Musician celebrates 50 years as priest

Shona religious music composer Father Emmanuel Ribeiro celebrates his 50th anniversary as a Roman Catholic priest this week.

Fr Emmanuel Ribiero: composed 17 vernacular church songs.
Fr Emmanuel Ribiero: composed 17 vernacular church songs.

Ribeiro introduced vernacular songs and African musical instruments into the Catholic Church in the 1960s, in the wake of Vatican Council II, which opened up catholic rituals to indigenous languages. He was the forefront of the global movement to make the mass locally relevant and understandable to the ordinary person. At the time, all catholic mass services were conducted in Latin.

A veteran cleric at the St Marys Old Highfield branch of the church, Ribeiro told The Zimbabwean he discovered long back that was little understanding of or participation by blacks in church proceedings presented in Latin.

Drums and hosho

This led him to blend African traditional music instruments, the beating drums and shakers (Hosho), into church songs in 1961 so that the local churchgoers would identify more with the gospel.

After graduating from Gweru Teacher’s College in 1959, Ribeiro wondered what would become of religious songs if foreigners decided to leave the country at some stage. He was convinced that if other languages could be turned into music, local languages should be treated the same. This became the centre of his ethnomusicology. His passion for indigenous religious rituals motivated Ribeiro to devote his time to composing songs that identified with local society and culture.

“The fact that locals joined in church songs and rituals they did not understand because of the foreign languages worried me for years. Exclusion of the thinking and religious input of locals forced me to pursue the idea of introducing a medium that would empower indigenous people participate comfortably in religious activities,” said Ribeiro.

Vatican Council

He said the idea had its origins in Pope John the 22nd who in 1958, during preparations for the second Vatican Council, suggested that indigenous thoughts and the best t of local songs be taken on board by the church.

Bishop Alois Heane of the Gweru Diocese later took up the challenge and urged Ribeiro and others, then student teachers at Gweru, to do research and come up with Shona rituals that could be infused into the songs.

Together with a friend, Stephen Ponde, Ribeiro went on to do the required research among local communities. They came up with a Shona play ‘Chitambochepanyika’ a translation from a Spanish act, reflective of social struggles by the poor and lifestyles across all walks of life.

The Diocese later brought in a musicologist to help indigenise church songs. According to Ribeiro, religious songs had Western thought, rhythm and timeline despite Africans having their own musical timelines and ideas.

You and me

The garment covering Christianity when introduced to Zimbabwe, Ribero said, had to be removed as communication between the West and Africans was based on ‘you and me, not us’.

After he was ordained priest in 1964, Ribeiro became director responsible for coordinating activities to do with the composing of African music to be incorporated into religious songs. People from all corners of the country with a passion for music made submissions of their local songs to the project.

In 1962 he was sent for nine months of private music studies, and then spent some years in Mhondoro composing the songs.

Born in 1935 in Chivhu, Ribeiro attended Kutama Mission secondary school, Gokomere and Gweru Teachers College. He studied Theology at Chishawasha before doing further studies for a bachelors degree and masters in music at Bloomington College of Music in the United States of America.

During his music career spanning over 60 years, Ribeiro composed 17 church songs including Mambo Mwari Wa masimba and Tauya Nozvipo Zvo Mupiro. He was also involved in projects to do with the composition of important music such as the national anthem. From 1967-1983 he was chaplain with the government Prison Services. The outspoken clergyman urged youths to preserve the African culture and desist from adopting Western and other foreign cultures without thoroughly studying their backgrounds.

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