African Mass performance in Chapel unique
A performance of “Missa Luba, a Mass in Congolese Style” on Sunday, November 18 in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel was “genuinely historically unique,” says Nathaniel Lew of the Saint Michael’s Fine Arts/Music faculty.
“Nobody has ever done this piece this way,” says Lew, who joined about 100 other audience members to hear singers from Saint Michael’s, NVU-Johnson, Middlebury and Castleton University perform the popular 60-year-old African Mass alongside the innovative world jazz ensemble blood drum spirit.
The accompanying jazz quartet – featuring Saint Michael’s alumnus Royal Hartigan’68 as drummer/percussionist along with David Bindman/saxophonist, Arthur Hirahara/pianist, and Wes Brown/bassist — was in residence on campus for much of the preceding week with a host of well-received activities and performances, culminating with Sunday’s concert with the Vermont Collegiate Choral Consortium. The Mass, sung in Latin, was accompanied by drumming and instrumental improvisation beyond what is traditional and standard in performance of the piece.
“It’s an African Mass which was improvised by African singers in the 1950s — and in Sunday’s concert at Saint Michael’s it was performed with live jazz accompaniment, so it was really this incredible synthesis,” Lew said. “Everyone seemed to have a fantastic time — the performers, the audience – and it was an extraordinary, wonderful afternoon.”
He said the concert lasted slightly under two hours including intermission, with the Mass itself taking perhaps half an hour to perform in the second half. For the first part of the concert, each collegiate choir sang music from its own repertory, followed by a break as drums, piano and bass were set up.
Lew long has directed the Saint Michael’s College Chorale, but this year, other departmental demands led him to bring in Erin Grainger to lead the Chorale for this year. She is a McGill University-trained Burlington-area choral director and singer who already teaches private voice and a musicianship laboratory at Saint Michael’s. The Chorale’s selections on Sunday previewed the group’s major annual Christmas concert that will be December 7 in the Chapel.
Lew said the Missa Luba usually is performed just with African drumming accompaniment. “It was Royal Hartigan’s idea to have the drumming [as part of the Sunday concert], but since they do jazz based on African rhythms, his idea was to take rhythms of the score and melodies from Missa Luba and expand them up into jazz improvisation accompaniment.”
The usual way of performing the piece is for chorus, tenor soloist and drums, though “there always is room for improvisation since African music has that,” he said.
Missa Luba originally was improvised in the 1950s when a Belgian priest in the Congo got a choir of Africans there together and had them improvise the text of the Latin Mass that was standard in those pre-Vatican II times — “so the origins of the piece are collective improvisation, and the priest disavowed having any compositional role.”
While those standard elements of the Missa Luba performance were part of Sunday’s concert too, “the drumming had been transformed into blood drum spirit’s jazz improvisations,” Lew said, “and the melodies and harmonies gave the piano, bass and saxophone things to do, too.
“This is a truly African piece of music, created by Africans in a specific context in a particular area of Congo using their local traditions and music,” he said, “and since these were Catholic communities they decided to do the Latin Mass their way, and it has been popular over the years” since the release of an original recording in 1958.”
“This version took it in new directions this weekend,” said Lew.