Patrick Matsikenyiri, AU's first choirmaster, shared faith, talent

Dr. Patrick Matsikenyiri, AU's first choirmaster, established one of the first college level music education programs in southern Africa.

Patrick Matsikenyiri, Africa University’s first choirmaster, died on Jan. 15 in Mutare, Zimbabwe, from complications of COVID-19. Described by many as “a gentle giant,” he touched many lives throughout his 83 years.

Matsikenyiri’s career, said friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. C. Michael Hawn, encompassed “virtually all aspects of church music – singing, choral directing, composition, hymnal editor, festival leader, professor and enlivener of global songs in venues around the world.”

Born in Biriiri, Zimbabwe, Matsikenyiri served as the conference music director for The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe (1968-90). As a school headmaster for many years, he was involved in Zimbabwe’s movement for black majority rule. In 1990, he went to the United States to study music at Shenandoah University, Winchester, Virginia.

‘Gentle giant’ influenced the global church as a singer, choral director, composer, hymnal editor, festival leader and professor.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education, Matsikenyiri returned to his home country in 1993 to head the music department of the newly opened Africa University. He developed a four-year music major and established one of the first college-level music education programs in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The idea of teacher training was fundamental to him,” Hawn said. “He realized the value that music could add to people's lives and how music would enrich their worship.”

Matsikenyiri composed songs that became staples of the repertoire and identity of Africa University. The Dream, first performed at the official opening of AU in 1994, is still sung today. Another favorite is Jesu, Tawa Pano (Jesus, We Are Here).

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia A. Wilson, executive director of worship resources and director of liturgical resources at Discipleship Ministries, met Masikenyiri during the first years of fundraising for Africa University through the school’s U.S.-based Development Office.

“I received an invitation to perform as guest artist for the first fundraiser for the soon-to-be-born Africa University at Old Mutare, Zimbabwe,” she said. “The fundraiser was held in the valley of Old Mutare, Zimbabwe, where the university is presently situated.”

The AU Chamber Choir with Dr. Matsikenyiri prior to its departure for the USA in 2000.In 1996, Matsikenyiri launched the first of many annual tours by the Africa University Chamber Choir to the United States. Wilson was honored to perform and raise funds with Matsikenyiri and the choir on local, jurisdictional and general church levels.

Matsikenyiri’s music ministry, Wilson said, “introduced a myriad of indigenous peoples from the continent to United Methodist ways of singing, worshipping and praising in the United States. At the same time, he deeply enriched the sacred song life all over America. We will always be grateful to this gifted minstrel for planting the seeds of life and liturgy across the continent of Africa.”

Dr. Matsikenyiri performing the AU anthem, "The Dream" at the institution's 20th anniversary celebrations.

Hawn, university distinguished professor emeritus of church music at Perkins School of Theology, met Matsikenyiri in 1994. Four years later, on sabbatical in Zimbabwe, Hawn watched Matsikenyiri prepare a global choir for the World Council of Churches assembly. The choir included members from all over the world, but primarily from different African countries and tribal groups. Hawn noted Matsikenyiri’s ability to deal “graciously but firmly with some of the regional differences that emerged due to customs and politics.”

Africa University choir alumni described Matsikenyiri as “a great mentor, visionary songwriter, performer and crooner” whose passion for music and animated performances left an indelible impression. His “positive energy, theatrics, music prowess, mentorship, wise counsel and generous fatherly love,” they said, inspired several to become choirmasters.

AU choir alumnus the Rev. Claudine Leary came to the university as a refugee from Rwanda. Today, she is an elder in the West Ohio Annual Conference and directs development at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

“Being part of Patrick Matsikenyiri's choir was one of my highlights at Africa University,” Leary said. “His energy and enthusiasm were contagious. He taught us to bring all we have to everything we do. He was also committed to our etiquette, character, and professionalism as singers and as students of a United Methodist institution."

Matsikenyiri influence was felt particularly through the Africa Praise Songbook (1998), complete with a CD prepared by the Africa University choir. He contributed songs to the three volumes of “Global Praise.” With Maggie Hamilton, he edited Sing! Imba! Hlabela! Zimbabwe: Short Songs and New Compositions from Zimbabwean Churches (1998) in the U.K. He was the first person from the African continent to receive the honor of Fellow of The Hymn Society.

After retiring from Africa University in 2002, Matsikenyiri was a guest lecturer at several U.S. institutions.

The Rev. Dan C. Damon met Matsikenyiri at Africa University while touring with the Jubilate Choir from the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. “I was chaplain and hymnwriter for the choir,” Damon said. “We became friends and started compiling and editing the Abingdon 2006 collection called Njalo (Always): A Collection of 16 Hymns in the African Tradition. Matsikenyiri’s church choir, St. Peter’s UMC in Mutare, recorded the songs.

“Patrick knew all four parts of the songs by memory and could sing them into the phone,” Damon said. “It was a thrill to work with him. He made me want to sing. His spirit filled me with joy.”

“Speaking from my experience as a church music seminary professor,” Hawn said, “bringing music to the students, worship, ceremonial events and an institution's general spirit is a tremendous asset. It adds beauty, community and praise to the intense study and hard work of theological education. This is what I think Patrick did for Africa University."

He added, “Patrick was the melody line that gave voice to The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe through his teaching, singing, song leading and compositions.”

Story by freelance writer, Barbara Dunlap-Berg