Take a choir in Africa comprised of people from the Maasai tribe – and one person who believes in them. Add to the mix an American musician and producer who agrees to produce a “long distance” album via the Internet and phone.
The end result? Loruvani – Songs of the Maasai Steppe, produced by a man who goes by "C.S.," with the help of John McEuen, a member of the country-folk group, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Maasai and Swahili gospel songs are based on ancient and traditional tribal melodies that C.S. says “float out of the heart of the sweeping African grasslands, and are the roots of rhythm which will affect East African music for decades to come.”
He continues, “These songs from the origin of the world are as important and defining to East Africa as the Delta Blues were to America. They combine with sounds coming out of the Congo to form something we have not yet imagined nor yet heard, and yet sound strangely melodically similar to American music.”
The music of the Maasai, who live in the grasslands between Kenya and Tanzania, is well-known in the area. Maasai women are noted for their crystal clear voices. Maasai men have incredible vocal ranges. If there is one thing the Maasai do, it is sing, often, and about everything and everywhere.
On the Savannah, Maasai warriors sing about their girlfriends while watching their cows. Maasai women sing about legendary warriors. They sing to calm their cattle. They sing to God.
Members come from all walks of life. Some are true Maasai herders from the plains; some are from the Warusha Tribe, a splinter group of Maasai, farming on the cool slopes of Mt. Meru, one of Africa's highest mountains. Some have jobs, others do not.
Building on Hope
In addition to their shared love and passion for music, the choir members have another common bond – they hope to use the recording to raise money needed to build a place to sing. They also want to improve the quality of life in their village.
“This Maasai tribe is not asking for charity,” McEuen emphasizes. “They have worked very hard on their music, with the dream and hope that people around the world might buy a song or two for 99 cents and help them build their community center.”
The remarkable project came about when McEuen got a call from an old friend.
“I knew [C.S.] 25 years ago and he told me he had found this choir and the music moved him so much he wanted to record them,” he explains. “He said he’d never recorded anyone and he didn’t know much about the Internet. He said the choir had never been in a studio. Then he asked me [if I thought] we could do this album via email. It was an intriguing idea, so I said ‘sure.’ We both agreed there was a lot of work ahead of us.”
The two worked for a couple years with the choir, directed by Hezron Abel, also a composer along with his wife, assistant director Catherine Elibariki. As if the mileage barrier wasn’t enough, recording was a new experience for the group.
“It’s not like you call a group of musicians and they put it on their schedule,” says McEuen. “You had to consider what each person had to do at any given moment. Most had to come from miles away so you can’t just get them together and record. These folks might live in a small hut and own just a cow and a goat, which means they are doing pretty well. If they have five cows and 20 chickens, they are doing very well. It’s a different world and C.S. had to work within that parameter.”
The Nitty Gritty
The other challenge to grapple with was a place to record. There was no equipment and no studio. The pilots at Flying Medical Service donated their storeroom as a quiet place to record away from the cows. Massive propeller crates were moved around to block sound and divide the room. Communications and test recordings were sent back and forth between McEuen and C.S., comments made, a mic added, adjustments made, egg crates put on walls, and singers moved around, until they found a setup that sounded best.
“We would record something and then C.S. would send it to me. I’d tell him ‘the walls are too hard. You need to get a smaller room and move them closer together... move the high singer back in the corner and put egg crates on the walls,’” he recalls.
“It was really exciting to get a picture back showing this airplane hangar and they’ve got egg crates on the walls and an extra mic wall divider and they are recording wonderful stuff.”
Electricity in the village also proved problematic. It is very unpredictable, sometimes so weak that it will not even light a bulb. Thankfully, the hangar had a battery powered recorder, which was a life saver.
“The Maasai had a lot of patience [in addition to] their wonderful music, and I think we got it on this CD,” C.S. says. “This is a recording for all time, which sounds like it is from ancient times, yet... it strangely sounds... familiar."
“The chord changes are much like playing country music here in the states,” McEuen observes. “I was shocked to realize that at first, but you have to remember that the influence for much of our music came through the African slaves who were brought here.”
McEuen says the project was more than just recording an album.
“[The choir members] have quite an astonishing amount of hope, determination and belief, and put in a lot of hard work to make this happen,” McEuen says. “Seeing these wonderful songs that hearken back to another time, having the opportunity to get them out to the world and help the group get their community center, has been a lot of work but also very rewarding.
“It feels like this is a chance for music to do some good for other people that I don’t even know [about]. It’s my honor to have been involved with the project.”
Now that the album has been recorded and released, the Loruvani Choir is taking a three-year hiatus from competing in Tanzania’s regional competitions. After 16 years of winning numerous contests, including three Best In Shows, the directors of the choir think it is time to allow some of the other 900 choirs in Tanzania’s North Central Diocese to shine.
As Catherine Elibariki says, “It’s time to give the other choirs a chance. We’ve won so much and so often that the others are discouraged. If they compete their way up to the diocese level and we’re there, they don’t feel comfortable.”
Instead, the choir will spend its next three years touring, giving concerts of a wide variety of musical styles in other regions and countries, and rehearsing new compositions to prepare for both diocese and future national inter-diocese competitions.
Loruvani – Songs of the Maasai Steppe is available for purchase online, including iTunes and Amazon. For more information on the Loruvani Choir, visit www.impossiblemusic.com.
News You May Also Like
In the world of gospel music, there's typically a healthy mix of both new and veteran artists offering projects to keep the soul inspired. 2013 should be no exception.Artists like Michelle Williams (pictured left) and Jonathan Nelson, with a couple of albums under their belts, are returning...
Reality check. At times, the music business can be competitive, cutthroat and downright cruel. Unfortunately, even the gospel music industry is not exempt from that reality. That's why it’s so refreshing to hear of a band of brothers coming together for a purpose bigger than their own...
Anyone asked to describe the inspiring legacy of Andraé Crouch would have trouble finding the appropriate words. After introducing his musical talent to the world over five decades ago, many have come to praise Crouch as a Gospel icon. Known for penning some of the African American church’s...