David Fanshawe, 68, dies; ethnomusicologist who composed 'African Sanctus'

David Fanshawe, with members of the Luo tribe during a 1973 trip to Kenya. His "African Sanctus" polarized music critics.
David Fanshawe, with members of the Luo tribe during a 1973 trip to Kenya. His "African Sanctus" polarized music critics. (Judith Croasdell)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

David Fanshawe, 68, a British musician and explorer best known for composing "African Sanctus," a controversial interpretation of the Latin Mass set against a backdrop of tribal music he recorded on a three-year journey up the Nile River, died July 5 at a hospital in Swindon, England. He had complications from a stroke.

Beginning in the 1960s, long before the craze for world music took hold in the Western world, Mr. Fanshawe traveled thousands of miles in Africa and the South Pacific -- largely on foot, but also by camel, canoe, barge and sailboat -- to record traditional songs and sounds of the world's indigenous peoples.

He weaved those recordings with live performances by singers and instrumentalists to create original compositions that were performed at venues including Washington's Kennedy Center.

The most famous of his compositions was "African Sanctus," an hour-long choral Mass in 13 movements first performed as "African Revelations" in 1972. The piece pairs the Lord's Prayer with war drums from eastern Sudan and couples a traditional dance from Uganda with Sanctus, a hymn from Christian liturgy.

Mr. Fanshawe estimated that "African Sanctus" was performed more than 1,000 times but acknowledged that the work's interpretation of the Lord's Prayer had a polarizing effect on critics.

"Mr. Fanshawe's idea of fusing the ominous sound of Sudanese war drums with the choir's gentle prayer for peace was a masterful touch," music critic Robert Sherman wrote in the New York Times in 1982. "It was a thrilling experience."

However, music reviewer Richard Carter wrote in The Washington Post that the combination of traditional and classical music "simply does not add up to anything more than a work of banal, dreary, jejune, prosaic vapidity."

The composer's efforts raised ethical questions from those who questioned whether his recordings were an aural sort of imperialism that exploited indigenous musicians.

"It's an extraordinary collection of music and images," said Carol A. Muller, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania. But "there is an edge to everything he did," she said. "There is a level of complete arrogance, a kind of colonial mind-set, that you can go to Africa and make these recordings and use them at your own will."

He brushed off such criticism, saying that his recordings help the world remember songs that otherwise would be forgotten.

"I've tried to make recordings in remote places that preserve the music honestly. I've paid the musicians what I can," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2000. "All I can say is that if I hadn't recorded this music, or taken these photographs, nobody else would have."

David Fanshawe was born in a seaside town in Devon, England, during an air raid on April 9, 1942. "My father was born in India, four generations of my family were born in India, all the stories I heard were from India and I was born in bloody Devon," he once said.

His family's history kindled in him a desire to explore the world -- and he did it through music. After working for several years as an apprentice sound engineer in the British film industry, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.

He said his inspiration for melding the world's musical traditions came from an epiphany he had while hitchhiking around the Middle East in the late 1960s. As he listened to a Latin Mass in a church in Old Jerusalem, he heard from outside the sound of imams calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

"I heard that cacophony, and I heard that as harmony -- harmony between East and West, harmony between Christian and Muslim, harmony between Christ and Muhammad," Mr. Fanshawe told a Vermont newspaper in 2008. "I heard in my head the duality of both religions singing to the glory of one God."

In 1969, Mr. Fanshawe set out from Cairo on a journey that traced the shape of a cross: south on the Nile to Lake Victoria, then west to the mountains of Sudan and east to the Red Sea. Armed only with a simple rucksack, a tape recorder and a few British pounds, Mr. Fanshawe endured the sort of exotic travails that later made him the subject of BBC documentaries.

He lost his tape recorder when his canoe was overturned by a surfacing hippopotamus. He also fell down a 40-foot well and crash-landed a light aircraft in Somalia.

"I was 300 miles off course, but luckily we were picked up by Somali herdsmen on camels," he said in 2008. "It wasn't always easy."

After returning from Africa to England in the 1970s, he composed music for British television and film before embarking on another adventure: a decade-long effort to record the traditional music of the Pacific islands. He crisscrossed the ocean, collecting recordings and images of the native people of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.

His first marriage, to Judith Croasdell Grant, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Jane Bishop Fanshawe of Wiltshire, England; his mother, Phyllis Fanshawe of Hampshire, England; two children from his first marriage, Alex Fanshawe and Rebecca Perkins, both of London; a daughter from his second marriage, Rachel Fanshawe of Wiltshire; and a brother.

Mr. Fanshawe's recordings, photographs and journals are housed in his archives. His last completed composition was "Pacific Song," inspired by the music of Tonga.

"I have not fitted in," he once said. "But I am obsessed, totally dedicated to what I do."

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