticity" of performance practices, please look at my chapter in James Jordan's book, THE SCHOOL CHORAL PROGRAM.
At the heart of my interest in ethnic choral music are the personal friendships I have made with people from other countries and cultures. My parents' work in international educational exchange prepared me for making friends easily among internationals, and I have gravitated to that community wherever I have lived. These relationships and experiences have been deeply enriching, challenging my outlook on life, my faith, my work as an artist, and ultimately my own character, what I believe about life, and what I am supposed to do with what I have been given.
The following quote from Isak Dinesen, author of OUT OF AFRICA, is more eloquent than I can be about what cross-cultural experiences have meant for me, and can mean for you as well:
“The introduction into my life of another race, essentially different
from mine, in Africa became to me a mysterious expansion of my
world. My own voice and song in life there had a second set to it and
grew fuller and richer in the duet.”
- Isak Dinesen, Shadows on the Grass
So, to Mr. Mandela I say a heartfelt "Asante, bwana!" (Kiswahili for "Thank you, sir!") for drawing me down this incredible life-path and inspiring so many singing voices to understand their own power. To you, all you who sing, I would say: May we all keep singing for Mandela and the cause of freedom and justice for all peoples of the Earth.