June 2017: David Fanshawe's African Sanctus

Sunday 25 June 2017

Exeter Phoenix

Africa can mean bright colours, and insistent drum beats with complex cross-rhythms. So we started well with the chorus appearing in brightly-coloured T-shirts, and photographs taken by composer David Fanshawe on his travels projected behind the performers. Perhaps the traditional feathered head-dress of an African who was also sporting sunglasses said much about two cultures meeting.

The challenges of presenting African Sanctus are formidable, as the live choir and percussion have to integrate with recordings of African sounds. The Festival Chorus had no problem with this, to the credit of Nigel Perrin conducting and the professionalism of the percussion group BackBeat, who would pick up the rhythm from the tape and bring it into the auditorium. The Phoenix provides an intimate space, with the advantage that the exciting array of percussion instruments could be clearly seen, adding to the visual impact. However, the dry acoustic made it hard to balance the various sections; the accompaniment sometimes overpowered the singers.

Insistent drum beats got the whole off to a rousing start with the music of the Sanctus. The chorus mostly got in the mood with bobbing bodies matching the exuberance of the music; the complex rhythms presented no problems, and the taped singing fitted neatly with the live music. Moving into the Kyrie, the quieter mood redressed the balance between singers and accompaniment, and the chorus showed their experience in some mellifluous singing. The fabulous soprano voice of Maureen Brathwaite soared over the muttering crowds in ‘Tu solus’, and the Agnus Dei created an apparently timeless sound field.

The words ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘Sepultus est’ inspired a cacophony of sound: African singing and brutal choral parts create something that seems primitive, if neither particularly Western nor African. The Lord’s Prayer provides a calmer interlude: the delivery here was gentle and confident, with the soloist seeming particularly at home with her ‘Sweet Jesus’ interjections.

Fanshawe ends his programme notes with the words ‘Glory to Africa’. This evening’s music brought us something of that glory, so that we could leave feeling excited by the potential of ‘world music’ to bring cultures together.

Mary Ellis