Sami family by Morten Oddvik
There is a huge amount of misinformation out there when it comes to songs from other cultures. Before you pass a song along, make sure you know as much about it as you can – and make sure the information is accurate.
guessing what a song meansSomething strange happens to people when they discover a new song in a foreign language. They often guess what it’s about and what language it’s in and make up stories about it without taking any time to really find out about the song.
It’s as if — because it’s from a different culture — it doesn’t matter about being accurate. I personally think that is a sign of disrespect. Not only that, but it’s laziness.
When people come across a new and unfamiliar song, the first thing they often do is to Google it to find out more. More than likely they’ll take on board what the first website they find says and go away happy.
That’s how misinformation is spread. Rather like getting builders’ quotes, I always try to find three independent sources of information. Sources that are different and not just cut and paste jobs.
Here are some recent examples of misinformation I’ve come across.
Icelandic work songSomebody was looking for easy rounds and warm up songs and this was suggested. After a bit of searching I found the following information:
“This is a traditional Icelandic work song associated with the seal culling industry (perhaps it’s best not to mention this to sensitive pupils!). It has a strong beat at the beginning of each bar that could be emphasised with a drum beat or hand claps.” (source: Music Teachers Resource Site)
I looked at the accompanying score and recognised the song. It turns out that it’s a folk song from South Uist, Hebrides, collected by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857–1930), well-known collector and arranger of gaelic songs. In the published version I’ve seen it’s called Seal woman’s sea-joy and it’s a very gentle, haunting song. So maybe not appropriate to accompany with drums and claps!
Here’s a version by Mary McLaughlin.
Finnish reindeer calling songMade relatively famous by the Chaps Choir in London, but certainly doing the rounds. It is actually a yoik from the Sámi people. Admittedly they are nomadic reindeer herders and part of their territory covers modern-day Finland, but it turns out to be a song about a girl and is not used to call reindeer at all. The song is called Nieida (‘girl’) and is an arrangement by Sian Croose of the original yoik.
Bantu wedding songPeter Seeger collected a load of folk songs from Africa and arranged them for the American high school choral group The Song Swappers back in 1955. The album was called Bantu Choral Folk Songs.
I haven’t managed to find out anything about where, when and how Pete Seeger collected these songs or where they are all from. The term Bantu is a general label for the 300–600 ethnic groups in Africa who speak Bantu languages. They inhabit a geographical area stretching east and southward from Central Africa across the African Great Lakes region down to Southern Africa. So the songs could be from any number of different cultures!
One of the songs he collected is called Isileyi Sam and is said to be a wedding song. It turns out that it’s a song about a sledge! It is a work song from the Transkei in South Africa. It’s in Xhosa. Isileyi is a sledge pulled by oxen and traditionally used by men in the Transkei. In this song the man is saying: “What a wonderful sledge I have!”
Just imagine all those brides sung down the aisle by this song over the years imagining it to be a wedding song.
lullaby about mothers from the Torres StraitsThere is a song used as a gentle lullaby which works as a round called Bele Mama. For years it was thought to have come from the Torres Straits Islands, but it turns out that somebody learnt it at a workshop there and assumed it must be local. Recognising the word ‘Mama’ they further assumed it must be about mothers. That has since been passed down as fact and many people sing it as a gentle lullaby.
The reality is that the song is from West Africa. Since most West African countries were French colonies at one time, it’s probably pidgin for Appelle maman which means “call mum”. It bears a striking resemblance to a song about Saturday night partying so it’s almost certainly calling mum to go out to party. It is an upbeat song (not a lullaby). You can find a version from Cameroon on the Smithsonian Folkways website.
if you’re not sure, don’t shareMy own philosophy is that if I can’t find robust and accurate information about a song from another culture, then I won’t teach it. I will need precise lyrics (and their pronunciation), which language and culture it’s from, the cultural background, and a rough meaning.
If you aren’t careful you may find yourself disrespecting another culture, singing in gibberish, or even singing about something nasty or exploitative.
For example, my choir sang an Israeli song called Tsena tsena for some years, believing it was about the girls in the village watching the pioneers go to work in the fields. We even sang it at a peace concert. It turns out that the girls are watching the soldiers walk through the village. We stopped singing it as soon as we found out. The Weavers (Pete Seeger was a member) sang a version of the song, but changed the lyrics.