Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in Zimbabwe Dec 5/6 2012
Richard Sisson has been working with BBC Radio Three presenter Petroc Trelawney to develop their music teaching in Zimbabwe and it was his task (“lucky task” is the term he used…) to draw together the threads for their concert at the Music Academy in Bulawayo, of which Jesus’ Blood was the central part. Petroc had contacted me about the plan and I wrote a brief note of support for the students.
I was amazed that this was happening and was massively impressed by their energy and commitment! I told Petroc that they might like to know that this would be not only the first performance of the piece in Zimbabwe, but also in the whole of Africa!
In the event Petroc didn’t manage to get to the performance, as he says, for various complicated reasons he was turned back at the airport when he flew from Johannesburg. He told me on December 6th though that “the African premiere of Jesus’ Blood took place last night in Bulawayo, -a huge success. The second performance is tonight in front of guests including the Zimbabwe Minister of Education and Arts, and the British Ambassador. Alas I am in Primrose Hill rather than Africa, but have heard nothing but good reports and the children involved seem to have had a great time.
It was a very special occasion. We were obliged by our limited resources to build as faithful an instrumental palette of sound as we could and in the end it was no less touching for its rather home-spun colours. There were a dozen young woodwind players, 15 assorted strings, 4 guitars, tubular bells. a beautiful soft bass guitar and a gentle bed of keyboard strings to make sure the harmonies were all covered. And then there was the exquisite sound of the young singers’ voices – for much of it in a perfectly tuned unison – their church traditions are very strong in Zimbabwe and their singing is matchless, vibrant and powerful when they press the tone and with the keenest, perfectly supported intonation when they sing softly and sweetly – it was really beautiful and so heartfelt.
The whole ensemble was led by a young 19 year-old pianist called Nigel (who has recently gained a distinction in his Grade VI, despite being blind). He led on a quiet procession of the players and was the first to lay down some simple textures (taken from the harp part) over the recorded voice – perhaps because of his blindness he listened in a way that was especially keen, creating a sensitive framework over which the other performers could more easily shape their contributions. He adored the piece.
It was something all together new for the music-loving people of Bulawayo and, like so many people all over the world I’m sure, they responded to the piece every bit as warmly as I’d hoped. They admired its originality and its sincerity and in its unaffected simplicity it spoke very directly to them – every one of us has a song in our heart and it’s something that no one can ever take away from us, no matter what. This is a comforting message of hope that ‘struck a chord’ I am sure with many of the audience – Zimbabweans over recent years have known some very difficult times.
The artists were so thrilled to be offering up the African premiere and also to know that the man who had created such a beautiful piece was interested in their efforts to make it happen.
Your description of how it was done is very touching and the performance was entirely in the right spirit. I have done a number of performances where instruments turn up that are not in the score – and the score does say that substitutions can be made freely. One fairly extreme example was when I worked with a very nicely anarchic group in Sweden, one of whose members, a guitarist, also brought along with not just one Stylophone, but a whole family (treble, alto, tenor…)!!!
The piece is unique. I would, for example, never make a “sequel” or some other variant (people wondered at the time I first wrote it – 1971 – whether I was going to start covering all the world’s religions…) and in any case its very existence comes about from a series of completely chance encounters. If I’d made any decision other than those I did, the piece would never have come into existence. While I am aware of the strength of feeling people have towards the piece, I’m also conscious that just as many people really hate the piece with an almost pathological venom. When the 1993 version was released and moved up the “charts” I remember that Paul Gambaccini was running the Classic FM Saturday morning chart show, and he played excerpts each week (he kept the momentum going by pointing to the last track and saying “can you wait for Tom Waits…”). Paul told me at the time that he had a bigger response to his playing the piece than to any other broadcast he had made, and that the response was about 50/50 for and against, and in quite violent terms! Producer friends at CBC had also sent me volumes of emails about the broadcast of the whole 74-minute version in Canada. This caused something of a scandal and made the front page of the Globe and Mail for two days, and eventually the head of CBC had to write justifying its broadcast!
I performed the piece in Vilnius in November 20121 with my ensemble, plus a dozen or so Lithuanian players. After all this time I find that I am still touched by the old man’s voice, and still hear fresh things in it. When we recorded the piece in New York in 1992-3 the producer Michael Riesman estimated that we had heard the loop around 14,000 times during the whole process of recording. That should mean that, since my first encounter with the voice on headphones in my one-room flat in Kilburn my experience of it may run to hundreds of thousands…
British Friends of the Zimbabwe Academy of Music
Now a new organization has come into being called British Friends of the Zimbabwe Academy of Music (UK Registered Charity 1140488) and I will be a guest at its fundraising event in London on Wednesday, March 13th at 49, Queens Gate Terrace SW7 5PN, by kind permission of the Vernon Ellis Foundation. It will start at 7pm, with a reception, followed by the concert at 7.30pm, and a light supper to follow – tickets are £50.
There will be a concert performed by two artists who have a close association with Bulawayo and the Academy. It will also provide an opportunity for the Trustees to update everyone on BZAM’s achievements so far, and their plans for the future.
Earlier this year saw the launch of the Bulawayo Schools Music Project Saturday Schools, for children who have an interest in music, but have not previously had the opportunity of any formal teaching. 30 children, drawn from ten schools in the Western Suburbs and city centre will participate in a seven-week course, fully funded by BZAM. Up to 100 pupils will then be able to take part from April, when funding from our partners is due to commence.
The concert will feature Njabulo Madlala, the Ferrier Prize winning South African baritone, who worked on BZAM community projects in May. He will sing a short programme of Lieder and African song, accompanied by William Vann. They will be joined on stage by the distinguished pianist Leslie Howard, who last year made his thirteenth appearance in Bulawayo. Coincidentally, Leslie is an old friend of mine and played with my ensemble in the late 1980s when I had two truly great pianists, Leslie Howard and Martin Jones!!!