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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

During the next year, NPR is looking at and listening to sacred music from around the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: This song comes from Gambia by way of St Louis, Missouri. That's where a local organization is dedicated to exploring the music of contemporary African composers, with a focus on sacred music. For our series, Ecstatic Voices, NPR's Neda Ulaby paid a visit.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The elder of the choral group Sounds of Africa is Fred Onovwerosuoke. He was born in Ghana, brought up in Nigeria, and his choir, here in the heart of the United States, has recorded his arrangements of African sacred music by a composer named Ikoli Harcourt Whyte.

FRED ONOVWEROSUOKE: He was born in 1905; died in 1977. He was a leper.

ULABY: Whyte lived in a leper colony run by the Methodist Church. He formed a choir of those also confined there.

ONOVWEROSUOKE: And he composed and wrote for them some of the most moving spiritual music.

SOUNDS OF AFRICA: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: Onovwerosuoke remembers record stores in Nigeria blasting Harcourt Whyte's music from huge outside speakers. He sang in the choir of his Anglican church.

ONOVWEROSUOKE: I was a boy soprano from a very, very early age, you know.

ULABY: Onovwerosuoke's family was friendly with the local priest and imam. He soaked up what he heard in the church and in the mosque. As a teenager, Onovwerosuoke became an amateur ethnomusicologist. He traveled around the continent with his Walkman, taping musicians.

ONOVWEROSUOKE: Immersing myself in religious ceremonies. We have field recordings from easily 35 African countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Now, those field recordings help Midwesterners understand the music from Africa they're singing.

AFRICA: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: Rose Fisher is Songs of Africa's assistant director. She's guiding the choir through lyrics in Yoruba, a tonal language from West Africa.

ROSE FISHER: Do that last part. (Foreign language spoken). Ready, here we go.

AFRICA: (Singing in foreign language)

FISHER: Thank you.

ULABY: An hour later they're singing it at as part of a service at Pilgrim Congregational Church.

AFRICA: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: Music from Africa can be incredibly challenging for Western singers, says soprano Marlissa Hudson. She recorded music arranged by Fred Onovwerosuoke. She says none of her classical training prepared her for the complexities of its rhythms.

MARLISSA HUDSON: And you can't count when you're singing that kind of music, so Fred actually danced it for me. As soon as he danced it, it clicked. (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: Hudson says part of understanding African sacred music for her meant thinking about its colonial context. It's beautiful music with a violent history.

HUDSON: It's the same story as the spirituals.

ULABY: The music of oppressed people combined with the music of their oppressors.

HUDSON: But within that oppression much like in the spirituals, even in the depth of the sadness, there's a kernel of what is possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: This music, born of pain, insists on life, on resilience, on a connection to something beyond human suffering.

HUDSON: (Singing) Jesus, Lord of all creation.

ULABY: Part of the power of these hymns comes from how they assimilated customs and musical traditions rooted far from Christianity, says Fred Onovwerosuoke. Melissa Breed Parks is part of his core ensemble. She's wearing a yellow robe and embroidered headscarf that don't look to be part of her own faith tradition.

MELISSA BREED PARKS: I'm Quaker and we don't sing or even really talk. Our meetings are pretty much silent.

ULABY: Songs of Africa, she says, allows her to express another facet of her spirituality. Here's what Fred Onovwerosuoke said when I asked him how do you teach Americans to sing sacred music from Africa?

ONOVWEROSUOKE: Well, the same way Africans will sing a Mozart motet or whatever. You know, so the things is my philosophy of life is that there will be greater peace in the world if we share of other cultures as much as they share of our own American experience.

ULABY: To use music to quiet the ghosts of history, by moving the world closer by celebrating African music in services along with Western hymns - nothing, says Onovwerosuoke, could make music more sacred.

AFRICA: (Singing) Glory to the Lord and savior, peace on earth and every nation, glory to the Lord and Savior, Jesus.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

AFRICA: (Singing) Lord and Savior, Jesus...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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