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Why Aberystwyth is the soundtrack for freedom across the continent of Africa; Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika is famous as an anthem of African unity, with variations adopted by countries across the continent. Yet few know it was initially written by a Welsh composer Dr Joseph Parry and called Aberystwyth, reports Sion Morgan.

WHEN Dr Joseph Parry, the famous Merthyr Tydfil-born composer died on February 17, 1903, he left behind a musical legacy which is still celebrated today.

In churches and chapels, thanks to the choral traditions of Wales and his many adoring fans in both this country and the USA, hymns like the famous Myfanwy and Aberystwyth are still sung by the masses.

Remarkably though that later composition, his ode to the West Wales town where, in 1874 he accepted a role as Professor of music at Aberystwyth University has since become an anthem for African unity, a symbol of strength against struggle, oppression and apartheid.

In 1897 Enoch Sontonga, a teacher at a Methodist mission school in Johannesburg took inspiration from Parry's work.

Aberystwyth had become a well-travelled hymn, its popularity had grown famous across many of the world's Christian continents through the work of the missionaries.

Sontonga created Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa), to the tune of Parry's Aberystwyth.

Just a week ago another piece of work by Joseph Parry was given its world premiere - almost 150 years after it was written.

Te Deum was performed in London by the London Welsh Chorale after being discovered by the choir's conductor Edward-Rhys Harry while researching the roots of Wales' choral tradition at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Through his research Mr Harry has also learnt about Parry's unlikely African connection.

"Parry was a big part of Wales' choral tradition as we know it today.

"Back then he was not only writing hymn tunes, he was also writing oratorios, and he would tour them across Wales.

"His music was a big hit, it was popular in Wales and in London.

"He was commissioned a lot by the National Eisteddfod.

"When he was putting these shows on you were talking about an audience of 10,000 people.

"By today's standards that is crazy."

Author Frank Bott has written extensively about Joseph Parry.

"He was a prolific writer of hymn tunes and he wrote the best-known of his hymn tunes, Aberystwyth, during his time in the town," Mr Bott said.

"It is said to have been first sung in 1879 at the English Congregational Church in Portland Street and it was probably written in that year.

"The church is now a GP surgery and carries a plaque commemorating the performance.

"The tune was published in the same year in a collection by Stephen & Jones called Ail "Lyfr Tonau ac Emynau" (Second Book of Tunes and Hymns) and it rapidly became popular and carried the name of the town around the English-speaking world.

"It was sung as a tune for the Welsh hymn "Beth sydd i mi yn y byd" and, in English-speaking churches, for Charles Wesley's well-known hymn "Jesu, lover of my soul."

However, so little is known about Parry and his work that there are other accounts of Aberystwyth's history.

Conductor Edward-Rhys Harry believes Parry would have written Aberystwyth in the late 1860s or early 1870s.

"I have a suspicion that it was written when Parry was an organist in Swansea and not in Aberystwyth," he said.

"He moved from Aberystwyth to form a new music college in Swansea and simultaneously was taken on as an organist in a church in the town centre.

"They wanted him to write new hymns all the time, in fact at one point he was writing a new tune every week for them.

"This was around the time of the Welsh Union of Independent Churches and Parry's best work would be published in a local hymn book.

"I suspect that the hymn was subsequently taken to Africa by the Welsh missionaries.

"We know the missionaries were taking out our hymn books from about 1872 onwards."

Mr Harry added: "Presumably Aberystwyth was one of the hymns that they used in the African churches, probably because it is very easy to learn and is memorable.

"It also fits very well with African music.

"It moved in step motion, its almost written in a way where you can guess how some of the phrases end, once you've got it you've got it.

"Parry's music was catchy and memorable."

Robin Denselow, author of When The Music's Over: The Story of Political Pop and world music critic with the Guardian newspaper has been forever fascinated with Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika.

He said: "The song has had an extraordinary career which surely would have amazed the man who wrote the first verse and chorus back in 1897 when he was just 24.

"I didn't know how Aberystwyth got to the Johannesburg mission school where Sontonga was teaching, but always assumed there must have been a Welsh teacher there who sang it.

"Enoch Sontonga was a teacher who worked in the methodist mission school near Johannesburg.

"He was a keen photographer, and one picture of him that has survived shows a rather solemn, neatly dressed young man in a suit, waistcoat and tall brimmed hat.

"He was also a choirmaster and wrote Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika for his own school choir.

"The song was first performed in public in 1899 at the ordination of a Methodist minister."

In 1927, seven more Xhosa stanzas were added to the anthem by poet Samuel Mqhayi.

