Fifty Years of David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus

Keneish Dance Company
Ex Cathedra
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
16th January 2022
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
4.5 ****(*)
Reviewers: David Gray and Paul Gray

David Fanshawe – African Sanctus (Golden Anniversary Performance)

It is chastening to think that the ethno-musical recordings made by David Fanshawe in his travels through Africa, which form the basis of his African Sanctus, are now over fifty years old. In their introduction to this performance, given to mark the 50th anniversary of its first performance, Fanshawe’s wife, Jane, and daughter, Rachel, poignantly revealed that one of those recorded voices had died three months after the recording was made, and that another group of Ugandan men had been killed during the horrors of Idi Amin’s regime.

The power of Fanshawe’s Sanctus lies in its ability make a cohesive blend out of what might, in other hands, be a clash of contrasts – a contrast of cultures, and the contrast between the spontaneous, improvised, free nature of the source recordings – and the more structured approach of western classical musical forms.

The thought that many of the recorded voices might now no longer be with us, added a further contrast: that the living people singing, playing and dancing so magnificently before us, and delivering such a joyous, life-affirming and vibrant performance, were somehow duetting with ghosts of the past.

Indeed, joyous and vibrant this performance was. The Keneish Dance Company, choreographed by Keisha Grant, formed an exuberant dramatic bridge between the recorded and live material, referencing traditional and modern dance vocabularies. One could not but be delighted by the obvious enjoyment between the outstanding Keneish percussionist, N’famady Kouyate and the CBSO percussionists.

Singers from Ex Cathedra and the highly talented group, CBSO SO Vocal, part of the CBSO’s Arts Champion work, combined rhythmic precision with a certain jazzy swagger. Katie Trethewey soared in the stratospheric soprano solo passages. One also doffs a cap to Jeffrey Skidmore for the sheer technical virtuosity involved in conducting a live performance around recorded music.

Fanshawe’s African Sanctus was created at a time when we were in a very different place in terms of our conversation about cultural ownership. There are those who have taken issue with what they perceive as an imperialist harvesting of audio artefacts. On the evidence of this performance, we must disagree. It seems clear that Fanshawe was inspired to write this work in the belief that music unites us and builds bridges, not only between cultures but, with the increasing passage of time, between our shared present and our shared past.

This was an excellent performance by all involved – engaging, exciting, musically tight and ultimately uplifting. A wonderful fiftieth celebration of the life and work of extraordinary composer-explorer, David Fanshawe.

Jeffrey Skidmore – Conductor
Katie Trethewey – Soprano
James Keefe – Piano
Keisha Grant – Choreographer
Ex Cathedra
Members of the CBSO
Members of CBSO SO Vocal
Keneish Dance Company

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