The LP recorded more than 50 years ago as "Missa Luba" has been re-issued recently. It must be among a very small number in the category of world music to remain in production after so long. The category is not wrong, but confining this complex work to any narrow category is a huge mistake. It stands as a triumph of the human soul and a perpetual gift from the Luba peoples living in the Kaatanga region of colonial Belgian Congo, now Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The contemporary story behind this recording begins with Maurice Jan Lodewijk Haazen, who took the name Guido on becoming a Franciscan friar, joking that, "It was one of the only ones left." As a child, Haazen, his seven siblings and parents sang together regularly, and particularly enjoyed works by masters of Church music such as Palestrina, Bach, and di Lassus. They must have been an accomplished small ensemble. His goal of becoming a missionary to China following his ordination in 1947 was thwarted by the protracted civil war. In 1953 he reluctantly agreed to take a position at the St. Bavo Catholic Mission school for boys in the city of Kamina, in the southernmost province of Congo.
Fr. Haazen organized the first youth choir at Kamina, selecting 40 boys, calling them Les Troubadours, and introducing Flemish children's folk songs translated into Swahili and arranged for two or three vocal parts. In a 2003 interview with American graduate student Marc Foster, Haazen recalled, "Soon I discovered the unbelievable musicality of the Africans. Their songs, their dances and their profound sense of rhythm were a revelation to me. But to my great disappointment I noticed that in our missionary church they only sang the old European hymns and songs that they had learned from our missionary priests! It surprised me greatly because I had already noticed that the Africans could express their feelings of joy and sorrow by singing and dancing."
In his doctoral dissertation, Foster reports that after gaining some success with singing both Western choral music and their own native music, Haazen approached the opportunity of having the choir sing a Mass in what he called "native style." Up to that time no drums or native instruments were permitted in the church and all the music had to be sung in Latin.
Working with two native teachers at the school, Andre Lukusa and tenor soloist Joachim Ngoi, Haazen urged that the Mass settings be built from the folk song repertory, but with the Latin text collectively improvised over the top of the original Bantu language. The Philips recording opened with seven of these folk songs, described in English as "Marriage Song," "Emergence from Grief," "Marriage Ballad," "Dance," "Marital Celebration," "Soldier's Song," and "Work Song." While no translations are available, these songs provide an excellent introduction to the solo call and choral response pattern, or on Track 6 a choral call in close harmony with contrasting response, all accompanied by drums. The legacy of Fr. Haazen's instruction in fundamentals of western choral music, including close attention to pitch, dynamic variation, and starting and stopping together shows through. The modal melodies and the traditional practice permitting harmony to move in parallel octaves and fifths make the arrangements sound ancient when compared with now familiar four-part harmonies.
Bringing a song style previously denigrated as pagan to mixed black and white audiences in colonial Africa brought anxiety for Haazen and the choir. As an old man, Haazen recalled, "Once, when we gave a singing concert for the Whites in Kamina, there was a spontaneous ovation for the choir, for it had been a total surprise for the White people how beautiful this native singing was. It gave the African students a new and a deep feeling of self value and pride in their culture."
In 1957, after a visit from the new King Baldwin of Belgium, for whom the choir sang, they were honored with the title "Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin." They were soon invited to sing at the 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels, Belgium, the first "World's Fair" held after World War II. Bringing the school's choir to a world stage convinced Fr. Haazen that the time was right for an African Mass sung by Africans. We can also pause here to thank an executive from the new Dutch company Philips Records for recording the group at that fair pavilion.
Adapting local songs to meet the demands of the pre-Vatican II Church required more than replacing Bantu lyrics with Latin. Haazen and Ngoi realized that using multiple song sources in each Mass section would add interest for listeners. "The soloist (leader) of course had the central role to sing the melodies in such a manner that the choir would sense when to enter, when to 'agree', and so on. Joachim definitely has not fixed himself on one existing song, but he let himself just go, improvising spontaneously as seemed right to him [Haazen]." In contrast, in the Gloria section, the chorus has primary musical material not presented first by the soloist, who follows with highly improvised versions of the melody.
Director Lindsay Anderson used the "Sanctus" as a recurring motif in his 1968 award winning film "If . . . ." The power of the music, combining Latin Mass text with traditional African music and performed by boys, running under his fable of mayhem in an English prep school, leaves an impression that the music provides a critique on colonialism generally and specifically on rough justice from English hands. It seems a paradox that such inspiring music now carries this shadow. Maybe a generation unfamiliar with such historic details will be ready to surrender to the new CD release, and let it stand on its own merits.