A new composition by one of the leading lights of classical music in Kenya is an illustration of the exciting intersection between classical arrangements and African folk rhythms.
The world premiere of Njane Mugambi’s “Mass of Peace” which is a classical piece inspired by music of different communities in Kenya takes place this weekend.
The Nairobi Music Society Choir and the Nairobi Orchestra will perform the Mass at two concerts at the All Saints Cathedral on May 26 to 27 .
This is a full-length piece for full choir accompanied by organ, brass and percussion, in eight movements lasting up to 22 minutes. It sets music to the sections of the liturgical mass, “Kyrie” (Lord Have Mercy), “Gloria”, “Alleluia”, Sanctus (Hosanna), Lord’s Prayer and “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God). This is sandwiched between an “Introit” (processional) and “Blessing” (Go in peace)
The words of the music are in Latin, the traditional language of mass, Swahili and English.
The grooves are taken from the traditional rhythms of Kenyan communities like the Maasai, Luhya and the Mbeere.
Mugambi, who is also a music teacher and academic, started composing some parts of the mass in 2011 but the real work began in 2014 and was completed in September 2017. In between, he also completed another major composition, the “Tuba Concerto”, which premiered in June 2017 with a performance by soloist Jennifer Wafula.
“As far as I know, this is the biggest classical work composed by a Kenyan,” says Mugambi of the “Mass of Peace”.
Audiences got a taste of the Mass last December when the Nairobi Music Society performed two sections, the opening “Processional” and the last section, “Blessing” “This is a spiritual journey and a proud celebration of Kenyan music culture and a reminder of the importance of peace for all,” says Mugambi.
Levi Wataka who is the conductor of the performance explains that the traditional grooves provide a distinct character to the music giving the example of the popular Luhya rhythm “Mukangala”.
“When you hear the first bars of the music then you know it is certainly Kenyan and the groove is simply irresistible,” says Wataka.
At some point during the “Gloria” section, the choir breaks into a multi-rhythmic harmony with hints of Maasai and Luhya folk music layered on top of each other. The “Gospel Acclamation” starts with a somber “Alleluia” call from the soloists and the choir, representing the congregation, responds with an “Amen”.
The music transforms into a colourful procession dancing that has become a feature in many Catholic churches in Kenya. The conductor says he is also delighted to have specific sections in the performance for full organ.
Two outstanding soloists, Maryolive Mungai (soprano) and Caleb Wachira (tenor) showcase their voices during the middle section of the Mass.
Wataka says orchestra is not just supporting the choir, as happens in previous joint concerts, but in this piece each one of them have distinct roles. “My task is to bring it all together and to communicate to the musicians and the choir to deliver a performance that is as authentic as can be expected,” he adds
The choir has been rehearsing the piece since mid January while the orchestra started practising three weeks ago with both groups coming together for the last week before the concerts.
According to Wataka the rehearsals have been recorded to document the making of the Mass so that a video production can be produced to illustrate an African interpretation of a classical piece that has been performed over hundreds of years.
“Choirs in other parts of the world can use this as a reference to the Kenyan rendition of the Mass,” says Wataka.
The first half of the concert will feature two classical pieces Bach’s Cantanta and “Schicksalslied” by Brahms conducted by Mark Statler. The second half begins with the choir interspersed within the audience.
The Nairobi Music Society has decided to break new ground by integrating the choir with the audience during the performance. The Mass begins with Handel’s “Messiah”, the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water” and “Baba Yetu” the Swahili translation of the Lord’s Prayer.