Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finding out about songs: don’t believe everything you read!

I was in the middle of planning a workshop I’m running this weekend and was checking through a few songs to make sure I had the correct lyrics, source, meaning, background, etc. I came across a few that I couldn’t figure out so I went searching and ended up with several contradictory pieces of information!

find a trustworthy source

How do we go about finding out the correct background information to a song? How can we be sure that the lyrics are correct, especially if it’s in a foreign language? What about the translation: is it accurate, a poetic interpretation, or just plain hearsay? Are the lyrics accurate in the source language, or are they phonetically written? Are you sure that the country of origin and source language are correctly attributed?

The internet is an extremely valuable tool when trying to track down song information. But, like all media, it is not to be trusted! Many is the time that a false story has appeared in print and been picked up by other outlets then spread like wild fire without anybody bothering to check the facts. With the internet, this process just happens faster.

chinese whispers

The same with songs. Somebody mis-hears a song at a workshop or whilst singing around the camp-fire. They go home and write down the lyrics (phonetically), note down the country of origin (incorrectly), and half-remember what it was supposed to be about. Through a process of Chinese whispers, this song gets passed around from mouth to ear to mouth until it bears little relation to when it was first heard (and we don’t even know if it was accurate the first time!).

Very soon the song is widely known and its origins and meaning become fixed in people’s minds. The song then gets printed in a songbook and the myth gets perpetuated. Nobody has bothered to go back to the source or try to find out from scratch if the story and background is accurate or not. Now it’s in print, people believe that it must be true.

You can see this happening on the internet too, but it becomes a little easier to spot the myths. When searching for a particular song, it may come up on many different websites, but you soon realise that the text on each site is exactly the same! Somebody has written something once and it’s just got passed around intact without anybody bothering to question.

There is an apocryphal story of this process at work (I’m not sure how true it is, but it’s very believable!). A well-known workshop leader taught one of her own songs in a workshop. This song was then spread by various people who attended the workshop. Many years later, she was teaching it at another workshop when a participant came up to her and said that she’d got it wrong and proceeded to correct her tune and lyrics and tell her a long, involved story about the origins of this ‘traditional’ song. And she’d written the thing in the first place!

getting to the source

Before I teach a song I try to check that the information I have is accurate. If I learnt it from an individual, I go back to them and ask them where they got the information from. I then try to go back to that source and so on. If it’s in a book, I look to see what their sources are and if they credit someone in particular. If I’m not sure about something I’ll search on the internet (I’ll be writing a post on this later) and make sure I come up with at least two different sources for the information. I also try to contact an individual from the culture or country concerned (either through personal contact or via the internet), especially if they speak the language.

an example of song hunting

I’d like to give a concrete example that I’ve dealt with recently.

I got a song from a songbook recently which simply said “African greeting song”. It is called ‘Baba lagumbala’. The score said that it had been shared at a singing camp by someone in 2006. I contacted that person and was told that she’d got it from someone in Canada and told me that she thought it was a harvest song from West Africa.

I managed to track down the song on the website of the Canadian concerned. He didn’t say where he’d learnt it from, but on his site it said that it was in Zulu! He did usefully point out that he’d “learned it aurally so may not have the spelling correct. My apologies to anyone who speaks the language of origin. If anyone can inform me further I would appreciate it and will post it here.”

I searched for the song using Google and the spelling I found on his site and only four separate sites came up. One was the Canadian’s, one was about an Arkansas choir who sang it in one of their concerts, and one was of an arranger who had arranged the song in 2003 and credited it as “An African harvest song”. The fourth site was a resource site in the UK for children’s singing in schools. This contains a video of two black guys in traditional costume playing percussion and singing the song. The site mentions Ghana and harvest, but gives no more details. It looks fairly authentic, but I need to know more! Next step would be to contact someone through that website.

Google then suggested an alternative spelling: ‘Baba la gumbala’ and a whole new set of pages came up, mostly from Germany and Eastern Europe. This shows that it’s worth trying alternative spellings, but I’m still no wiser about the song!

more to meaning than meets the eye

No single person has the monopoly on the meaning of a song, especially if it is written poetically or metaphorically. You can ask two natives of the same culture about a particular song and get two widely different answers! Also, you need to be careful about what you are asking for. Sometimes a direct translation of the lyrics are not enough.

For example, I was taught a song called Inkonkoni iyajama by a group of Zimbabwean lads in Derby. The direct translation of the nine words in the song comes to something like:

The wildebeest strikes a pose. We will wait and see. They think we are blind.
Seems a bit boring on the surface so I asked the guys for a bit more background information and a whole story emerged about the nature of the wildebeest, the fact that the wildebeest is a rare animal and it is a bad omen if you see one (although any bad things might not happen today), and that older people have a longer view of life. So the song ends up meaning something like:

The wildebeest has the sweetest meat in the forest and is not very strong, yet it manages to survive the many lions and leopards which prey upon it. The wildebeest is poised ready to strike. This represents a problem approaching the community. But although the wildebeest is a bad omen, we will not be scared today, but will wait and see what happens. The very old members of the community may appear not to see well, but have great spiritual insight and take a long view of things. So the community will wait to see if the approaching problem will distract them from their traditional ways.

Not bad for a nine-word song!

So make sure you ask the right questions and get the views of several people before pinning a song down.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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