chaka: An Opera in Two Chants

- Notes by Akin Euba -

The Cast
CHAKA - bass, Zulu warrior and statesman
WHITE VOICE - tenor, missionary, colonialist
NOLIWE - soprano, Chaka’s bride-to-be
PRAISE CHANTER - female voice

The Story

The epic poem by Léopold Sédar Senghor is based on the real life story of Chaka, a 19th century king of the Zulu who achieved fame as a brilliant strategist and empire builder but was also notorious for crimes against humanity. The poem is in two parts, subtitled Chant 1 and Chant 2, and in designating Chaka as an opera in two chants (rather than two acts), I follow Senghor’s example. The vocal parts of the opera are in any case written in a style that is akin to that of the chant mode of Yoruba music (in its free rhythm, but not speech-song, aspects).

In the prelude to Chant 2, I include "Man and the Beast," also a poem by Senghor (but not part of the Chaka poem).

Senghor’s poem covers the last moments of Chaka’s life. In Chant 1, the hitherto invincible Chaka has been assassinated by some of his own people and lies dying from his wounds. He is cross-examined by White Voice (who is a dual symbol of the missionary and colonial presence in Africa). White Voice denounces Chaka as a blood-thirsty tyrant who murdered Noliwe, his wife-to-be, in order to gain absolute power, and also caused the slaughter of millions. Chaka’s defence is that every act of his was performed for the love of his dark-skinned people.

Chant 2 is a love song in which Chaka remembers tender moments with his beloved Noliwe, while a chorus chants in praise of Chaka.

The Music

Briefly started, Chaka is a fusion of 20th century techniques of composition with stylistic derived from African traditional music, particularly the music of the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria. Moreover, the orchestra is a combination of African and Western instruments.

The music employs two 12-tone rows, one of which is used in the prelude by the brass and woodwind instruments, and again by these same instruments in Chant 2. The second tone row is featured in Chant 1 and assigned only to the woodwinds in music that is solely associated with Chaka’s voice. All vocal parts, including Chaka’s, use different tone systems and, moreover, the instrumental parts are not always derived from the tone rows.

A section of the first tone row appears in the theme which I designated as the "conscience" theme and which refers to Chaka. This theme is stated by the brass trio at the very beginning of the prelude and recurs in various forms all through the opera. Indeed, the perfect fourth and perfect fifth which begin the conscience theme are the subject of extended development in the course of the opera.

In Chant 1 the double bass has an ostinato figure which is prominent in the prelude and which, in its basic form, use tones from the first tone row. The conscience theme is heard four times during the prelude and its fourth occurrence yields another major theme, which is associated with Noliwe. This theme begins with a long-held note on the French horn.

One of the main motifs used in the prelude (and which is not based on a row) is the dies irae theme, whose presence is meant to emphasize White Vioice’s missionary role. In the prelude (which is in 6/8 meter) the dies irae theme is rhythmically "Africanized" but it later appears in Chant 1, played in unison by the brass, in a form more characteristic of its European origin.

The opera includes various African elements. First of all, the following African traditional instruments are employed: six atenteben (Ghanaian bamboo flutes) in C, agogo (double bell), two slit drums, gourd rattle, three Yoruba hourglass tension drums, gudugudu (small Yoruba kettle drum), three single-headed, fixed-pitch membrane drums. Most of the time, these instruments are assigned polyrhythmic parts typical of African traditional music.

Secondly, the prelude features three bell patterns found in various types of traditional music. The first is the so-called standard pattern typical of many African cultures, the second is from the adowa dance of the Ashanti of Ghana while the third is from the atsiagbekor dance of the Ewe of Ghana. Polyrhythmic parts used together with these bell patterns are not necessarily from the same sources as the bell patterns.

Thirdly, one of the roles in the opera is that of a Yoruba traditional chanter performing praise poetry in Yoruba idiom for Chaka. Incidentally, much of the text of the praise poetry is based on drum texts played for two deceased Yoruba kings, which I collected in the course of my doctoral research. The responsorial song used by the chanter is based on that composed by a professional rara chanter who played the role in the 1970 production of Chaka. The responsorial songs used in the context of Noliwe’s part are from the ijala chants of Yoruba hunters, devotees of Ogun - the Yoruba god of war and iron.

