Convergence of love, music at Festival of Praise
When the annual Festival of Praise, an Abuja-based concert of Christian music, marked its tenth anniversary last year many in the audience were surprised at the high standard of performance. They were surprised because the organisers put together a world class event that reflected expertise gained from its regularity and length of existence, even though many of them were hearing of it for the first time. Chairman of the organising committee, PROFESSOR JERRY GANA, a former Minister of Information explained the background and operations of the event in a conversation with LINDSAY BARRETT.
How did the festival commence and who originated the idea?
The proposal, I must confess, first came from General T.Y. Danjuma, when I organised the wedding ceremony of my son in 2006, by way of appreciation for the performance of choral singing at the ceremony, which was very special. I love music and a wedding ceremony is meant for celebration. There were several choirs there, including one that was organised by the wife of the then German Ambassador to Nigeria, a very special lady, and their singing was just marvelous.
Danjuma was pleased with the performances and he said to me that maybe we should consider making the public performance of these choirs an annual affair. I didn’t take the suggestion that seriously until I organised my daughter’s wedding in 2007 and then the performances were of even higher quality.
After this, the General repeated the suggestion to me and made it plain that he was very serious about it. So, I prepared a memorandum for him in which I suggested that the event could be called a “Festival of Praise”. He approved and we started that year.
So, I must admit the idea was entirely his but I have been the organiser along with some dedicated helpers like John Dara, who has been a constant and very devoted member of the planning committee. My son, Joshua has also been a committed participant in organising the events alongside so many people, who have exhibited profound commitment.
Right from the start, we decided that it would be a non-denominational event. It is a Christian event but one that welcomes people from all denominations and we want people to enjoy the seasonal spirit, so, we do not make the participation of the clergy a central aspect of the event but rather we make the laymen officiate more as a deliberate policy. We want all denominations to participate and feel welcome. If you love Jesus and you love music the Festival is for you.
How did General Yakubu Gowon become involved with the event?
General Gowon has been very consistent in attending the festival because he and his wife, apart from being very devout Christians, also love church music. I think he only missed the first two editions of the festival and for the last eight years, sometimes he has been the special guest of honour and other times, he has been the chairman. In fact, although I am the Chairman of the organising committee I think we all recognise General Gowon as the chairman of the festival. Now we have developed a tradition of having state officials as special guests of honour. The Vice President was the special guest for this year and the Taraba State Governor also graced the occasion.
What are criteria for selecting participants?
Well, it takes a lot of work. Right from the start we set a high standard. We wanted only the very best of the choirs available in and around the capital territory to participate. That is the major criteria. We decided that there would be a very painstaking process of selection and that only the very best performers would participate in the festival. They are largely church-based choirs. This keeps them busy throughout the year. It would be difficult for us to sustain groups just for the purpose of performing at the event.
So, we initiated a process of listening and judging the groups on a professional basis throughout the year. It has helped to refine and improve church singing in the capital and nearby states as well and this has become an important element in preparing for the festival.
You will have noticed that there was a group from Minna, the Minna Choral Society, which was organised by Professor Ndagi. It developed out of association with our event from a church-based choir into a very professional performing unit that visits various venues and performs for a wider audience now. There is also the Abuja Choral Society led by our musical director.
These groups form the central chore of the massed choir but the majority of the performers belong to the church-based groups. About six months before the date for the festival, we select the material that will be performed and we hold meetings with the choirmasters and conductors.
The programme is put together and rehearsals begin first in separate sessions where they are visited by the musical director whenever it is convenient. The rehearsals are intense even though they are done separately in the home bases of the choirs. They come together in Abuja just three days before the festival for intense collective rehearsals.
How is the symphony orchestra sustained throughout the year?
The symphony orchestra that you heard this year is actually maintained and domiciled by us here in Abuja. In the past, we used to bring a symphony orchestra from Lagos, where it was sustained by the MUSON Centre but that proved to be very costly. So, from last year, we decided to train and build our own symphony with a core of instrumentalists who belong to the Apostolic Faith Church. We are very lucky that we linked up with an expert music tutor from Berlin who has visited us several times to train the group and he has done a wonderful job of turning them into a very professional ensemble, as I am sure you must have noticed. We are very happy with their progress and we expect them to become even better in the future.
What does the future hold for the festival?
Before I discuss the future of the festival, I want to express my gratitude to General Danjuma for his very serious commitment to the event in the past. It is all well and good talking about our organisational efforts but without the deployment of substantial resources without any hesitancy, which he has provided right from the initial edition of the event, we could not have sustained it.
In fact, sometimes when I forget or delay to discuss the arrangements for the festival he calls me and asks what our plans are. He is always ready to discuss the plans for the event and never hesitates when it calls for resources to improve the standard.
One year when we removed the venue from the International Conference Centre to the Air Force Complex, people wrote to him to complain because most of our regular followers realised that he is the driving force behind the festival. So now we are back at the International Conference Centre, at least, until one day when we might have a purpose-built venue in Abuja. For the future, we hope that it will develop a life of its own and that others will join General Danjuma’s efforts to ensure that this wonderful event grows even more successful, and of course as Christians, we believe the future belongs to God.
In this connection, it will be appropriate to mention that John Dara also told me that General Danjuma’s purpose for supporting this event includes his belief that Christians in the capital territory and surrounding states should re-affirm their faith through collective praise at least once a year and that this is one of the major motivations for his support for the ‘Festival of Praise.’
• Barrett, a journalist, photographer and poet, lives in Yenagoa