Sr. Phatsimo Veronica Ramokgwebana – Gaborone, Botswana
This prestigious choir festival was founded in 2010 by Bishop Emeritus Valentine Seane to encourage the growth and quality of liturgical hymns in the diocese as well as the accurate notation of hymns. The festival also places emphasis on original compositions and vocal harmony. According to the organisers, the festival has had a positive influence on liturgies and an articulation of artistic Setswana rhythmic sounds. The unique Setswana Catholic hymns create a sound that gives the right feel to the songs, evoking powerful emotions.
The Diocesan Choir Conductors Forum
In an interview with the Chairperson of the Diocese of Gaborone’s Choir Conductors Forum, Mr Oarabile Bafitlhile said that each year the Forum meets and decides on several songs that they then recommend for various parish and diocesan liturgies.
The choir festival
The Gaborone Diocesan Choir festival is composed of various categories such as that of the youth; new choirs still developing and then there are the standard categories. Bafitlhile said there are no restrictions on the number of persons each choir can have.
Choirs compose songs based on a free selection from each group’s own repertoire of various parts of the Holy Mass. For example, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Psalms, and so forth. The choirs, however, keep the hymns’ notation in four parts harmony.
The adjudicators at the festival are Catholic experts of music who are also well versed in the Catholic norms of the liturgy. Among other tasks, the judges ensure that during the presentation of songs, choirs enhance liturgical appropriateness.
“The Bishop (at the time) made it very clear that he wanted the rich Setswana rhythms to be sung at different Masses, in different parishes and when we have High Masses in our diocese,” recalled Bafitlhile.
Over the past nine years, the festival has grown in leaps and bounds and is popular with both Catholics and non-Catholics –judging by the choirs participating and the growing attendance.
Promoting Catholic melodies
“We, as the (Catholic) church, have to make sure that we conserve that which we have as our Catholic hymns. The idea behind notating music is to guide our new generation of young people. With proper notation, the hymns can correctly be sung anywhere.” Bafitlhile also says there is concern that sometimes parishes just pick popular choruses from non-Catholics and introduce these in their own liturgical services. The diocese wishes to preserve Catholic identity even through hymns, he emphasised.
Bafitlhile is nevertheless pleased that “since the inception of this festival we have seen a lot of villages and outstations now having their own choirs and they know exactly what to do. This is very encouraging to us,” he said.
Need for a continental Catholic exchange
Bafithile would wish for other people in Africa to visit the Gaborone festival so that there would be an actual continental cultural exchange of Catholic liturgical hymns.
“I wish each and every diocese (in Africa) could do the same, and we would then have an international festival where we would meet, let’s say in Botswana, Ghana or in Nigeria or wherever because through healthy competition, our Catholic Church hymns would grow (and be widely appreciated),” Bafithile said.
The Gaborone choir festival organisers are very clear about their ultimate aims.
“The message from the Pope is very clear: Church choirs we must make sure that we keep the Church alive and we must make sure that we don’t make the congregants be spectators; we must make sure that they take part. We are not there to put up a Show in the Mass, but rather we must make sure that we touch the souls and we make sure that the whole congregation sings along with the choir. That is what we want to do as Gaborone Diocese,” Bafitlhile said.