David Fanshawe’s ‘African Sanctus’ – Concert Review

St John’s, Smith Square 8th May 1999

The Mirror, 15th May 1999

Songs worth praise

I CONTACTED the Arts Council this week, asking for sponsorship for my latest musical project. What with all the voice-mail around nowadays, I’m planning to form my own mail-voice choir, with thousands of answering machines playing in the Royal Albert Hall. Joined by a bass chorus of speak-your-weight machines and with the female electronic chip from BT’s Directory Enquiries as soprano soloist, we’d be the only choir in Britain who could guarantee that every note was untouched by human larynx. The idea came to me as I was waiting for the start of a concert performance of African Sanctus, by one of our country’s finest composers, David Fanshawe. He wrote this wonderful work over 25 years ago while still a music student, after travelling across Egypt and Sudan and making numerous recordings there. He then mixed these with a live western choir and orchestra, and the result was a most unorthodox setting of the Latin Mass, which combined European harmonies with African chants and rhythms. If you think that “classical” concerts don’t rock on, then you should have heard the Vasari singers and the percussion group, Backbeat, performing African Sanctus. This work has enough balls to out-testosterone Oasis or the Stones, yet it’s also touching and profound. That’s why it’s now had over 1,000 performances worldwide, yet, inexplicably, still hasn’t been heard at a Prom, which is an outrageous slight on a great British composer. It’s high time it did, so, if you agree, then why not do what I’m doing? Write to Nicholas Kenyon at the BBC and tell him to put it on.

Victor Lewis-Smith

David Fanshawe, letter to Vasari Singers 1999

This very long-overdue letter is written to say a big “Thank You” for the wonderful performance you gave of “African Sanctus” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” at St John’s Smith Square on 8 May 1999.

As you will appreciate, whilst I was mixing the performance on stage, I was unable to experience the effect as an audience member. Having now had a chance to listen to the archive recording, I can safely say, I am thrilled. Please bear in mind, this recording (unmixed), can never do justice to the actual vocal sounds you produced together with Backbeat and soprano, Maureen Brathwaite .

Without doubt, Vasari Singers are one of the finest chamber choirs I have ever had the honour of working with in the world. Under the sensitive direction of your inspired conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, you delivered a stunning performance of “African Sanctus”, which was highly contrasted in choral textures, both accurate to the written note and delivered with utter conviction and passion, in the true spirit of the work’s ethos. There were so many good things to recall: the exuberant power and drive of the “Sanctus”, contrasted with the mellifluous lines of the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” for example. Vasari Singers have wonderful diction, which is also a joy to listen to.

May I draw your attention to two letters we received from audience members, which further endorse my feelings about the concert. Thank you too for all your concerted efforts and very hard work in producing such wonderful singing – it was a real treat to work with a chamber choir of your stature.

It is my sincere hope that I will have the opportunity of working with you all again, and I would like to feel that one day, perhaps you might be able to record commercially, some of my choral music.

© Jeremy Backhouse