It’s always fun to learn new music – and Wana Baraka, one of the pieces that MCE will be performing this spring is quickly becoming a group favorite. This piece has it all – a cheerful melody, syncopated rhythms, and fugue-like Alleluya sections that really swing. Plus, it’s written in Swahili.
The arranger, Shawn Kirchner, is unsure how this popular, traditional, Kenyan religious song came into being. He learned the piece in 1994 through a delegation of Kenyan singers who in turn may have learned the piece from singers who participated in the Agricultural Missions International Consultation in Ghana.
I wondered about the story behind the song yet feared the history would be sad – filled with images of imperialism, capitalism, and civilizing missions. I searched for clues at the University of Washington music library but found nothing. So, inspired by Jean Kidman, and the natural way that speech seems to flow in the text, I tried to imagine, in the form of two conversations, how Wana Baraka became a popular, traditional, Kenyan song.
Six friends are walking together, possibly heading to choir practice. It’s not important where. Tenor and Bass murmur quietly, what a fine day. Baritone agrees, it’s a blessing…such a beautiful day…and it’s available…to those who pray…yes, absolutely…Jesus himself said so. Mmmmhmm, and they have peace, adds Alto. Alleluya! Don’t forget joy, exclaims 2nd Soprano. And WELL-BEING, shouts 1st Soprano.
Maybe the conversation takes a serious turn: Tenor and Bass talk quietly about Swahili language – how it blends the original East African coastal cultures and helps define a sense of national identity for Kenyans. Baritone adds another idea, that Pentecostal groups and breakaway African churches have never been passive musicians, and have been creating their own versions of American and European hymns, using their own musical systems and their own understanding of Christianity, since the 1900’s. Alto thinks radio was also a huge influence. Swahili broadcasts in the 1950’s helped to nationalize language in Kenya and the African Inland Mission radio broadcast helped to popularize hymns that had been translated (different African dialects used different musical systems). Radio also helped by featuring choirs, rejoices 2nd Soprano. There were so many…like the Mwanza Town choir, the Muungana National choir and the International Fellowship Church (IFC choir). The IFC choir members came from different ethnic groups and composed their own music. 1st Soprano muses…So, when we perform a song like Wana Baraka, we’re continuing a musical tradition. We’re singing and moving to music that combines religious, secular and contemporary ideas …and we’re keeping it popular. Alto smiles…it could even be a children’s song…that tune and rhythm is so playful. The friends agree, this IS a happy song.
Debbie Roberts, alto
Master Chorus Eastside