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History of Hymns: “Amen Siakudumisa”  (“Amen, We Praise Your Name”)

by C. Michael Hawn

"Amen Siakudumisa" ("Amen, We Praise Your Name")
Stephen Cuthbert Molefe
The Faith We Sing, No. 2067

“Amen siyakudumisa. (Amen, we praise your name)
Amen, Bawo; Amen Bawo; (Amen Father)
Amen siyakudumisa. (Amen, we praise your name)”*


We know this composition by Stephen Cuthbert Molefe (1917-1987) through the work of David Dargie (b. 1937), one of South Africa’s most influential ethnomusicologists. 

A Roman Catholic priest for many years, Fr. Dargie observed that many priests resorted to using European or North American melodies they knew and ignored the rich heritage of South African music, especially the music of the Xhosa and Zulu peoples. For example, the venerable Latin chant “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” (a communion hymn attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas), was sung in one parish to “My Darling Clementine”! 

For Fr. Dargie, a white South African of Scots-Irish lineage, part of the liberation of black South Africans from the political oppression of apartheid was to encourage them to sing their Christian faith with their own music rather than in the musical idioms of their colonial oppressors. 

In the decades immediately following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Fr. Dargie was among many who encouraged Africans to find their own voice in congregational singing. He sponsored workshops throughout southern Africa with indigenous musicians, giving them specific texts from the Mass and asking them to compose music to fit the melodic contour and rhythmic structure of the words. 

Since most African languages are tonal, a melodic shape emerges directly from speaking the text. Stephen Molefe was among the first South African musicians that Fr. Dargie worked with in these workshops. 

Molefe was born of Sotho descent in the Transkei area of the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. A choirmaster at the Catholic Church, he was not only a skilled musician but also fluent in a variety of South African languages including Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Afrikaans and English. 

Fr. Dargie met Molefe in 1977 at a composition workshop and transcribed a number of his works into staff notation. They include a wide variety of musical styles, “Masithi-Amen” being among the simplest. 

The 1977 workshop netted 53 new songs, 14 of which were composed by Molefe. The original version was “Sive-sithi Amen, siyakudumisa” (“Hear us we say, Amen, we praise you”). Designed to be sung as the “Amen” at the conclusion of the Great Thanksgiving (the Eucharist liturgy), it was an instant hit, with the whole parish singing it at Holy Week services. “Amen, Siakudumisa” is included very often in Western hymnal collections alongside famous South African freedom songs like “Siyahamba.” 

In 1978, Molefe was attacked, robbed and struck with a brick to the head. He started to go blind after that, and was unable to work again. Molefe died in 1987. 

I also heard this song used in Methodist churches in South Africa in fall 1998. Rather than the “Amen” of the Great Thanksgiving, it was sung as a doxology or response to the psalm. 

The parallel harmonies (parallel fifths and octaves especially) provide a distinctive African harmonization. In South Africa the song is often accompanied on marimbas with an underlying 123-123-12 beat. Since this song is of Xhosa origin, drums are not as commonly used. Handclaps on two dotted quarters followed by a quarter-note beat are appropriate. 

The bass line continues over the ends of phrases along with the “Masithi” solo voice. This is very common in African music. In practice, the South African choir improvises a “counterpoint” with the congregation (the part in the hymnal) for a full and exciting effect. 

As is the case with most African music, the written score provides only the scantest outline. Improvisation is a key component of oral tradition. 
 


*©1977 Lumko Institute; Germantown, South Africa. Used by permission. 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns