Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Story Behind the Song, Ubuntu

I was contacted by Shawn Berry, the artistic director of The Young Singers of the Palm Beaches, in 2012 to write a commissioned piece for his 2013 Spring concert. His choir ranges in age from 8 to 18 years and when everyone is on stage, the singers are 350 strong. As a starting point for the commission, Shawn suggested I research the word, ubuntu, which was new to me. What a wonderful journey of discovery that was.

The concept of ubuntu comes from South Africa, where its philosophy has been practiced for years. A rough translation of the term is “I am because you are.” Another way to say it is, “A person is a person through other people.” Ubuntu celebrates the intrinsic worth of people. It encompasses spiritual attributes such as generosity, hospitality, compassion, kindness, sharing and caring. It promotes the concept that people are more important than things, profits or material possessions. We need other human beings for us to learn how to be human.

You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

I read an essay by a choral director who proposed that choirs are great examples of Ubuntu. Just one singer can’t produce the sound that a choir can, no matter how good their voice is. Each voice is an essential part of this “community of sound.” As we work together, balancing, listening, compromising and evolving, we are truly greater than the sum of our parts.

As I crafted the lyrics for this song, I used as many of these concepts as I could, because I really wanted the children to understand the heart of Ubuntu. I set it in a call and answer form with syncopated rhythms and easy to sing harmonies. It’s a very joyful piece. I had the good fortune to hear the world premiere in West Palm Beach, FL. The singers nailed it! They performed in bright costumes and used dancers from within the chorus to give it visual pizazz. Here is a video of their performance.

I encourage you to check out Ubuntu and see how it can build community in your choir!


Mark Hayes is an award-winning concert pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor. His personal catalog, totaling over 750 published works, includes pieces for solo voice, solo piano, multiple pianos, orchestra, jazz combo, small instrumental ensembles, and choruses of all kinds. He is honored to have his works regularly featured at ACDA, MENC, and Chorus America conventions. Mark received a Bachelor of Music degree summa cum laude in Piano Performance from Baylor University in 1975. He has conducted the SWACDA and MCDA Community and Church Honor Choirs and served as guest conductor at Carnegie Hall featuring his Te Deum and Magnificat. In 2010, Baylor University Center for Christian Music Studies awarded Mark the Award for Exemplary Leadership in Christian Music.

In addition to his involvement in the sacred and secular choral music fields, Hayes is increasingly sought after as an orchestrator and record producer. He is a recurring recipient of the Standard Award from ASCAP. The album I've Just Seen Jesus, which Mark arranged, orchestrated, and co-produced, received the Dove Award for Praise and Worship Album of the Year in 1986.

1 comment:

  1. My daughter's choir sang this song last week. Nowhere near the scale as the video above (maybe 40 kids in her grade), but it was the first I had ever heard of it and it brought tears to my eyes listening to all those 6th graders recite something that was at once so simple yet so full of wisdom. Loved every moment of it.