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.”
Tsunenori “Lee ABE