Posts By jazzycow

Dona Nobis Pacem (Funga Alafia) – Notes for Performers

Dona Nobis Pacem (Funga Alafia) – arranged by Tsunenori “Lee” ABE

Notes for performers (Score available at UNC Jazz Press)

Many years ago, I worked as a music director at Nigerian church in the greater Boston area for a few years. Although I already had good amount of experience working at various Baptist churches as a substitute keyboard player by then, working regularly at the Nigerian church as a music director was quite different from anything that I had experienced before.

To begin with, I was an extreme minority at the church in two different ways:  I was the only Japanese (and one of the very few non-Nigerians, in fact) and I was not a Christian.  At the “job interview,” I did tell them honestly that I was not a Christian because I did not want to give them a false impression, but thankfully, they decided to accept me regardless.

During these years, I learned a lot. And many of those lessons were eye-opening events.

In Contemporary Christian music in general, they sing hymns in a totally different way from straight-ahead hymn style. This church was no different. They had electric guitar(s) and bass, they had talking drums, they had backbeats everywhere and they had groovy rhythms. The original composer(s) would probably flip out if they heard a funky version of Amazing Grace for instance, and Beethoven would be very surprised to see Whoopi Goldberg singing “Ode To Joy” as the choir members move their bodies while they clap on “2 & 4.”

But I am not sure that they would necessarily be opposed to these “newer ways” of presenting their works. Bach, for instance, was one of the best improvisers of his time. And I bet he would have been one of the best jazz composers and players if he were still alive. He would not mind his work being presented by someone in hip-hop style. Being a composer myself, I know as a fact that many composers can be very open minded (but of course, not so open minded in some cases.)

Now, here is Dona Nobis Pacem, a song with a widely-known text from the Latin Mass. There are various songs based upon this text, but my arrangement is based upon the most well-known melody.  We do not know the name of the composer to this day, though many suggest that it probably was a folk song originally.

A folk song, indeed. When we think about Dona Nobis Pacem, many would probably imagine a very sacred, solemn version of the tune that we have listened to hundreds and thousands of times. But the truth is, if its origin was a folk song as many suggest, it probably was “written” verbally (yes, it’s a funny expression here) in a relatively casual way, long before the creation of Neume.  The history of the religion has been written based upon the texts found primarily among the people in power. But outside these texts, there were ordinary people with unwritten histories, which is where my imagination often goes.

Having a relatively strong background in the field of anthropology from my first college degree before changing my career to be a composer/arranger of music, I often see music like anthropologists. What does this text, Dona Nobis Pacem, mean for the ordinary people? For little boys and girls in a small village? For men and women with no names selling fruits and vegetables at the market? For shepherds humming this well-known melody of Dona Nobis Pacem as they kiss good morning to their sheep?

As we all know, “grant us peace” is what this text means. Peace is not just an antonym of War. Back then, or even still today in many places of the world, peace is something that everyone prays for when the day begins, as one literally never knows if one will survive the day at the mercy of the power of mother nature.

Then, I think about people in many different parts of the world. Do I just limit this text to the most authentic way of singing when I present it in my arrangement? Or do I let the little boys and girls in small African villages sing? Do I let the men and women selling food in small farmers markets in Cuba dance? Do I let the Irish shepherds hum? To me, those are the people that I would like to think of when I present this song to the world.

I am not a big fan of labeling or analyzing my work. I would rather let my audience interpret it in any way that they would like to. But for this work, I feel that I am obliged to explain what it is, given this may be a rather controversial arrangement for those who love very straight-forward canon arrangements of Dona Nobis Pacem. So if I try to explain how my brain was working as I wrote this one, I would say that I used mixed elements of the music that I love: a very traditional (and sacred, indeed) Cuban rhythm called bembe, which is derived from the Yoruba culture of West Africa; the Yoruba text “Funga Alafia,” which means “grant us peace”; little sparkles here and there of Irish music’s feel and rhythms; a little bit of jazz in terms of the harmonic texture,  and of course, classical music.

The clave of the clapping is based upon the bembe rhythm, but the texture of the music is less “Latin American” because I wanted to see the integration of multiple “ordinary people.” I would like the melodies to be sung rather in the style of Early Music with pure straight tones, rather than trying to sing like Cuban mambo. As far apart as one may imagine they are, to me, they are not. When it’s done correctly, I envision that they gel into each other, just like the world is supposed to do in front of the mother nature.

