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A multi-cultural song of praise full of wonder and passion

Updated on May 27, 2015

Hitch-hiker on the Nile

In 1969 a young ethno-musicologist hiked down the Nile River through the Sudan and into Uganda, microphones and tape recorder at the ready, with ears wide open to the sounds of the music he encountered along the way.

The young man, a graduate of the Royal College of Music in South Kensington, London, was David Fanshawe, a person with a passion for traditional and indigenous musics, “ a time when the conservation of endangered folk music must prevail.”

Out of this trip and the thousands of recordings he made during it, he wrote a choral work that has achieved great popularity among those who love choral music, a work which he called “African Sanctus”.

“African music is fascinating, weird, and wonderful, but like so much folk art it is rapidly vanishing,” he wrote in the liner notes to the Philips album of the work, “and one of the main reasons why I wrote 'African Sanctus' was that I felt, quite simply, that instead of just recording tribal music I could preserve and create my own music around it, thus adding many more colours and variations which would express my adventures and love of people in a composition where African music, African songs and dances, religious recitations and ceremonies would live within the heart of a work conceived along 'Western' lines in the form of a Mass. The driving force is one of 'Praise' and a firm belief in 'OneGod.'”

The original Philips recording of African Sanctus
The original Philips recording of African Sanctus
A Saydisc album of the original recordings made by David Fanshawe.
A Saydisc album of the original recordings made by David Fanshawe.

The great cultural amalgam – some highlights

The result is a work which has beenperformed around the world and captured the imaginations of millionsof music lovers. It is a cultural amalgam, fusing African poly-rhythms and harmonies with western styles from Gregorian plainchant to 60s pop.

The outward form of the work is based on the Latin Mass, from which it also takes some of the words, as well as some Anglican liturgy, especially the Lord's Prayer. In this article I will just touch on a few of what are for me the best moments of the work. I will be using the Philips album, which includes another Fanshawe work, “Salaams”, as the reference.

Typical of the way Fanshawe has putthese disparate styles and forms together, and for me personally most successfully, is the Kyrie (track 2). This part of the work isof incredible beauty, fusing the Call to Prayer sung by an Imam fromCairo's Mohammad Ali Mosque with Fanshawe's own setting of the Kyrie.The interplay between the Imam's singing and the choir's singing of Fanshawe's Kyrie setting is quite simply amazing. It is an aural, real and touching witness to the possibility of tolerance, of an acceptance of our common humanity.

Another magical moment for me is the track entitled “Piano Solo – Love Song” (track 5) where Fanshawe has woven together a love song sung by a cattle herder accompanying himself on the small harp known as a “bazenkop” with what Fanshawe describes as a “short piano sonata around his tune which serves as an interlude.” The plaintive sound of the the young man's voice singing this song with the simple piano notes creates a feeling of solitude, of waiting, of, indeed, an interlude. It is a moment of peace in an area ravaged at the time by war, as it in fact still is. Listening to it I think of those who suffer so much as a result of war and intolerance.

The next track is called “Et In Spiritum Sanctum” and Fanshawe tells of recording, on the border between Uganda and Sudan, the song of a group of refugees trying to escape the war: “With an improvised drum made out of a bottle and small thumb piano, they sang of their Lord Jesus Christ, their Saviour and Deliverer.” Fanshawe blends his composition for female voices singing parts of the Creed with the song of the refugees to create an unforgettably beautiful expression of faith. Along the way we hear frogs, thunder and rain, adding wonderful atmospherics to the beauty of the music.

The thunder reminded Fanshawe of the crowd crying out “Crucify Him!” and so the next track is called “Crucifixus” (track 7). Fanshawe was in Northern Uganda in 1969 when heavy rains caused him to take shelter in the home of a man called Latigo Oteng, who began singing a song which Fanshwe says is “one of the most beautiful I have ever recorded.” The music Fanshawe blends with Oteng's song is very dramatic reflecting the strife in the area, leading eventually to the hope of the Resurrection. He says this track is “the pivot and and central axis of the work.” Again the sound of rain and thunder add to the drama.

Before the Mass comes to an end thereis a magnificent polyphonic “Agnus Dei” (track 11) with a dramatic soprano singing Iesu Christe over the sound of distant war drums beating out in the desert. Then the lovely Call to Prayer fused with the Kyrie returns to bring calm after the storm of the Agnus Dei. A truly sublime moment.

The work ends with the dramatic and rhythmic title track “African Sanctus” which features the whole ensemble and the tape of Bwala dancers of Northern Uganda, complete with Acholi drums and ululating women. As Fanshawe notes, “The pounding energy of the 'Bwala' dancers, the rock drums, guitars, African tom-toms, tambourines, piano, and full choir, plus all the knobs of the 16-track mixer unit, composer, conductor, and operators all swing together.”

David Fanshawe. Image from the composer's website.
David Fanshawe. Image from the composer's website.

Notes on the composer

David Fanshawe was born in Devon, United Kingdom, in 1942. After schooling at St George's Choir School and Stowe, he worked in London for a company making documentaries before going on to study at the Royal College of Music.

After his travels in Africa he spent ten years studying and recording the music of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.

He then moved to Wiltshire, England,where he continued to research and catalogue his vast collection of recordings and journals.

Fanshawe died on 5 July 2010 after suffering a stroke.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

© 2010 Tony McGregor


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    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Cindy - thanks so much for stopping by. Hope you are feeling much, much better.

      Love and peace


    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Great stuff, Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Coolmon - thanks for the visit and the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Love and peace


    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      I like your selection of videos, and I enjoyed reading this article.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 8 years ago

      Great work here. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Hats off to David Fanshawe and to you TonyMac.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Such great tribal sounds with a twist. Thanks for the info

    • Mystique1957 profile image

      Mystique1957 8 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

      Amazing, Tony!

      What I love of this work is his blending of cultures and races, his unifying of human kind through everyone`s particular way of expressing it. Not diminishing the original tribal music but embellishing it and exalting it as a unique expression of human music!

      Great hub!

      Thumbs up!

      warm regards and blessings,


    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 8 years ago from US

      He is a talented man. I always like people who likes indigenous music, there is some caring side to them, Maita

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      I've always loved this work, Tony. Thanks for presenting the background to its creation.

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 8 years ago from Great Britain

      What a melodious mixture of music and voices. Superb.!

      Thanks Tony, I feel this Mr. Fanshawe must be quite a character.

      peace, Dim