I’ve worked on a thousand musical projects in my lifetime. Some didn’t turn out so well – the result of myriad reasons. Most, gratefully, went well and we achieved what we set out to do. I’m always grateful for the high quality of professionals that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. They always make success possible.
Occasionally the outcome actually surpasses the dream. Yesterday I had such an experience.
Several months ago I was asked to produce a fascinating event for the annual meeting of a major international church. The concept, developed by executive producer, Norm Bleichman and me, was to go around the world and record various churches singing the beautiful South African hymn, “Siyahamba”.
(Watch the video we made… Siyahamba Project on YouTube)
Each location would sing a different verse or chorus and each would be sung to a track recorded in the style of music related to the culture. The music would then be assembled with video and performed at the church’s annual meeting with the “whole world” singing together in one grand finale.
Siyahamb’ ekukhanyen kwenkhos
Translated from the original Zulu, it means, “We are marching in the light of God.”
Some of you may have seen the wonderful video that raced around the internet based on the song, “Stand By Me”. If you saw this, you’ll understand the concept and the possibilities for high inspiration. If you haven’t seen it, check this out. It was the inspiration for the Siyahamba Project.
We put about half of the project together and performed a pilot for the board of directors of the church a couple of months ago and it went flawlessly – so flawlessly that at the end of the presentation there was such a deep sense of peace and promise that everyone just sat quietly for a long and sustained minute or two contemplating prayerfully what they had just seen. By the end of day we had a “go” on the project.
In the studio I then produced and orchestrated an 8 minute pre-recorded track of the song which moved through the various styles of music – folk, small church Fender Rhodes piano arrangement, large church 4 manual pipe organ arrangement, African instrumentation and Bossa Nova. It would end with full symphonic orchestra as the moment moved back into the original church for the grand finale with 2000 attendees singing.
We decided to kick it off and end the entire piece with Julia Wade, the mega-church soloist, opening and closing and setting the theme singing in Zulu. She would also conduct the 2000 attendees.
Laying the whole piece out in the studio was a massive undertaking. Keys and key changes had to be decided for 6 different congregations including children. I decided to stay with one constant tempo throughout in order to maintain the groove of the song and build the musical tension rising to the climax. It turned out to be a good choice. I also had to write transitions between each style of music making things work seamlessly and imagining the time it would take to move from place to place through the video.
Usually the video is finished and then the composer scores his music against the video, but in this case, because the video would not be shot until we went around the world, I had to imagine the moments and the timings and then the video would be laid in against the music. So in this project, the music was to be the master, not the picture.
We also had to develop a portable recording studio that I could carry with me in two hands. For budgetary reasons it was decided that I would attempt this by myself without an assistant and that I would need to both teach and conduct the church congregations and be the recording engineer and producer of the sessions at the same time. This is normally about a 4-person job. I decided, with the help of the good Lord and technical consultant, Noel Flatt, I would try to do this all myself. So I set off with Mac laptop, 2 excellent AKG 414 mics, mic pre-amp, headphones and cables all in two shoulder bags.
We decided to try to record the congregations with live speakers playing the tracks and rented the speakers at each location. Normally, this is not the way to record. For isolation purposes, one always uses headphones, but how could we possibly carry 200-300 sets of headphones for the congregations? This was probably the most difficult technical challenge of the project, because we had to keep the musical track coming from the speakers down to the lowest of levels so that each congregation would barely hear the track to sing with and we could keep the speaker sound out of the mics in order to isolate the voices. In the end result, it worked, but was extremely tricky in each location under constantly changing room acoustics.
Over the next couple of months I journeyed around the world recording six various churches – a Sunday school in Boston, a storefront church in San Juan Capistrano, California, a college youth organization in the Midwest, a church and African Township youth organization in Cape Town, South Africa, and a church in Sao Paulo, Brazil in South America. Besides each church’s designated verse or chorus I had them all also sing the finale choruses so that all voices would sing together at the annual meeting in Boston.
While we were recording each church we also either hired a local videographer whom we trusted or my fellow producer, Norm Bleichman came along and shot the sessions himself. Norm handled the coordination of this huge effort meticulously along with editor, Morgan Anderson, and that took a tremendous load off my already overloaded shoulders.
When the recording was done I brought the entire project back into my studio in NYC and dumped it all in my computers from the laptop. I have never done a piece of music with more than 60 tracks and I have produced some huge projects with full orchestra and chorus. Siyahamba was 190 tracks and required 3 Mac computers totally maxed out to mix the project.
I then spent 3 weeks meticulously cleaning and balancing voices, choosing takes, editing and re-balancing the voices with the original music tracks. I went back and forth to Boston from New York several times just to hear my mixes in this huge 3 domed church.
What I heard in the studio was just not what I heard in the church – the reverb in the church playing havoc with my mixes. The bottom, the bass, the bass drum and timpani became mush in the domed rooms and I had to re-think the mixes over and over again also trying to imagine what the presence of 2000 people in the room would do to the sound and adjust for that as well. In the end, we got it right.
In the end this 8-minute piece simply worked beyond expectation. I, along with my buddy Norm and many others, had poured 4 months into this unforgettable project, traveled around the world to 3 different continents, and met thousands of wonderful people who shared the same love and commitment for their church that unified us all. Then, for one incredible 8 minute stretch, we all sang together and loved one another.
Julia kicked it all off flawlessly setting the theme and then taking us into the journey. Our musical trip around the world elicited constant joy, appreciation for our fellow man, laughter and quite a few tears as we journeyed from place to place. Then it came time for the 2000 to sing. In an explosion of energy the entire congregation jumped to its feet and joined the world in song. The moment was one I shall never forget.
As I stood in the back of the church directing Tim Malone, the sound man, and the voices rose up together, I leaned back against the wall of the church and thought, “It worked.”
During the final singing of the finale I walked down one of the aisles and turned back and faced the congregation and watched the tears stream and the people hug and the voices unite. They blew the roof off that old church. And then Julia closed it down in quiet reverence to a silent prayer.
In that silent prayer, I stood and thanked God for this moment, for the gift of this idea, for the loving input of so many people. I thanked God that our dreams were realized. And I thanked God for the unifying spirit of people, the oneness of mankind, the love of these people for their church, for the goodness of all involved.
Technically, through the care and hard work of hundreds, we were flawless. How could it be otherwise with such an endeavor? Spiritually we went beyond the dream, beyond the imagination. The unifying effort of all took us there.
**If you’d like to watch the production of the Siyahamba Project on YouTube, please click on the link.