The song became a pan-African liberation anthem adopted by black South Africans during the apartheid era.

Its significance was maybe demonstrated best when sung by a crowd of thousands when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's president in 1994.

And in 1995 Nelson Mandela used the anthem (and rugby) to unite his people in post-apartheid South Africa.

The Springboks were seen as a symbol of apartheid.

Their 16-stone blond players represented the essence of white domination and rugby matches would be accompanied by the Afrikaaner national anthem Die Stem.

Realising the game's unifying potential early in his 27-year imprisonment, Mandela taught himself Afrikaans and boned up on rugby so that he could talk to his Robben Island prison guards.

Later, as the country's president, Mandela persuaded the Springboks to learn Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, now considered "the black national anthem," with a white, female elocution coach to teach them the correct Xhosa pronunciation.

From then on both anthems were sung at matches, and when, with the entire stadium chanting "Nelson, Nelson," Mandela presented Springbok captain Francois Pienaar with the World Cup in 1995, not only were the 62,000 spectators in the stadium behind him, but also the 46million South Africans of the new Rainbow Nation.

In 1996 a shortened, combined version of the two anthems was released as the new national anthem which remains the same today.

In fact, since it was composed, the song has been adopted as the national anthem of five countries in Africa including Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe after independence.

Robin Denselow said: "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika will forever be associated with the history of Nelson Mandela, but there were several other African states that had already nipped in to make use of the song.

"It had become the national anthem of Tanganyika in 1961 and then for the new Tanzania in 1964.

"The lyrics there were changed to 'God bless Tanzania'.

"The melody was also used by Zambia where the words were changed to 'stand and sing in Zambia, proud and free'.

"It even became the national anthem in Zimbabwe before it was replaced in 1994 for not being sufficiently Zimbabwean."

Today the anthem is still used throughout the continent during times of upheaval and political struggle.

Only last week in Swaziland a protest against salary cuts by teachers and civil servants was led by a rendition of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika.

When asked to stop president of the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU), Quinton Dlamini was quoted as saying: "I will never stop singing that song as it advocates for freedom."

The great, modern day, singer songwriter Paul Simon - whose seminal album Graceland was heavily influenced by South Africa famously sang Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika at a concert in London's Royal Albert Hall 25 years ago.

African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who featured on Simon's Graceland also sing the song during every concert.

Group leader Joseph Shabalala says he first heard it in the apartheid-era when he was a farm boy in Nuttall.

He said: "The song itself is very important, it is like a prayer, for peace, love and harmony because at that time the situation in South Africa was not equal.

"There are many songs with similar themes but this one reaches everybody, to pray to God to open the minds of South Africa."

Enoch Sontonga died in 1905, aged 33, two years after Joesph Parry died at the age of 61. Today Sontonga's grave is dedicated as a national monument which was officially opened by Nelson Mandela some 15 years ago.

In 1997 South Africa celebrated the centenary of Nkosi with special performances and the creation of a stamp issued in Sontonga's honour.

He and Joseph Parry died unaware of how their tune would manifest and grow as it became one of the world's great political songs, a call for hope and liberation that has gone beyond national boundaries, across Africa and the world.

A HYMN TUNE GOES ON SAFARI Joseph Parry's hymn Aberystwyth and Enoch Sontonga's original first verse and chorus have manifested and been adopted throughout Africa. Here are some of the versions.

LANGUAGE: Xhosa LYRICS: Nkosi sikelel'' iAfrika Maluphakanyisw'' uphondo lwayo.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: God bless Africa. Raise high its glory.

LANGUAGE: Zulu LYRICS: Yizwa imithandazo yethu, Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Hear our prayers. God bless us, your children.

LANGUAGE: Sesotho LYRICS: Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso, O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho, O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso, Setjhaba sa, South Afrika - South Afrika.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: God, we ask You to protect our nation Intervene and end all conflicts Protect us, protect our nation, Nation of South Africa - South Africa.

LANGUAGE: Afrikaans LYRICS: Uit die blou van onse hemel, Uit die diepte van ons see, Oor ons ewige gebergtes, Waar die kranse antwoord gee.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Ringing out from our blue heavens, From our deep seas breaking round, Over everlasting mountains, Where the echoing crags resound.

LANGUAGE: English LYRICS: Sounds the call to come together, And united we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom. In South Africa our land.

CAPTION(S):

* Dr Joseph Parry, the Merthyr Tydfil-born composer of the hymn tune Aberystwyth and, above right, Nelson Mandela at whose inauguration the liberation anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika was sung to the tune of Aberystwyth
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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