Monday, May 24, 2021

Honouring the song 2: what does the song mean?

When you learn a song — especially if it’s by ear — you take on trust what you’re told about the song’s meaning. This is particularly relevant if the song is in a foreign language.


But meaning is a slippery thing. Incorrect meanings get passed on like Chinese whispers. Some inexperienced song teachers even make stuff up if they’re not sure (see Bele mama from last week’s post).

This post is part of a series that began with How to honour the source of a song (and why it’s important) where I identified five areas that need to be investigated when honouring a song.

The first post looked at Where the song comes from. In this post, I’ll be considering what the song might mean.

It’s incumbent upon all of us — whether teaching or learning — to respect every song and try to find out its meaning as accurately as possible.

identify the language

Last week I wrote about how to track down the country or culture that a song comes from. Having done that, the next step is to identify the language that the song is in.

We saw in Honouring the song 1: where does the song come from? that just because a song is in English, it doesn’t mean that was the original language (I used the example of Now is the hour). The English lyrics may be a direct translation from the original, or a singable version (adapted so the words fit the metre of the tune).

Sometimes a song is claimed by several countries, so may exist in a few different languages (I used the example of Vem kan segla).

Identifying the language is not always straightforward as some languages are very similar to each other. For example, in southern Africa, there are languages in groups which have all come from the same root. So it may be difficult to distinguish between, say, Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa.

In eastern Europe, Serbo-Croat is very common, but there are subtle differences from country to country. For example, between Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Similarly, Bulgarian and Macedonian are closely related languages.

The best approach to identifying a language is to find someone from the same country or culture as the song and ask them. Often they’ll say “I’ve never heard of that song, it doesn’t sound like it’s from my country!” (the result of Chinese whispers), but sometimes you’ll be lucky.

I had a recording of a beautiful Georgian song on a cassette. I learnt it phonetically, worked out the harmonies and taught it to some students. We loved the song.

Then some real live Georgians came to town. I was excited to show off my knowledge and asked them if they knew the song by reciting the first line of lyrics. They looked at me like I was mad, and said it wasn’t a Georgian song. I then sang it to them and it turned out to be one of the most famous Georgian songs there are: Suliko. I had completely mangled the words and felt very, very embarrassed!

Some languages are written in script (e.g. Russian, Greek and Georgian) and first need to be transliterated into the Latin alphabet before English-speaking singers can sing them. If you’re finding it difficult finding information on the internet about a particular song (e.g. the Russian song Kalinka), you might try searching using the original script (I.e. калинка). You can then put any resulting web pages into Google translate.

If you’re struggling to identify the language of a song, it might be because the song is in a local dialect (see Polegala below).

finding the meaning

If you manage to find someone from the same country/ culture as the song, they can help you with pronunciation and spelling, which in turn will show you how the words fit the tune. But most importantly, they can tell you what the song means.

I’m not really a lyric person, but many people are. I’m often asked when teaching a song to give a word-by-word translation of a song into English. But that’s only half the story.

A word-by-word translation may not make much sense, or can just be the surface of the true meaning of the song. A translation needs to be put into a cultural context.

For example, the Georgian song I mentioned earlier (Suliko) is, on the face of it, a love poem set to music. But the word “Suliko” means “soul” and the song was used during the Soviet era as a protest song about searching for the soul of Georgia itself. Ironically, it was said to be Stalin’s favourite song!

case studies

Here are some examples to illustrate a few of the issues I’ve outlined above.

Inkonkoni Iyajama

This is a song from Zimbabwe and is (probably) in Ndebele.

Inkonkoni iyajama
ha helele
Inkonkoni iyajama
Khona zake sibone

Bathi Kangiboni

The basic translation is:

The wildebeest is ready to strike
We will wait and see
They think we are blind

Which doesn’t really tell us much about the meaning. If you ask someone from Zimbabwe about the significance of the wildebeest and what the song might mean, you’ll get an answer something like this:

Inkonkoni is a wildebeest. It does not have the power to attack the lion or the leopard yet it still manages to survive in the forest, even though it has the sweetest meat and is very desirable food. It is not easy to attack as it fights very well.

Iyajama is the pose it makes when it is poised, ready to strike. It represents the problem that is approaching the community. The wildebeest is a rare animal to see, and if you see one, it is a bad omen. It will stand very still and stare for a very long time.

Khona zake sibone means “We will wait and see”. It is saying that although the wildebeest is a bad omen, we are not going to be scared today, we will wait and see.

Bathi Kangiboni means “They think we are blind”. This refers to older people who have a longer view of things. They think I can't see, but at 96-years-old I have more spiritual vision than you at 21. The community respond by saying let’s wait and see if you (the approaching problem) succeed in distracting us from our traditional ways. We are not often diverted from our traditions.

This shows quite clearly that the translation is not the whole meaning.

Tsena, tsena

This is an Israeli kibbutz song from the 1940s in Hebrew.

I was taught this by ear many years ago and half-recognised it from my childhood as it was popular on the radio when I was growing up. I was told it meant something like:

Come out, come out, come out, come out,
Girls, and see
The pioneers in the colony.

Do not, do not, do not, do not,
Do not shirk
From work and labour.

There was a famous version by The Weavers in the 1950s: watch on YouTube.

They sang in Hebrew, but also added a “translation” in English:

Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,
Can’t you hear the music playing
In the city square?
Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,
Come where all our friends will find us
With the dancers there.

Tzena, Tzena! Join the celebration.
There’ll be people there from every nation.
Dawn will find us laughing in the sunlight,
Dancing in the city square.

Tzena, Tzena, come and dance the hora.
Dance the dabkeh. All of us will dance together.
Tzena, Tzena, when the band is playing,
My heart’s saying, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena!

Which all seems very sweet. However, the correct translation of the original Hebrew lyrics is:

Go out, go out, go out,
Girls, and see soldiers in the moshava
(a rural settlement).
Do not, do not,
Do not hide yourself away from a soldier, an army man.

So a song with clear military implications has been transformed into a general song of rejoicing. There are no soldiers in The Weavers’ version.

You can read more about this on the New York Jewish Week website.

There is also a short documentary including an interview with Pete Seeger about how he came across the song on YouTube.

Polegala trava detela

I discovered this wonderful song from Croatia many years ago and have taught it often. I was told it was a harvest song.

However, I was never able to find a proper translation or meaning. If you plug the lyrics into Google translate, it thinks it’s in Slovenian and can’t translate all the words.

Then one of my singers went to Croatia on holiday and discovered that the lyrics are in a Croatian dialect from one of the islands. She wasn’t able to come back with an exact translation, but did manage this line-by-line version:

Grass which has been flattened
Red bunch of flowers
Red rose – my beautiful green meadow
Possibly something about somebody taking the flowers

Which I take to mean that it’s more of a song about sex in the fields!

You can hear a version here on YouTube.

Maramica na stazi

This is another song from Croatia. The translation goes something like this:

There’s a handkerchief on the road where my dear one passes.
He made a new cart with two horses and no driver.
Oh, sweetheart, why don’t you call me so I can ask you how life is?

On the face of it, maybe a love song, but rather obscure. Why a handkerchief on the road? What is a cart with two horses and no driver? Is it just a whimsical, light-hearted song, or is there a deeper meaning? I won’t know until I can ask somebody from Croatia who knows the song.

You can hear a version here on YouTube.

next post in the series

Next week I’ll look in more detail at the third area to consider when honouring the origins of a song: can you accurately teach or perform the song?


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Chris Rowbury




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