Sunday’s gospel reading at Peace Lutheran was from St. Luke. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. …” That’s nice, I thought, but why would anybody want to do that? They’re just going to kill the tree. So I came out of the service more inspired by the recessional, a South African song titled “Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises.”
It’s an English translation of a hymn in the Sotho language of South Africa. (The original is retained in its tune name, HALELUYA! PELO TSA RONA. It’s No. 535 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship). Hymnary. org, an authoritative website maintained by Calvin College and the Hymn Society that isn’t much given to overstatement, says it’s “ecstatic” and it “can serve as a powerful sending hymn.”
I don’t like overstatement, either, and I concur. On both points.
The lyrics are simple, repetitive and joyous. The refrain (as published in Hymnary.org) is simply: “Halleluya! We sing your praises, / all our hearts are filled with gladness.” And the verses are one of the most succinct expressions of the Lutheran concept of Word and sacrament I’ve seen anywhere: “Christ the Lord to us said: / I am wine, I am bread …” and Christ sends us out, “strong in faith,” so we can “tell to all the joyful Gospel.”
An African song like “Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises” comes to small-town Midwestern churches like Peace Lutheran in a roundabout way, and it may suggest how 21st-century Christians are growing beyond their Eurocentric roots.
The song was arranged by Swedish composer Anders Nyberg, who collected extensive field recordings in South Africa 40 years ago and now splits his time between Sweden and Africa; it was later translated from Swedish into English by Gracia Grindal of Luther Seminary. (The video above shows a choral performance by the Concordia College choir of Bronxville, N.Y. Here’s another, with a lovely baritone solo, by Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas; and Nyberg’s arrangement for the Swedish folk group Fjedur is also available on YouTube.)
But I didn’t know any of that until I went home and Googled it after church.
All I knew when I sang it that morning was how much I liked it and wanted to learn it. We went over it a couple of times in choir practice, we sang melody to support the congregation in what for almost all of us was a new song. But the harmonies immediately called to mind South African a cappella groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon’s Graceland album. And I was captivated.
(Here are Simon and Ladysmith performing together at the Library of Congress in 2007, in a gala concert honoring Simon when he received the Library’s first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The song, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” is from Graceland, and just watching the interplay between Simon, Ladysmith’s backing vocals and the Simon’s band, it takes me to the heart of their music. Any music. Just look at Simon’s face, and the way he interacts with the lead South African vocalist — this is what it feels like to make music.)
Of course Sunday morning at Peace Lutheran we didn’t sound anything like Paul Simon, let alone Ladysmith Black Mambazo, working our way through “Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises” back in the choir loft. But it was a start.
It’s not the kind of music you sing out of a hymnal, anyway — with some music, you have to learn it by heart (at least I do), forget the notes on the printed page and lean into the rhythm. “Rhythmically a strong syncopated pulse matches the text and propels it,” says Paul Westermyer in the Hymnal Companion to ELW. “The native performance practice is unaccompanied, except for African percussion, which includes bodily percussion like hand clapping and foot stomping. A keyboard instrument can get in the way as much as it can help.”
In our case, the accompaniment helped, though.
Our piano players are comfortable with gospel music, with its syncopated African American inflections, and it was through listening to the piano chords, both in rehearsal and Sunday’s service, I began to suspect how rich and satisfying the harmonies would be to sing. Anyway, by the time we got to the second verse, I was comfortable, too, and belting out the melody line (although I couldn’t help sneaking a look at those harmonies in ELW).
Anders Nyberg is an interesting guy, and his hymns come out of an inspiring background — the freedom struggle in South Africa.
Nyberg learned “Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises” (along with another song in ELW, “We Are Marching in the Light of God” [SYABAMBA, No. 866]) on tour and returned to South Africa to work with choirs in that country and collect field recordings of “traditional, sacred and political” choral music. He told hymnologist Marilyn Kay Stulken:
In 1978 I travelled to South Africa with the Swedish song-group “Fjedur” on an inviation from the “black” Lutheran Church [the ELCSA, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa]. We traveled extensively, giving concerts and listening to many local choirs and singers. It was quite an experience to see and witness the power of the music in apartheid South Africa. We returned home with a wealth of memories and music that we shared with our audiences and workshops.
According to GIA Publications Inc., which handles his music in the United States, Nyberg included it (along with “We Are Marching …”) in a 1984 collection titled Freedom is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa. Both were included in ELCA’s 2000 song book With One Voice and, in 2006, in ELW.
Nyberg’s commitment to South African culture has been lasting. According to his bio on the GIA website, he is married to a South African singer-songwriter, actress, and ex-member of Parliament named Jennifer Ferguson. They have three children and share their time between their homes in South Africa and Sweden. A bio put together by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala picks up Nyberg’s story:
After returning to Sweden [in 1980] his work with Fjedur continued with concert-tours and workshops, in Sweden and internationally, using the South African songs and dances as a tool to spread awareness and solidarity. For this purpose Anders produced collections of “songs of protest and praise from South Africa”, most notably “Freedom is coming”, based on these field-recordings. The songs had a catalyctic effect on a whole generation and were used in churches, schools and at political gatherings alike. …
Nyberg is also heavily engaged with South American music and culture, and his “Swedish folkmass Himmelen Inom (‘Heaven within’), inspired by Latin American music but with words and music by Nyberg, has won a place among the Swedish choral standards,” according to GIA. He works extensively with choirs, both in Sweden and internationally, and he contributed to the Swedish musical Så som i Himmelen (“Like it is in heaven,” trailer with English subtitles available on YouTube) about a fictional small-town church choir that overcomes all odds and wins an international competition on the continent.
Clearly this is a guy who knows how to work with choirs.
The video below shows Nyberg leading a workshop at a music festival in the Mundekulla conference center east of Copenhagen and Malmö in southern Sweden. The Swedish caption says he is always engaging, and his workshops are marked by pleasure, joy and laughter (the Swedish is lust, glädje och skratt, and Google translates it as “lust, joy and laughter”). Even without the lust, it would be fun to sing for him.
“Anders Nyberg,” GIA Publications Inc. https://www.giamusic.com/store/artists/anders-nyberg.
Marilyn Kay Stulken. With One Voice: Reference Companion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000. 31, 84.
Paul Westermyer. Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010. 368.