Baba Yetu

To get Vox Singulae off on the right foot, I wanted to cover a song that was both classic and challenging, that would help to define expectations for the channel moving forward. It needed to be ambitious enough that I could learn something, but not so difficult that it was out of reach for my amateur vocal instrument. I wanted something that would lend itself to a purely vocal treatment, without necessarily being a choral piece. And I wanted to sing something fun.

All the signs pointed to Baba Yetu, Christopher Tin’s Grammy-winning theme song for Civilization IV.


Because Baba Yetu is such an iconic song (can songs be iconic? doesn’t “icon” imply a visual element?), there are a large number of scores readily available. I used ember4242’s score from Musescore, which appears to be a direct copy of the official licensed score at JW Pepper’s site. JW Pepper also has a “listen” feature that lets you listen to the arrangement you are about to buy, which I relied on very, very heavily.

I’m very much an alto, though my comfortable range extends down to D3 and up to A5. Naturally, singing at the edges doesn’t sound or feel very good, so I don’t like to spend a lot of time there. The score calls for SSAATTBB voices. (For non-musicians, that means two groups each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.) Range limitations immediately wiped out the three lower parts. The version you hear here is an SSAAT arrangement, with one solo alto line and one solo tenor line, for a total of seven distinct parts. Two vocal percussion lines bring us up to nine parts. DOUBLE CHECK.

I set up my little singing station in my room.

001a Singing Station.png

I hit record, and then I play the demo on the JW Pepper site, and I sing each line into Pro Tools.

The Alto Line

Senior year of college, I joined a choir where I sang alto 2. It was my first choral experience, and everything I know about choirs, I learnt that senior year. We were a very, very small choir, and there were only two alto 2s. There was no place to hide — you had to nail every note, and loud. You’d think this would make me very good at holding an alto line, but no: I am still absolutely terrible at it.

I could not, for the life of me, hold the alto lines of Baba Yetu while listening to the other lines. I found myself veering into the soprano or tenor lines, wanting to do anything except sing the harmonising note.

For some reason, I had it in my head that the song was sung at 88 beats per minute, so I created a click track at 88 bpm and sang the alto lines to it, without the interfering influence of the other parts. Then, when I tried to line up the alto tracks with the existing soprano and tenor lines, I discovered that the tempo indication is in fact 92 bpm.

So… Time Shift to the rescue. I painstakingly time-shifted all the alto tracks to line up with the soprano and tenor tracks. It’s not as simple as just time-shifting the entire Pro Tools region to be in line with the soprano and tenor tracks. The key is that you want the downbeat of each bar and each phrase to line up with all the others, which means that you want to split the region into multiple smaller regions, each one consisting of one phrase. Then, you time-shift each of those smaller regions to match their soprano and tenor counterparts.

Improvisation and covering a classic

So you put some music on, and you sing along to it, and somewhere along the way you start riffing over it, and you think, dang, that sounds so good — I should do a cover of it or something. (I don’t know, does anyone else think like that, or is it just me? Maybe it’s just me…)

Baba Yetu is a song I’ve listened to so many times, and sung along to so many times, that I thought improvising over it would be easy.

When it came time to record Baba Yetu, though, I found myself too scared, too in awe of the song, to try anything funny or interesting with it. It’s such a classic song, I just didn’t want to do anything to it. I felt like I had to prove that I could do a straight cover of it first, and then maybe at a later date, at a later time, I could do a cover involving more improvisation, incorporating more of my own musical ideas into it. ‘

I think that when a song is this famous, listeners expect to hear something familiar. I didn’t want to mess around with that.

That said, there’s one place I improvised a little something that isn’t in the score, and that’s the solo alto line at 2:01. The line isn’t in the symphonic version of the recording that won the Grammy, but the score I followed indicated an improvised alto solo, so I figured that was as good a place as any to play around a little.

Just a teeny weeny little bit, though. I’m still too in awe of the song to do anything too out there.

The Video

I was never a very good Civ IV player. Even on Civ V and VI, which are considered easier, I stay around Prince difficulty. I didn’t trust myself to play and win a Noble-level game on Civ IV to use as part of the visuals for a music video. I had to figure out something completely different. I had to create a video that both novice players and seasoned Civ IV experts could relate to and appreciate.

I decided to go completely in the opposite direction, by playing a total cheese game.

I picked a classic Civ, Egypt, and started a game on Settler difficulty. Then, instead of settling in and playing, I went into the Worldbuilder and built a map I’m sure we’ve all tried at some point: I created a world in which Egypt was completely protected by mountains, with a single chokepoint from which Hatshepsut could fend off the outside world.

Then I turned Egyptian territory into a Promised Land, with a plenitude of every possible resource in the game (Ha ha, I know, that’s so funny.)

001b Egypt Worldbuilder.png

That’s the game I played.

Naturally, I had the opportunity to spam wonders and found multiple religions, so Egypt easily won a cultural victory. But that’s no fun, right — when you have such a total dominance over all your opponents, what you really want to do is nuke the hell out of them, and then leave the planet. So that’s what I decided to do.

001c Nuke.png

Hopefully that’s a Civ video that will speak to every player’s heart. And of course, I hope you’ve all enjoyed the video I created here.

What's Next?

I'm happy to take any requests and to hear from anyone who has comments or feedback on this video. Just leave me a comment here or on YouTube.

It's December, so naturally I've got some Christmas songs coming up. If you'd like to see them when those videos go live, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!