The Story of Betelehemu

Christmas is celebrated in music from all over the world, including places where you would little suspect Christmas music to be. Over the course of the past 50 years one surprising Christmas song of African origin has quietly become a staple of performing choirs every holiday season. It is called Betelehemu.

As Christianity has slowly grown in Africa there came a natural blending of native elements with traditional Christian beliefs. Such is the case with the native rhythms and melodies in Betelehemu. The song is based on Yoruban (Nigerian) folk text:

Awa yiori Baba gbojule
We are glad we have a Father to trust
Awa yiori Baba fehenti
We are glad we have a Father to rely on
Nibo labi Jesu
Where was Jesus born?
Nibo lagbe bii
Where was he born?
Betelehemu ilu ara
In Bethlehem the city of wonder
Nibe labi Baba o daju
That is where the Father was born for sure
Iyin nifuno
Praise be to Him
Adupe fun o jooni
We thank you for the day
Baba oloreo
Gracious Father
Iyin fun o Baba
Praise to you Father
Baba toda wasi
Merciful Father

The song as heard below was written for the Glee Club of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia USA by their Choir Director, Dr. Wendell P. Whalum and it was based on a song he received from a student and African native, Michael Babtunde Olatunji in the 1950s. The Glee Club of Morehouse College has been performing the song since the mid-1960s.

Olatunji graduated from Morehouse, after which he launched a music career that saw him record dozens of albums with artists such as John Coltrane, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. His 1959 album, Drums of Passion, is credited with introducing Americans to world music and Olatunji went on to a respected career not only as an artist but as a music educator.

Since officially being published in 1992 Betelehemu has steadily gained in popularity for its “joyful noise” as choirs of all types and sizes adopt traditional African styling.
In this famous rendition the Mormon Tabernacle Choir steps out of character to showcase how 360 voices can move together in a joyful celebration of Christmas:

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