As I wrote this work, I pictured my Nigerian friends at the church. I saw Cuban people that I had played with. I saw Celtic people with whom I had danced.  And apparently, they all long for peace, every single day, which we all deserve.

So here I am.  I should end now, as I believe that the music should speak for itself. Please do share with your fellow singers how you feel about the very basic meaning of this text to any and all people across the globe. And as you perform, I hope you will think about the people and the culture on the other side of the globe, and even try to get to know more about them as you learn the arrangement. By doing so, I sincerely wish that we all share the universal desire to long for peace in the truest sense as we speak the universal language called “music.”


Winter, 2017

Tsunenori “Lee ABE

Luciana, Liz and Change

Driving my car from my dear friend/bandmate Liz Tobias’s performance of Luciana Souza’s music, I couldn’t help but thinking over and over again about what Luciana, who were at the concert, told me after the performance.

Luciana, three-time Grammy Nominee who studied with the same jazz composition teacher as mine at Berklee a decade earlier, and I, had performed together many years ago as a part of the ensemble led by my long time collaborator Mark Shilansky. Not seeing her ever since, I wasn’t quite sure if she remembered me. So I figured that I should say hi and tell her who I was.

She remembered me, perhaps because male Asian jazz vocalist was one of the most rare species in the US, and asked me how my group was doing. I told her that we disbanded, unfortunately. But her reaction, within less than a second, was “Congratulations!”

I thought she might have misinterpreted what I said, given it was loud out there. So I said, “well, it was unfortunate (that we disbanded)” to her. Again, she immediately responded and said, “That’s why I said congratulations to you. Change is good.”

She did not misinterpret what I said, indeed. She really meant to congratulate me.

Puzzled. Still not really digesting what had happened, I added, “well, instead, I started a new band with this girl,” pointing Liz, who was still in the echo of her outstanding performance. And her response, once again in less than a second, was “see, I told you. She’s amazing. You are starting something new with her (who is THIS amazing). Change is good, right?”

It may sound ironic, but in a way, Luciana has never changed. As I recall, Luciana was just like this a decade ago when we rehearsed and performed together. She was extremely smart and quick, and told people something that ordinary people wouldn’t normally think about. In many sense, her mind is always a few minutes, if not few years, ahead of us.

I do admit. Until today, even though I had truly been excited with my new band “More Than Four,” I still was in the process of recovering from the loss of Syncopation, the band that I started and lasted for10 years. Running a band is like a marriage. Any divorce would force you go through emotional challenge. The same thing is true for the band.

But now I am finally convinced. The change was good. Pretty damn good.  From now on, I will never use the word “unfortunate” for the end of Syncopation’s era. There is a bright future ahead of me with this wonderful new group, with full of new ideas that could never happen if there was no change.

Thank you, Luciana, for being a wonderful inspiration both with your music and the way you are. Thank you, Liz, for being wonderful and willing to be my collaborator. By the end of my 20 minutes drive, I somehow stopped thinking about what Luciana told me. The next thing that I realized was that I started thinking about the next compositional ideas. Life goes on, and so does music.


First renewal in 7 years!

Well, the last time that my official website redesigned was in 2006. At that point, Red Sox had not yet won the second World Series of the century.

Now in 2013, I have to admit so much have changed, both in the world of internet, and the world of…, me.

I had not yet written for an orchestra, I had not yet been married, and of course had no kids. I had not yet earned a master degree, had not yet started teaching at Berklee College of Music, and Syncopation still existed.

In September 2013, everything written above has changed.

Red Sox won another world series, and are about to win even another one this year (fingers crossed!). I’ve written so many orchestral pieces and arrangements by now, married and was fortunate to have a daughter. I’ve received a master degree in classical composition, and started teaching at Berklee College of Music, where I have been so lucky to be able to constantly meet wonderful colleagues and students.

Sadly, however, Syncopation no longer exists after 10 plus year of performing everywhere with 3 CDs and many digital downloads. Yet, life is good with a new project that I just started with wonderful musicians, which I am about to reveal in a few weeks.

With all things considered, I felt there would never be a better timing to have a new web site launched. So here it is! While I still need a lot of tweaks, I’d like to celebrate the very first day of this new web site with this post. Yes, IT IS OFFICIALLY LAUNCHED!!!

Thanks for supporting my music over the years. I will be more active than I’ve ever been, musically. Hope this new web site will help to keep you posted better on what’s going on than it has ever been.