Monday, May 17, 2021

Honouring the song 1: where does the song come from?

When honouring the origins of any song, you need to be as precise as you can about where the song came from.


It might be hard to find out, but there is no excuse for being lazy and saying something like “This song is from Africa.” Here are some things to consider when tracing a song’s origins.

Last week I wrote an introduction to honouring the origins of songs: How to honour the source of a song (and why it’s important). I outlined five areas that need to be considered when trying to accurately attribute a song’s provenance.

This week I’ll be looking in more detail at the first area:

1. where does the song come from?

The first, and most important thing to say, is never trust a single source of information.

There are plenty of false song attributions going around that have become so embedded that everyone thinks they must be true. But with a bit of digging, it’s often the case that all the information originates from a single source.

Rather like when you get builders’ quotes for work on your house, I think that finding at least three independent sources for your song information is vital. When searching the internet, you often come across webpages that appear to be independent, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be the same old information, just slightly edited.

Also check out the authority of a webpage. Is the website part of an official organisation or is it just published by an interested individual? If it is an organisation, does it have any obvious biases or axes to grind? Is the website published by people from the culture and country of the song in question?

Most people use the internet as their primary source of information these days as it’s so easy and accessible. However, don’t forget libraries and the many songbooks that have been published. I often find really useful songbooks in second hand shops. But the same cautions apply: who wrote the book, did they have an agenda, are they from the same culture/country as the song?

case studies

Here are some examples of how hard it can be to track down the country of origin of a song

Bele mama

A version of this song was taught at a workshop in the Torres Strait Islands some years ago. It’s a lovely song and soon spread. It quickly became attributed to the Torres Strait Islands because that’s where it was first discovered by the wider community choir movement. It has been passed on as a lullaby, often as a round. It’s usually said to mean “Beautiful earth.”

However, the song’s origins are in West Africa. There are versions of the song in several West African countries, most notably Cameroon. It almost certainly derives from French and is probably short for “Appele mama” (call mum). It’s a party song and the call is to “let’s go and party!”, a far cry from a lullaby.

It turns out that someone from Cameroon was visiting the Torres Strait Islands and taught the song in a workshop there. You can read a bit more about this song on the Sing for joy website.

Vem kan segla

This beautiful song is claimed by several Scandinavian countries: at least Sweden, Finland and Denmark. The original lyrics are in Swedish, however the song comes from Åland (Ahvenanmaa in Finnish), which is an autonomous province in the south-western archipelago of Finland, consisting of about 6500 islands of which some 65 are presently inhabited. The main language spoken there is Swedish.


Malaika was made famous by Miriam Makeba in the 1960s. It is in Swahili and definitely originates from East Africa. However, its authorship is still very controversial. Most people accredit its authorship to Adam Salim, a not-well-published Tanzanian songwriter. Fadhili William, a Kenyan singer, is also associated with the song because he is the first person to record it. William is recognized as the composer for royalty purposes.

You can read more about the song on the Wikipedia Malaika page.

Now is the hour

This song was popularised by Gracie Fields in the 1940s. She had learnt it on a visit to New Zealand in 1945 where it is known as Pö atarau (“On a moonlit night”). It was assumed to be a traditional Maori song.

However, the tune comes from Australia where is was part of a piano suite called Swiss cradle song. The tune was adapted slightly and Maori words added. It soon became an emotive farewell song during the World War I. Now is the hour is the first line of the version with English lyrics.

You can read more about the song on this New Zealand folk songs page.


In 2005-6 I was involved in a song collection project in Derby. The idea was to collect traditional songs from each of the different cultures represented in the city. One such song was shared by a young woman from the Republic of Congo. She had learnt it at school and had assumed it had been handed down for generations. It speaks of the sadness of losing a grandmother and not being able to find her grave.

It turns out that the song is a variation of the song Suliko from the Republic of Georgia. It seems that a Georgian doctor had visited Africa at some point (although the countries he visited are not specified) and taught some Georgian songs whilst he was there. The French version in the Republic of Congo has kept much of the tune and meaning of the original.

Who knows, in a few generations time it may become a traditional song of the country.

next post in the series

Next week I’ll look in more detail at the second area to consider when honouring the origins of a song: what does the song mean?


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Chris Rowbury




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