African challenge for Roxburgh’s 50th year

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The sounds of Africa will be brought to Kelso next month, as The Roxburgh Singers celebrate their 50th year with their most daring project to date.

The 52-strong choir will tackle David Fanshawe’s rollercoaster mass The African Sanctus on Saturday, May 18, at Kelso Old Parish Church, in what is a departure from its usual performances.

Musical director Marion Dodd said: “This is the hardest thing we have ever done. It is wild and frenetic, but we wanted to do something never before done in the Borders.”

The piece represents Fanshawe’s pilgrimage across the continent in 1969.

A composer and explorer, he decide to hitchhike with only a stereo tape-recorder, rucksack and camera, starting off in Egypt and ending up in Uganda.

Despite being arrested and having his equipment confiscated after the authorities in Cairo believed he was a spy, Fanshawe was later allowed to continue his journey, recording locals and their music along the way.

His final composition, which includes folk and rock music, was first performed by the Saltarello Choir in 1972 and earned reviews ranging from “unique”, “exhilarating” to an “Afro-Latin, tribal-choral masterpiece”.

Despite the death of Fanshawe two years ago, a couple of special guests are expected for May’s concert, which includes pupils from Melrose Grammar School, a tape of all the original African sounds and 300 slides of his journey.

“When he was alive, wherever it was being performed he went along, so his widow Jane and daughter Rachel are coming to introduce the concert,” added Marion, who previously performed with the BBC Singers before becoming a minister at Kelso Old Parish Church for more than 20 years.

“Several times I have thought ‘Are we mad to put this on?’, but at every rehearsal there has been a real buzz.”

Robert Scott, who has been part of the Singers since 1972, said: “It is really outwith our comfort zone.”

While The African Sanctus is its most challenging concert yet, The Roxburgh Singers still have a proud history.

They were founded in 1963 by the district schools musical director Eric Whitehead. His successor was Brian Bonsor MBE, Hawick’s gifted composer and teacher. Garett O’Brien took over as conductor before Marion stepped into his shoes in 1996, making her the longest serving musical director in Roxburgh Singers’ 50-year history.

Among a half-century of highlights include a 2008 performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Kelso’s Springwood Hall in front of 800 people, alongside a number of other local choirs.

Tenor Ian Watson, who has been a member for five years, said: “I have had tremendous enjoyment out of the choir. It is a great thing to sing and gives you a ­real buzz. I was so nervous the first time that I could barely open my mouth, but after gaining a little more confidence I have grown into it.”

As well as May’s show, a Come and Sing event is planned for October 5, with past and present members invited to perform Faure Requiem, at a venue that has yet to be confirmed.

Any former members who wish to join, or anyone seeking more information on The African Sanctus show, should contact Robert Scott on 01450 373975 or email scotiajambo@gmail.com.

Anyone with any photos or mementoes of the choir can contact Dorothy Graham on 01573 223964 or email dorothy_graham@hotmail.co.uk