Friday, December 25, 2015

Betelehemu - Origin, Translation, Performance Practice

The song Betelehemu (Babatunde Olatunji, arr. Wendell Whalum) has earned its place in Christmas choral literature over the past two decades ever since Barrington Brooks arranged it for SATB choir and it was published by Lawson-Gould/Warner Bros. in 1994.

Origins (via on November 23, 1999)

Thanks to all who responded with information about Wendell Whalum's
arrangement of the Nigerian Christmas song "Betelehemu." Though there are
still some sleuths out there working on leads, I think I have enough to piece
together the story.

Babatunde Olatunji was a student at Atlanta's Morehouse College during the
mid-1950s (he came from Nigeria on a Rotary scholarship). Wendell Whalum was
the choir director, and Olatunji gave him "Betelehemu," which Whalum arranged
the way we still hear and perform it today. So, the piece came to Whalum
"Via" (by way of) Olatunji, as is printed in the arrangement (though I have
to say it's a bit confusing, since "Via" is printed to look like the
composer's first name).

What's not clear is whether this was an original piece by Olatunji or simply
a traditional song that Olatunji taught to or transcribed for Whalum. The
latter is probably true, though if I learn more about it, I'll post it to the

If you'd like to know more about Olatunji, there's an entry in the website of
the Encyclopedia of African Music:

Submitted by Frank Albinder, Music Director, Washington Men's Camerata (FSAlbinder(a)

Babatunde's Influence on Drumming: (from

Baba was the single most important contributor to the popularization of African hand drumming in the United States. Baba created the popular Gun-Dun, Go-Do, Pa-Ta method of learning drum patterns in which these spoken sounds were able to help recall the sounds made on most hand drums -- with the Gun-Dun denoting the bass notes played with right and left hands; the Go-Do denoting the open tones; and the Pa-Ta denoting the slaps. This simple method revolutionized the learning rate for thousands of hand drum students in the West.
Baba's Beginner's Drumming Exercises:

Translation (from

Translation of "Betelehemu"
(Olatunji, Via) - arr. Wendall Whalum
We are glad that we have a Father to trust.
We are glad that we have a Father to rely upon
Where was Jesus born?
Where was He born?
Bethlehem, the city of wonder.
That is where the Father was born for sure.
Praise, praise, praise be to Him.
We thank thee, we thank Thee, we thank Thee for this day,
Gracious Father.
Praise, praise, praise be to Thee,
Merciful Father.

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