Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants

Modified on Thu, 29 Sep 2022 at 09:58 PM

Agawu, Kofi. 2001. ‘Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants’. Research in African Literatures 32(2), 196-98.

Research in African Literatures 32.2 (2001) 196-198 Chaka. An Opera in Two Chants. Composed by Akin Euba from an epic poem by Léopold Sédar Senghor. City of Birmingham Touring Opera. Conductedby Simon Halsey. Point Richmond, CA: Music Research Institute, 1998. One compact disc. Opera is music. It is also drama. Although we might be tempted to follow Wagner in joining the two words to make a third, "music-drama" really only registers an artistic intention. High quality drama does not guarantee successful opera. Memorable music does. (Devotees are more likely to leave the opera house with music ringing in their ears than with concerns about the plausibility of the plot.) What resound in the memory are the voices of singers. Opera, then, is not just music; nor is it just performed song. Opera is voice (see Abbate). If opera is ultimately voice, then opera is fully compatible withAfrican modes of expression (see Soyinka). No other instrument -- certainly not the sensationalized drum -- occupies as central and critical a place in African traditions of music-making. The range of vocal ideals is vast, ranging from syllabic, speech-like declamation to the melismatic and wordless singing originating from, or inflected by, North African and Middle Eastern styles. Voice is the gateway to meaning in music. Oddly, however, opera is not readily associated with Africa in the popular imagination. Perhaps global economies of representation and reportage are to blame; but perhaps there is a concrete absence that needs to be acknowledged. If we ignore folk operas and the productions of concert parties, we wipe out most of the data that would support the view that opera is widespread in Africa. We might mention Saka Acquaye's The Lost Fishermen, Walter Blege's Kristo, Adam Fiberesima's Opu Jaja, Soleymane Koly's Waramba, Duro Ladipo's Oba Koso, Solomon Mbabi-Katana's The Marriage of Nyakato, and perhaps a dozen more titles, but we won't be able to provide a lot of evidence to prove that opera occupies a key position in the work of African art music composers. Publication of a CD recording of Akin Euba's Chaka thus marks a special moment in African art music composition. First heard at the University of Ife in 1970, Chaka has been performed sporadically, but never as a fully staged opera. This 1998 recording, the first of its kind, features a revised version of the work. While no recording can ever substitute for a live performance, the present document affords us the opportunity to hear and imagine the musical drama. It exemplifies Euba's way with voice, his conception of various characters, and his vision of this most artificial of genres. Most importantly, perhaps, Chaka on CD makes it easier for students, younger composers, and the music-loving public to gauge what is possible in the realm of modern African operatic composition. For his libretto, the composer chose an English translation of a prose poem by Léopold Senghor of the famous legend of King Chaka, the nineteenth-century Zulu warrior. To this Euba added another poem by Senghor, "Man and the Beast." We encounter Chaka in a reflective and sober phase of life, not in his more characteristic war-like pose (although that pose lurks in the background, and is manifest in the considerable strength that Chaka displays as he responds to the allegorical White Voice that tries him). Subtitled "An Opera in Two Chants" (the division into Chants, which is intended to register difference from "Acts," is Senghor's), Chant 1 features a dying Chaka being interrogated by a White Voice, while Chant 2 brings in Noliwe, Chaka's wife, for a sustained reflection on love. Euba's musical language draws on diverse sources. The Prelude to Chant 1 presents in typically synoptic fashion most of the major musics to be heard in the opera. Modernist-sounding patches of music alternate with trumpet fanfares, Akan-Adowa music, and snippets of the Dies Irae. Then there is Ewe Agbekor music and the melodies of atenteben (bamboo flute). Elsewhere in Chaka, atonal paragraphs of music in the manner of Schoenberg alternate with a self...

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