8th November 2008 saw the world premiere of Zimbe! – a 40-minute work for SATB chorus, children’s choir and jazz quintet by the UK composer Alexander L’Estrange.
Zimbe! is a vibrant sequence of twelve African and gospel songs, charting a day in the life of an African village. There are simple children’s playground songs from Ghana and Zimbabwe, a Xhosa lullaby for mothers of the victims of Apartheid, a rousing drinking song, and music used on religious occasions. L’Estrange has infused his unique arrangements with references to jazz, classical and ‘world’ music, and they will quench the thirst of the countless advocates of his Songs of a Rainbow Nation arrangements who are looking for something more substantial to fill half an evening’s programme.
Zimbe! will also provide an exciting new repertory piece for choral societies who may be looking for a follow-up to the world-influenced works of David Fanshawe and Karl Jenkins. The addition of the children’s choir enables choirs to forge, or renew, relationships with local school choirs.
Zimbe! was commissioned by Dorking Choral Society and their Music Director Justin Doyle, and is premiered by them together with various local youth choirs, with instrumental accompaniment provided by the Call Me Al Jazz Quintet (with the composer on double bass). The first half of the concert will comprise a combination of L’Estrange’s Rainbow Nation pieces, together with new African arrangements by Justin Doyle. For more details about the concert, click here.
The composer has written the following as an introduction to Zimbe!:
A composer can find inspiration in the unlikeliest of settings, and the genesis of Zimbe! is as extraordinary as any. The seeds of my affinity with African music and the gospel tradition were sown through a chance encounter on a train en route to London in the early nineties. Sitting opposite me was a woman with a small book of manuscript paper on her lap. I asked politely whether she was a musician and she replied that she was on her way to lead a music group at a prison. She was working on “African and gospel” music, but, although she knew many excellent songs, she was really an artist, not a musician, and was rather lacking in confidence when it came to leading a singing workshop. “I could help,” I offered gamely, and it all took off from there.
We struck up a working relationship, and she introduced me to songs, tapes, books, and friends with songs to share. I immediately fell in love with the music. Together we ran singing groups, and I quickly became immersed in arranging, teaching, sharing and performing African songs. Around that time I made my first trip to South Africa.
I produced a collection of choral arrangements entitled Songs of a Rainbow Nation as a result of my involvement in African song, and it was in response to performing these arrangements that Justin Doyle and the Dorking Choral Society approached me with a view to commissioning a more substantial piece based on African and gospel themes. Justin happened to call the morning after The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency had been shown on TV; we had both watched it, and both had been moved by the use of music in the production (filmed on location in Botswana). One particularly moving moment depicted a funeral scene, involving a huge number of local “extras” breaking into an apparently spontaneous performance of a traditional funeral song. It was decided that my piece would aim to reflect some of the manifold ways in which music plays a part in everyday life in Africa – from the rising of the sun to its setting, both literally and figuratively. I wanted to capture the essence of the African spirit through glimpses into the human experience – simple childrens’ playground songs from Ghana and Zimbabwe, a Xhosa lullaby for mothers of the victims of Apartheid; a raucous drinking song, sensuous wedding songs – all injected with the spirit and sheer energy that the African song tradition conjures in our western minds.
Zimbe is Swahili for “Sing them”: just as others have shared these wonderful songs with me, I wish to pass them on. Scored for SATB choir, unison children’s choir and jazz quintet, with copious percussion, the settings reflect my own musical make-up: within the piece we find references to jazz, classical music and, of course, “world music”. African songs are easy to learn and impossible to forget; that is the very nature of the communal song tradition. The songs I have included in are fun and infectiously, joyously tuneful – and through them we find ourselves in a wonderfully simple realm where music imitates life, and life inspires music.
Njooni! Zimbe! Nyimbo za Afrika! (Come! Let us sing the songs of Africa!)
'This 40-minute piece, which traditionally would have been called a cantata, qualifies for review in a church music magazine by virtue of the number of movements within it based on African gospel music, and its recent, successful performances in sacred venues, including Lichfield and Ely cathedrals where the cathedral choristers joined adult singers and children from local primary schools.
The writing for the children is particularly skilful: the African melodies are easily learnt and then fit easily into the surrounding musical texture. The songs include the Methodist sacred song 'Singabahambayo Thina', wedding songs from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and among four other South African songs the ubiquitous Siyahamba, 'We are marching in the light of God', in an uplifting, spirit-stirring arrangement.If you have an opportunity to combine adult singers and local schools, do look at the whole work. Equally, I look forward to hearing individual movements enriching worship as I am sure will happen once singers experience this infectiously-tuneful collection of pieces.'
Stephen Patterson, Church Music Quarterly June 2010
'A profoundly moving work, Zimbe! consists of songs from all over Africa, arranged by UK composer L'Estrange, and performed by a mixed adult choir, children's choir and a jazz quintet featuring the deft Simon Allen (sax), Adam Riley (percussion) and Mike Bradley (drums). The combination of swing, gospel and a cappella has an immediate impact. From the opener, Njooni! Zimbe!, through to the original Song for the soul, Alexander has captured the essence of the material and generated impassioned performances. An important release which will hopefully inspire school groups and choirs nation-wide to perform these pieces.'The Musician magazine, Autumn 2010