I’m on record saying I’m not a fan of the Civilization series. My impression of it has always been “Modernization Theory: The Video Game” with an insultingly linear conception of “social evolution” where cultures move through a period of hunter-gathering through Stone Ages, Iron Ages, Bronze Ages and so forth up through a “Space Age”.
Being intrinsically linked to early 20th Century managerial progressive thought and industrial capitalism, the whole basis behind Modernization Theory was that the “developing world” should abandon its indigenous cultures and adopt a more “modern”, “industrial”, “capitalist”, and thus “Western”, lifestyle as swiftly and as comprehensively as possible. It’s singlehandeldy responsible for a large swath of the mess the world is in right now.
Given this is the exact logic Civilization seems to work by, naturally I’ve never counted myself among its fans.
So, perhaps I could be forgiven for not recognising “Baba Yetu”, which was apparently the theme song to Civilization IV and one of the most beloved pieces of video game music of all time. I’ve never heard it before, and I even *played* Civilization IV. Granted, my prevailing memories of that game are of struggling to find a way to reach the Space Age endgame while never leaving the hunter-gatherer stage while my roommate raced to get nuclear weapons as soon as possible so he could carpet bomb the entire planet, but still, you’d think I’d at least be aware of it.
But this version of “Baba Yetu” stands on its own. I’ve always tended to appreciate Peter Hollens more than I was a fan of his: He’s unarguably a gifted singer with an incredible vocal range, but, apart from the impressive fact he does all his work a capella, I’ve usually found his covers to be pretty straightforward. The big draw of Hollens’ work has always been how he edits his videos to play precisely in time with the way the song is composited, making them a perfect visual representation of the studio recording process. Hollens’ covers are as much a showcase of unparalleled video editing skill as they are his formidable musical talent.
"Baba Yetu", though, simply resonates with an uncanny power and presence. It helps Hollens is paired here with Malukah, an equally amazing singer, and I think she really helps make this something special. Malukah is a deceptive vocalist, sounding at first breathy and ethereal, but then showing off her amazing range by capping off the chorus with a stunningly decisive moment of power at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. She and Hollens compliment each other perfectly, and everything they do works in tandem to weave the entire composition together into a flawlessly executed triumph of syncretism and songcraft both.
The original “Baba Yetu”, though a lovely and easily understandable hit, strikes me as fairly unambitious, especially considering the lyrics are *literally* nothing more than The Lord’s Prayer transliterated into Swahili. It’s straightforward, well-executed pop choral gospel with some orchestral hits thrown in that works largely due to its bombast and because Swahili is an indescribably beautiful language. Malukah and Peter Hollens take that and turn it into a rousing, passionate, and deeply personal work of intimate power. For the first time, the cover transcends the original work to be something incredibly moving on its own.
Perhaps strangely, it’s not Civilization I now associate “Baba Yetu” with, but The Elder Scrolls. Both Peter and Malukah have done work for The Elder Scrolls both officially and unofficially for which they’re highly regarded (not to mention both being huge fans of the games in general, especially Malukah). But more to the point, apart from being fans and two of the most dynamic and powerful performers around today, Malukah and Peter Hollens are also two people who seem to have a deep and profound respect for and love of life.
Maybe this is why Jeremy Soule himself hand-picked them to work on his forthcoming symphony The Northerner, which builds upon the themes and emotions that guided him while composing the soundtrack to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. TESV is not just one of my favourite video games, it’s one of my favourite works of art and expression period, and I’m heartened to be able to call Jeremy, Peter and Malukah neighbours in Tamriel. Tomorrowind will be built by works and people like this.