Lennie Gallant's moving new Christmas song offers hope to refugees

Lennie Gallant's beautiful new Christmas song with the Zimbabwean band Black Umfolosi started with a chance meeting in Charlottetown this summer.

Gallant pens original song to sing with Zimbabwe's Black Umfolosi

'It was an honour to play with them,' says Lennie Gallant of Black Umfolosi. (John Hopkins)

Lennie Gallant's beautiful new Christmas song with the Zimbabwean band Black Umfolosi started with a chance meeting in Charlottetown this summer.

Gallant ran into his former agent and friend Bob Jensen downtown, they hopped in Lennie's pickup to listen to some cuts from the album he'd just finished recording, Time Travel, as well as new music from Black Umfolosi, an internationally-renowned world music band from Zimbabwe for which Jensen is the North American agent.

"Every now and then something a little bit magical happens," said Jensen. "We just came up with this little idea over lunch!" 

'I should write one'

That "little idea" was that Lennie would record a song on P.E.I. with Black Umfolosi in August as they were taking a break during a tour of eastern Canada.

"And I thought that would be something, that would be really great! I wonder what we would sing?" Gallant recalls. "I thought it would be amazing to have them singing on a Christmas song — I should write one." 

He'd heard Black Umfolosi before at festivals in Canada and admired their music, which he likens to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African group that shared the spotlight with Paul Simon on his landmark album Graceland.

"They were very keen to do it, they immediately said 'Oh yeah we'd love to do that,'" said Jensen. 

With them in mind, Gallant quickly penned Christmas Day on Planet Earth during last July's heat wave. He did a rough recording and sent it off to Zimbabwe so the band could learn it. 

All in a day's work

When the group arrived on P.E.I. in August, they rehearsed a bit with Gallant then headed to a friend's studio barn. 

I'm hoping that it moves people to think about what's going on in the world.— Lennie Gallant

"In one day we recorded the song and did a video — the same day," said Gallant.

Award-winning P.E.I. filmmaker John Hopkins shot the video, while Colin Buchanan of The Hill Sound Studio recorded the song. 

"That's a lot for anybody in one day, and Lennie is known for being — in the studio he's very meticulous," said Jensen. 

'So many desperate families'

Gallant used the nativity story of Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay Christmas Eve as a theme for the song, connecting it to current global immigration crises including the flight from Syria and the migrant caravan from Central America to the U.S.

'I thought there's really a connection to be made there with the original Christmas story,' Gallant said. (Dave Brosha Photography )

"Given what's going on in the world right now, with so many desperate families driven from their homes, I thought there's really a connection to be made there with the original Christmas story," he said. 

"These are desperate people, desperate families, and it could be you or I cast in the same situation if the geography was a little bit different." 

Gallant has worked with several charities including Maritime-Guatemala Breaking the Silence, and plans to give any proceeds from the song to the P.E.I.-based charity Mikinduri Children of Hope, which helps care for people in Kenya. Black Umfolosi also works with many charities in Africa, Jensen said. 

"If Mary and Joseph were showing up at some countries right now, certainly including the United States of America, they would definitely be turned back," added Jensen. "The message is timely and it's delivered in a beautiful way." 

'Wanted people to hear it'

"Reaction to the song and the video has been quite extraordinary so far," Gallant said. 

'They were so wonderful to work with,' says Gallant of Black Umfolosi. (Black Umfolosi/Facebook)

"And with Black Umfolosi, they were so wonderful to work with — such gentle, beautiful people and  were very much into it and so patient," he said. 

Gallant predicts the song, available on iTunes and on streaming services, "will make no money whatsoever probably, because basically on streaming services you're pretty much giving it away."

"But I wanted people to hear it, and I'm hoping that it moves people to think about what's going on in the world." 

Could become a 'Christmas standard'

Jensen said he believes the song is catchy and could become a holiday classic.

'It's going to open those guys up to some new listeners,' says Black Umfolosi's North American agent Bob Jensen. (YouTube)

"I would not be at all surprised if it became, at least in Canada, a kind of Christmas standard that you start hearing every year." 

He also said he hopes the African group becomes more widely-known from the song. 

"If this single is out there on commercial radio, it's going to open those guys up to some new listeners," Jensen said. 

Want to hear the song in person? Gallant is headlining The Innkeeper's Christmas Concert Friday, Dec. 14, at Trinity United Church, which will also feature members of the band Ten Strings and a Goat Skin, members of Atlantic String Machine and more. 

An excerpt of lyrics from Christmas Day on Plant Earth:

There is so much sorrow, people in need
Cast from their homes by hate and greed 
There's a knock at the door, hear it again, 
Echoes of that night in Bethlehem.

On Christmas Day on planet Earth we celebrate a simple birth
A tale to teach how to give love
A child to lead like a star above.

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca