Maverick Life


Composer Litha Jali’s individual pathway hits a new note for religious music

Composer Litha Jali’s individual pathway hits a new note for religious music
The choir that was part of the performance of Litha Jali’s Xhosa Requiem at Cape Town City Hall on 5 March 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

Listening to Jali’s Xhosa Requiem, it is easy to say both Brahms and Verdi have worked their way into his musical thinking as he shaped his own work.

The young composer Litha Jali decided to honour his late mother by writing the first requiem in isiXhosa. It is a bold choice that introduces a new chapter to a musical history dating back centuries. It takes a particularly brave – even audacious – young composer to tackle an immensely powerful musical form that has been shaped by all manner of tradition and the output of predecessors from across the centuries. 

The Butterworth-born composer received his musical education at the University of Fort Hare (after having taught himself significantly to read staff notation while he was still a child). Jali’s Xhosa Requiem is his first major composition.

At its premiere in Cape Town’s City Hall on a blustery, rainy afternoon on 5 March, Jali’s requiem was sung by soprano Ondelwa Mjana Martins, mezzo-soprano Linda Mbozi, tenor Sakhi Martins and bass Phelo Nodlayiya. Overall musical direction came from David Lubbe, who also served as the performance’s principal pianist, and Samukelo Mhlongo conducted the work. 

The musical resources also included a 60-voice choir from the Injomane Arts Company. Though Jali composed his work for voice and orchestra, two pianists accompanied the singers in this performance.

The requiem, as a major musical form, has been around for centuries and traces its history back to the Gregorian chant. In composing requiems (or being commissioned to do so), Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi and other major composers have been challenged by the nature of the form to produce compositions that are both devotional and dramatic. 

In some cases, such as Verdi’s Requiem, disapproving critics muttered that his massive work was actually too dramatic – too operatic – for it to be a religious work. 

I recall vividly the first time I heard a live performance of that work with a full orchestra and a mass choir, about 50 years ago. Its extraordinary drama, not the religious fervour, stays with me still.

Then there is Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, in 1971. 

Sung in English to a text very different from the usual one for a mass, its musical resources included electric guitars and a drum kit in the rock or jazz style. Its text was in sync with the growing anti-war and countercultural vibe of the time. 

Bernstein’s work, too, was criticised for being too much of this Earth, this time and this place, rather than a work sanctifying a new cultural edifice. Like Verdi’s, however, Bernstein’s composition has come to be embraced by the public. 

Of course, other requiems have been composed for rather overt political purposes such as Joseph Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, or Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, among others.

Composer Litha Jali. (Photo: Supplied)

Listening to Jali’s Xhosa Requiem, it is easy to say both Brahms’ and Verdi’s compositions have worked their way into his musical thinking as he shaped his own work. 

One could hear distant echoes of such musical moments as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, or the core element, How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place, from Brahms’ A German Requiem. 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a newer composer absorbing influences from earlier masters and drawing on them in some way for his own compositions.  

What was surprising, at least to me, was that given Jali’s background and the rich African choral tradition in South Africa, the composer drew upon few discernible influences from that well, save for his use of isiXhosa as the language of the text, rather than Latin, as might be more usual by most composers.

On just these points, Jali explained to me afterwards that in “December of 2019, I decided to write this mass commemorating my late mother … The reason you didn’t hear the influence of the Xhosa music is because it is not there in the mass. I wanted this mass to sound sacred. Xhosa is mostly with the rhythmic patterns that tempt one to dance or do a movement, which I tried to avoid in the mass.”

By contrast, in drawing a line to influences, Jali said: “I wouldn’t say I learnt much from the composers of our days. I listened to the composers of the Classical and Romantic eras, and sometimes the Baroque era.” 

Nevertheless, for other works, “I use a lot of contemporary music when I compose. You can hear [that] in many of my compositions [in which] I used Xhosa contemporary music.” Jali added that he completed his first formal composition, a four-part vocal work, when he was 16. 

Explaining his early engagement with choral music, Jali said: “In 1999, when I heard my neighbour playing George Frideric Handel’s Hallelujah [Chorus], I showed interest and he told me to join a school choir. I did and I returned [and] I told him that at school they don’t sing like in the Messiah, which I heard. He told me that it’s more like in soccer: you play for a smaller team and you grow until you go play professionally. I understood and I went back to the choir. The interest grew as I grew older.”

