Monday, January 28, 2019

Finding song information – Chinese whispers, wishful thinking and the oral tradition

I was choosing songs for a project the other day when I remembered one that I really liked from way back.

However, with a bit of further research I discovered that it was a very lewd song and not suitable. So how come girl guides all over the world are singing it?

girl scouts unwittingly sing of sex!

Many years ago I learnt a fun, easy New Zealand Maori song called Epo I tai tai e.

I was thinking of reviving it, but then recalled that somebody had told me it wasn’t quite what it seemed.

After a few minutes’ research, I found the song listed on the wonderful New Zealand folk song website.

Apparently it is a bawdy variant from World War II of an already sexual song, He pūru taitama, written in 1909.

The variant is translated as:

“At night up high! (E pō I taitai e!)
At night, thrusting!
At night up high!”

According to the New Zealand folk song website:

“Many Maori songs with good tunes and simple words are sung in the Pacific Islands, as part of tourist entertainer’s repertoire, including in Hawaii. And from there, misspelled as Epo I tai tai e, it spread to Girl Scouts all over the USA, who were told the tune was a native American one, meaning I will be happy. (Happy indeed, thrusting all night!!!)”

how the oral tradition works

Some years ago I was involved in a project in Derby, UK to collect songs from all the different cultures represented in the city.

A young woman from the Republic of Congo shared a song in French that she had learnt at school called Suricho.

Apparently it was a song about a grandmother who disappeared without saying goodbye. She has left her granddaughter grieving and unsure of where her grandmother had gone.

When I heard her singing the song, I knew I recognised the tune. It turns out to be a famous Georgian song, Suliko.

Although the young Congolese woman was convinced that Suricho was a traditional song from her culture, it seems that a Georgian doctor had been working in the country some years before and had taught the song. It had since taken on a life of its own. It retains much of the original melody, and a similar meaning, but in a few years time, who knows how it might develop?

change is good, but make sure it’s benign

It is inevitable that songs change over time, especially if they are passed on orally. Sometimes lyrics are added or changed to suit new contexts. But even if the lyrics stay the same, sensibilities and culture also change over time. What was once fine to sing might not be appropriate any more.

If a song is in English, we can recognise these changes and choose whether or not to sing a particular song.

But when a song has foreign lyrics it becomes more difficult.

singing songs from other cultures

Even if we can translate the words of foreign lyrics, we may be unaware of the particular cultural context that the song comes from.

We need to be very careful when using songs from other cultures. It is not enough to want a song to have a particular meaning (just because you come across the word mama, doesn’t mean the song is about mothers; just because a song is gentle and lilting doesn’t mean it’s a lullaby; just because everybody tells you that a song is about paddling a canoe, doesn’t mean it is a song about paddling a canoe).

You need to check and check again. Go past the first few pages of search results on Google because they will usually all be quoting from the same source.

You might like to read Before you use songs from other cultures, check your sources! You’ll find a few more song examples there

If in doubt, don’t sing it.

chinese whispers

A well-known singer-songwriter I know told me a story about a singing workshop that they had run one day. A woman came up and told them that they were wrong about the meaning of the song that they’d just taught. Not only that, but they had got some of the notes and the phrasing wrong.

The woman was adamant that she was right and clearly felt strongly that the correct version should be taught. We should respect the culture that the song had come from.

The trouble was that the song was one that the workshop leader themselves had written! It had taken on a life of its own and become a ‘traditional’ song which belonged to everybody.

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Chris Rowbury




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Chris Rowbury


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