Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bwana Asifiwe: Behind the Music

In our upcoming concert series, we are playing "Bwana Asifiwe! (Praise the Lord!)," by Cathy Moklebust.

Ms. Moklebust has published many handbell pieces and won awards for her composition work. You can learn more about her at the Cathy Moklebust web site.

Bwana Asifiwe stands out from most handbell music, by conveying a strong African sound, not to mention the percussion section in the middle of the piece. So we wanted to ask what inspired her to arrange the song for handbells. She graciously agreed to tell us the story:

Back in 2003 I was commissioned by the Community Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to write a piece in honor of their music director Darcy Reich, and her 25 years of music ministry.  I recall that they wanted something with an African sound, as they had used my “African Alleluia” before, and liked that style.  Being a percussionist myself, I have all sorts of rhythms and motives going through my head, so it was easy to find inspiration.  What I envisioned was a procession of people heading to worship over the African landscape, singing, dancing, and playing instruments along the way.  At first we can barely hear them, but as they come closer, their music and drumming becomes louder and more involved.  The music is loudest and most rhythmic in the middle of the piece, as if the worshippers are directly in front of us. As they trail off, the music returns to the opening theme, and ends joyously. I did some internet searching on various “praise” phrases used in the Swahili language, and I learned that “Bwana Asifiwe” means “Praise the Lord,” and is often used as a greeting among African Christians. I did learn later on that the words “Bwana Asifiwe” are actually pronounced as one word: BWA-na-sa-FEE-way.

This original composition delights ringers and listeners alike with its upbeat and rhythmic African flavor in ¾ meter, and it is hard to stand still and ring, and equally difficult for the audience to sit still!  The African percussion instruments needed are 2 hand drums, and small and large shakers, but congas, maracas, and guiro may be substituted if necessary.  The percussionists are encouraged to improvise freely throughout the piece, and especially in their solo between measures 69-76.  During the percussion solo, ringers are encouraged to clap, dance in place, and invite audience participation.  The handbell techniques included are pluck, mallets, martellato, and martellato-lift.  There are 3 easy key changes, but no bell changes within each section.  Over the years, Bwana Asifiwe has become a favorite piece for massed ringing at handbell festivals, and I’ve watched and listened with glee as other conductors masterfully interpret my piece and add creative movement.  Such fun!

Cathy A. Moklebust
Eagle Grove, IA
Thank you for Cathy Moklebust for sharing! We've enjoyed playing Bwana Asifiwe, both bells and percussion. Special thanks from the ringers who get to do a little dancing.

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