Fourthly, a fully staged performance of the opera requires extended choreography based on dances in the African Idiom and lastly, woodwinds, horn and double bass are assigned polyrhythmic parts in the African idiom in Chant 2.

The vocal parts of Chaka are imprecisely written and singers are free to choose their own rhythms and often their own pitches. In Chant 1, a clef is indicated but the singers are invited to disregard it if they wish. In Chant 2, the clef is removed altogether and, instead, I use the three subjective tone levels of Yoruba speech, the low tone, middle tone and high tone language and its three tone levels have a semantic function. In Chaka, I adopted the device for structural rather than semantic reasons(and in any case we are dealing here with English rather than Yoruba texts).

Another feature of the vocal writing is that spoken text is closely integrated with sung text; for example, one phrase of a sentence may be spoken while another is sung. In Chant 1 of the opera, I make extensive use of an element which I have often used in poetry and in the music theater in general. My term for this element is "free percussion" and this means that players are required to create their own music based on the moods of the poetry or the drama.

One other prominent feature of the opera is the combination of different groups of performers playing different types of music in different meters. This kind of combination is commonly heard in Yorubaland in the context of ceremonies and festivals.

The opera exemplifies various theories of composition which I have articultated for several decades. They include the theories of (i) neo-African art music (ii) intercultural music (iii) African opera and (iv) creative ethnomusicology. Further details of these theories may be found in the books cited at the end of this article.


Performance Notes

Three types of vocal delivery are required in Chaka. The first is the speech mode (that is the mode in which English-language poetry is normally recited). Texts to be delivered in this mode are written below the staff without any musical noted above them. In the speech mode, rhythm is free(except in the choral sections where the conductor determines the rhythm).

Whenever speech-mode texts are required to be in strict rhythm, cross-headed notes placed below the staff are used. (Their tone values are those of ordinary speech.)

The second type of vocal delivery is the chant mode. This uses three tone levels, Low (1st line of the staff), Middle (3rd line of the staff) and High (4th line of the staff). Sometimes the level between Middle and High (line 4) is also used and on at least one occasion, the singer is required to rise above the 5th line of the staff. The chant mode is used principally in Chant 2. Note heads without stems are used for chant-mode texts in free rhythm, while note heads with stems are used for texts in strict rhythm.

In normal speech, individuals have different vocal registers and, similarly, the actual pitches selected by the individual performers in Chaka for the realization of the tree tone levels should ideally vary. Moreover, the same individual is free to transport his/her register now and then. Also, the intervals between L-M, M-H, and L-H are available. The following are few possibilities for the realization of the progression L-M-H:

(awaiting diagram)

The singers may design other combinations of intervals

The third type of vocal delivery is the song mode. Here the G-clef is used and rhythm is either free or strict, depending on whether or not musical notes have stems.

In the song-mode sections, the music can be transposed to other "keys" to suit the convenience of the performers, unless when voices and instruments are required to be in the same key. In places where dynamics are not indicated, singers (or directors) are free to choose their own dynamic (as in spoken drama).

In this work, much use is made of the juxtaposition of components having different metres and tempi. As a general rule, parts played simulta-neously should not be synchronized unless indicated by the notation or other directive.

In sections that feature ostinato patterns, these patterns should be played continuously until a direction is given for them to be stopped or changed.

The following is a description of the African traditional instruments:

Atenteben: a modernized version of a Ghanaian traditional bamboo flute.

Agogo: a double bell, made of iron, producing two pitches.

Slit drum: this is an idiophone consisting of a log of wood with the inside taken out. The slit of the instrument separates two lips of unequal thicknesses, thus producing two different pitches.

Gourd rattle: a goblet-shaped gourd enmeshed in a net strung with rattling objects.

Tension drum: a double-headed membrane drum. The two heads are linked by a row of tensioning strings which encircle the hourglass-shaped drum shell and which, when, pressed, raise the pitch of the drum heads.

Gudugudu: a small kettle drum with tuning paste. The paste enables the the drum to produce two different pitches.

Kpanlogo drums: these are probably the African prototypes for congas and bongos. The score calls for three of these instruments and they should be tuned at different pitches.


The poem Chaka is dedicated by Senghor "to the Bantu martyrs of South Africa". The opera is dedicated to my daughter Morenike.

Dr. Akin Euba is Andrew Mellon’s Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh, PA.

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