Monday, May 31, 2021

Honouring the song 3: can you teach or perform the song accurately?

When using songs from cultures different to ours, we have the responsibility to teach or perform them as accurately as we can.


We honour the song by being as authentic as possible when pronouncing the words, and reproducing the melody and harmonies.

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.

The second considered What the song means.

In this post, I’ll be considering how to disseminate the song as accurately as possible.

there is never a perfect version

Choirs often have songs in their repertoire which are termed ‘traditional’ or ‘folk’. Such songs are usually passed down through the generations by ear. Consequently, there is never a ‘correct’ or precisely reproduceable version. The oral tradition is a living tradition and songs change over time.

However, if you were brought up in the culture that the song is from, you would know whether a particular rendition sounds ‘right’ or not.

When we are not from the same culture as the song, it is easy to take liberties, make assumptions and even ‘westernise’ songs. To honour the song, we must respect the culture it comes from and try to teach or perform a version that is as close to its origin as possible.

pronouncing the words correctly

The first step it to make sure we pronounce the words as accurately as we can (we’ve already identified the language of the song as we saw in last week’s post: What does the song mean?). Even if a song is in English, it may be in dialect (e.g. Jamaican patois, Gullah, Scots, etc.).

The easiest way to check pronunciation is to ask a native speaker of the relevant language. If that’s not possible, try to track down a recording from within the culture of the song.

To help singers, it can be useful to provide a phonetic version of a song alongside the lyrics in the original language. This can be problematic for some languages since some sounds have no direct equivalents in English. For example, ‘y’ in Welsh.

It’s important to be consistent in your phonetic scheme. It’s also great to have a recording of a native speaker alongside to compare with.

speed and rhythm

Pronunciation also shows where the emphasis goes in each word, which in turn helps us to fit the words to the music and get the rhythm right.

If you have researched the song well, you will know whether it’s an upbeat song or a lullaby. This should be reflected in the speed that you sing the song.

Sometimes a song can be analysed rhythmically in different ways. For example, the folk song Wild mountain thyme can be sung as a waltz, three-beat rhythm or as a straighter, four-beat rhythm. There are versions of the song sung both ways, neither of them being the ‘right’ way. You can decide which works best for you.

But songs from cultures where rhythm is more important than melody can get rounded off or ‘westernised’. What started as an off-beat, rhythmic song can become smoothed out if we’re not used to unusual rhythms or unfamiliar beat emphasis.

If you can get hold of a recording of the song from the culture it originates from, this will demonstrate the overall feel. Even if you can’t reproduce the complex rhythms accurately, you can at least respect the ‘vibe’ of the song.

to harmonise or not?

Some songs are passed down to us as if they are authentic, but actually they are a westernised arrangement of a song from another culture. Many cultures don’t have a harmony singing tradition (e.g. much of the Middle East and southeast Asia). In such cases it is questionable whether a song should be harmonised.

Conversely, many cultures have rich harmony singing traditions (e.g. the Balkans, southern Africa, the Republic of Georgia). Songs from those cultures may have simple words and melodies, the power of the song residing in the rich harmonies. In such instances, it doesn’t make sense to sing the songs without the harmonies.

there are no easy answers

As folk songs come from a living tradition, there is never going to be a definitive version that you can pass on. But if you do your research, try to track down an original field recording and speak to someone from the culture that the song comes from. You can then work towards a version that reflects the culture it comes from and honours the song as much as possible.

case studies

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

Mungu akipenda

This is a farewell song in Swahili from Tanzania. I got it from a German songbook (Tanzania was at one time part of German East Africa). At a weekend workshop, just before I started teaching the song, I jokingly asked the white participants “Does anybody here speak Swahili?” A woman responded “Yes” and explained that she’d lived in East Africa for some years.

I went through the lyrics with her and the group. It was a bit annoying at the time because it slowed my teaching down, but I soon discovered that a few words had been mispronounced and consequently didn’t fit the music as written. We made the relevant changes and went on to learn the whole song.

Some time later I put our version onto YouTube and got an amazing response from a Tanzanian man who found it very moving as it reminded him of when he was a kid and his dad used to sing it to him.

behave as if your audience understand the language

I always tell my groups when performing to imagine that there will be at least one member of the audience who speaks the language of each song. This has been proved true time and time again.

We sang the Japanese song Sakura sakura at a spring concert. A Japanese lady came up afterwards to say how much it reminded her of home.

We sang Što mi e milo from Macedonia on London’s South Bank as part of an outdoor concert. I noticed two young women at the front of the audience who joined in with the song on each repeat. Afterwards they told me that they didn’t know the song, but understood the words so they could join in once they’d heard them.

next post in the series

Next week I’ll look in more detail at the fourth area to consider when honouring the origins of a song: what is the cultural/ historical context of the song?



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Chris Rowbury




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