Wana Baraka has been one of the great, unexpected joys of my life. I learned the source folk hymn at a church conference in Pennsylvania in 1994, when I was touring the country with a vocal quartet. A few of the other conference participants had just returned from a trip to Africa, where they had learned Wana Baraka from the Kenyan delegation at a youth agricultural conference. They had learned it very carefully, so it was passed intact in true oral tradition, without errors in melody or Swahili! Our quartet immediately began performing it for the remainder of our national tour, and our rudimentary 4-part arrangement was the springboard for my eventual SSATBB choral arrangement. That came about in 1998 when, inspired by an ACDA convention, I decided that I should start writing some choral music “for real.” The premiere, if one could call it that, was at a folk festival later that summer in Oregon, when I spent an hour teaching the arrangement by rote, and we had a ball.
But it wasn’t published until 2000, when Barbara Harlow accepted it as my first published piece with Santa Barbara. I sent it in on a Friday, and had an email from her on Sunday morning. Quite the change from the first publisher I sent it to — I waited a year and a half while it was on “hold” and finally they decided they didn’t want to publish it after all. Oh well!
Many amazing things in my life have happened because of this piece. Wana Baraka was the first piece of mine that the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed, in the relatively brand-new Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. That piece opened the doors to a long collaboration with LAMC, resulting in many new pieces, premieres, and my eventual tenure as Composer in Residence.
In 2012, I learned that the Nairobi Chamber Choir would be performing it as part of their program at Windsor Castle in celebration of Her Majesty Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant. So my dad and I flew over to be there, and had a great time meeting Ken Wakia and his choir.
Another great Kenya connection has happened through my friend, Philip Odhiambo Munyasia, an expert gardener and community developer. I met him in 2008 while he was interning at Ecology Action in northern California. Since we had not been able to locate an original songwriter in Kenya, I wanted to have some way that the energy of Wana Baraka could return “full circle” and benefit Kenya in some way. So, the songwriter portion of Wana Baraka royalties have now been cycling back into Philip’s work in Kitale, Kenya with his organization OTEPIC. He and his colleagues have transformed their rural community to an inspiring degree, and currently are building a large training center to transmit innovative techniques and permaculture philosophy throughout their whole region.
A final Wana Baraka story to share relates to a “flash mob” that the Good News Gospel Choir in Vallodolid staged at their local library. The film of this flash mob has been posted multiple times to YouTube, and has had as many as 4 million views on a single posting. And, amazingly, to bring the story full circle, LuAnne Harley, one of the original quartet members that first learned and performed the song with me, happened to be in Vallodolid a few years back. She’s friendly and fluent in Spanish, and was enjoying a conversation with the proprietor of a hat shop there when they got to discussing music. Learning that they both enjoyed singing, the conversation progressed, and fate brought about the realization that they both knew Wana Baraka — LuAnne because “she was there” at the very beginning, and the hat shop guy because he sings in the Vallodolid choir that staged the flash mob! Small world!