More broadly, there is much to fall back on for influences for composing even sacred music. From the time of its founding, Fort Hare University, where Jali studied, actually had a history of musical performance culture, encouraged by its missionary society founders. Many of the great formally composed African choral works were hymns such as John Knox Bokwe’s Plea for Africa, Bawo Thixo Somandla by Archibald Matyila, and Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. 

These and many other works derive much from missionary as well as more indigenous influences. 

Here I should mention the continuing global popularity of yet another sacred work, Missa Luba, a mass shaped by a Belgian priest-musician, Father Guido Haazen, who, in the late 1950s, served in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

This work drew deeply on the performance styles, music and rhythmic accompaniment of the region’s inhabitants. The Sanctus and Credo from this work were used in the cult film If, a movie that offered an hallucinatory vision of the students at an elite boys’ school in Britain overthrowing their teacher oppressors. 

Three of the soloists who took the lead in Litha Jali’s Xhosa Requiem. (Photo: Supplied)

Historically, South Africa has been the site for national choral competitions and festivals such as the Nation Building Massed Choir Festival, promoted by the Sowetan during the intense political turmoil of the late 1980s. More routinely, choral performances (and even SABC recordings of African choirs) often included selections from the great oratorios or of popular operatic choruses. 

In the case of Handel’s great oratorio, Jali had spoken of its Hallelujah Chorus as being a crucial early influence on his musical imagination, as with so many others. Beyond all the church and community performances, back at the nadir of the apartheid era, there actually were annual performances of the Messiah that brought together black and white vocal performers (although not integrated audiences) in Johannesburg’s City Hall, right through the early 1960s. 

This attested to the enduring popularity of Handel’s work with all who enjoy music – and recognise its transcendent power. 

Then there are those other streams of musical heritage. There is the legacy of composer and linguist Mzilikazi James Khumalo with his opera Princess Magogo, and his secular cantata uShaka KaSenzangakhona. 

But there have also been challenging operatic and other vocal works from a succeeding generation of African composers such as Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Neo Muyanga and the late Phelelani Mnomiya. 

However, instead of simply following in such footsteps, Jali appears to be carving his own ambitious and individual compositional pathway, and that is something to be applauded.

Jali explained how he selected the parts of the requiem to be used in his work, writing to me that it was set in the structure of a traditional Latin requiem. A Requiem Mass is different from a normal mass in that it includes elements like the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, even as more joyful portions are omitted. Thus a Dies Irae (The Day of Wrath) replaces an Alleluia, becoming a major dramatic (even terrifying) element in many Requiem Masses – as with Verdi’s setting of it. 

Cultural anthropologist David Coplan offers a way of seeing the key difference between Catholic and Protestant religious music in the local context, noting: “On the African Christian composers issue, there has always been room for hymnodic composition among congregants of Protestant denominations, whether clergy or laity. But Catholicism has an older and very strict canonical liturgy which wasn’t to be modified. Hence the guitar and folk religious music found in recent decades in Catholic congregations is quite apart from mass and other catechisms.” 

Specifically in terms of this performance of Jali’s requiem, among the four soloists tenor Sakhi Martins stood out, delivering his words with a clean, clear tone and crisp enunciation. The choir was well trained, although there were occasional lapses in pitch. Although the composer has explained that this work has been scored for an orchestra, in this performance the accompaniment came from a piano and keyboard. The greater possibilities available from orchestral sound would certainly enrich the dramatic possibilities of Jali’s requiem in any future performances. 

It does seem, however, that staging this work in the cavernous spaces of Cape Town’s City Hall may have been a less than felicitous choice. The music would have achieved a much stronger impact on its audience had it been performed in the more intimate confines of a church or in another, smaller concert venue. There was also no need for four separate sets of introductory remarks, rather than simply letting Jali’s music speak for itself.

In future, it would be good having an opportunity to hear this work with its intended orchestral textures as well as it being performed in a venue more in keeping with its meaning and style. 

The choir is one of the activities of the Cape Town-based organisation SA Operatunity. This non-profit group describes its role as one of creating performance opportunities and platforms for aspiring artists and composers. This specific performance was funded by the National Arts Council, via the 2022 Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture. 

The composer himself is now based in Turkey as a singer with the international entertainment company Umberto. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mpumi Bikitsha says:

    Great pity that there doesn’t seem to have been a single recording of this Xhosa requiem by Litha Jali. Even more sad that he himselfnis now working in Turkey. Congratulations Litha! So proud of you!

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