In the historic town of Carrión de los Condes in northern Spain, a diverse group of weary guests gathered in the vestibule of the albergue (pilgrim hostel) at the convent of Santa María to join some of the nuns for an evening sing-along before the nightly Pilgrim Mass. Most of us were strangers, united only by walking the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, to the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, still more than 400 kilometres ahead. Song sheets were distributed, a guitar produced, a few well known songs sung, and introductions made around the circle as we each described where we were from and why we were walking the Camino. We were invited to sing songs from our own countries, so a South African pilgrim and I offered a brief rendition of “Senzeni Na”, a protest song from apartheid days. And therein lies a musical tale spanning continents and cultures.
My new friend and I had met on the road a day earlier. That evening, at a little outdoor café in Frómista, along with fellow pilgrims from Brazil, Denmark, United States and Italy, the conversation had turned to music and I asked if she knew “Senzeni Na” which, of course, she did. The song was fresh in my mind since our little church choir in Halifax had learned it for African Heritage Month, not long before I left for Spain. Despite the Zulu words I’d recognized the tune as a familiar Welsh melody and been intrigued whether that was just coincidence, or a crossing between cultures somehow. After all, anyone who has watched the musical duelling in the 1964 movie “Zulu” will know that Welsh and Zulu cultures both include a strong tradition of male voice singing. One of my favorite lines is a besieged Welsh soldier’s assessment of the overwhelming Zulu army that’s singing a war chant before launching its final assault: “They’ve got a very good bass section mind, but no top tenors, that’s for sure”.
Since then I’ve remained intrigued by the possible link between the two tunes. I can find no information about the origins of “Senzeni Na”, other than that it first surfaced in the 1950s and rose to become an iconic anti-apartheid anthem, much as “We Shall Overcome” became in the United States. The title means “What have we done?”, a question answered by the second line: “Our sin is that we are black.” It has been sung in both the Zulu and Xhosa languages.
The history of the Welsh tune is more readily tracked down. In about 1860 it was composed as a chant by A.H.D (Acland) Troyte, a minor member of the English nobility, and known as “Troyte’s Chant No. 1.” In the years since, more than fifty hymnals have included it for use with various texts. In the mid-twentieth century it was used to set a Welsh Christmas poem, Carol Gŵr y Llety (Innkeeper’s Carol) to music. Then it was adopted for “Eli Jenkins’ Prayer” or “Sunset Prayer”, written by Dylan Thomas in the 1950s as part of a radio play called “Under Milk Wood”. That’s about the same time “Senzeni Na” first appeared in South Africa. Although the tune might have been transmitted much earlier through the Welsh community resident in South Africa since the 19th Century, it seems equally likely that someone heard it on the radio in the 1950s, just when a memorable, harmonic melody was needed for a protest song. Either way, for this Canadian of Welsh heritage, joining a South African singing to a multinational band of pilgrims in a Spanish convent remains yet another fond memory of the joys of common humanity.
I’ll leave you to decide for yourself if the tunes are the same. There are lovely versions of both online: Senzeni Na by the Cape Town Youth Choir and Eli Jenkins’ Prayer, appropriately enough, by the Welsh Male Voice Choir of South Africa.
Across continents, across cultures, across the years, may music continue to be one of the many things that draws us all together.