Monday, June 07, 2021

Honouring the song 4: what is the cultural and historical context of the song?

Just because we can sing a song, doesn’t mean that we should sing it.

It is important to honour the cultural and historical origins of a song so we know whether it’s appropriate to sing it in a different context or not.

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.

The third was about Teaching or performing the song accurately.

In this post, I’ll be considering how the cultural and historical context of the song affects our singing of it today.

should you be singing this song?

Knowing the cultural and historical origins of a song not only enriches our understanding of its meaning and purpose, but also allows us to contextualise the song when teaching and performing it. This in turn may widen the horizons of both singers and audiences.

But, more importantly, knowing a song’s background will help us decide whether we should be singing it at all.

What to us is a nice melody with ‘foreign’ or simple English words will have come from a very specific context both culturally and historically. What was appropriate in that place at that time sung by people from that culture may be offensive or inappropriate sung by your choir here and now.

Once again, the best advice will come from a person who belongs to the culture that the song originates from. They will be able to give you background information on the song and tell you whether it would make them uncomfortable if your particular choir were to sing it.

There are, of course, different interpretations and sensibilities involved. Some people from a particular culture may be more liberal or open-minded than others. So asking more than one person from that culture would be ideal.

If a song has been in your repertoire for many years, it’s always worth re-checking its appropriateness since new information is always being discovered. Also, what was OK then, might not be OK now.

individuals can still be offended

As well as the general appropriateness of a song for your choir, you may also need to consider the opinions of individual choir members and even prospective audiences. What might be OK for your choir as a whole in a particular context, may be uncomfortable or even offensive for individual choir or audience members who have strong moral, cultural or religious beliefs.

Your options are to drop the song entirely, choose your audiences (and choir members) carefully, or allow individual singers to drop out from singing particular songs.

do you explain bad history, or erase it?

In the case of some songs, there are no easy answers. Even if you understand and respect the cultural context, sing the song sensitively with that in mind, and explain the background to your audience, there will still be some people who think it’s inappropriate.

For example, white British choirs singing African-American slave songs.

This is related to the current debate here in the UK about statues. Some people think that statues of people with unsavoury pasts (e.g. slave traders) should be removed from public sight. Whereas others think the statues should remain, but with clear explanations of the historical actions of the figure concerned so we can learn from our past.

case studies

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


I originally learnt this song from a fellow choir leader. I assumed it was a traditional song, but it turns out that the version I have is an arrangement by Brian Tate.

The description of his arrangement on the JW Pepper website reads:

“This setting of a Nigerian Yoruban folk song really sets a mood! Scored for a cappella voices with a large array of djembes, rain sticks and shakers, it creates a dramatic, mysterious atmosphere that is quite amazing!”

It is a beautiful song and I’ve taught it at many workshops.

Some years ago I tried to find out more about the origins of the song and contacted Valerie Taiwo who has a Nigerian Yoruban background.

I found out that every act of worship or devotion in the Yoruban religion must start with a libation of fresh water followed by an invocation of praise and prayer known as a mojuba (literally: “I salute”). 

This song is a worshipful song to the ancestors. It is in the deep Yoruba accent not everyday Yoruban. The translation is roughly:

I salute the one who is greater than death.
Death! Death!! is taken away to salute the
Egungun (“concealed spirit of the ancestors”)

Egungun is a Yoruban masquerade or masked, costumed figure. It seems that this song can be sung when somebody close has recently died.

There are many problems with singing this song!

  • Valerie Taiwo wrote to me: “The song brings a salutation, prostration and proclamation from the worshippers but if you do not worship this deity, It is like singing the praise of the Nazis by the Jews.”
  • is Brian Tate’s arrangement respectful to the original context? Would it have been sung so slowly and with the percussion he stipulates? Would it have been sung in harmony?
  • Yoruban culture appears not only in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, but also in Cuba, UK and US. It’s easy when presented with a “Yoruban song” to ask the wrong cultural group about its meaning and context.
  • since the song is associated with a recent death, is it appropriate to sing it in an average public concert?
  • does it make sense to perform this song outside the context of a Yoruban masquerade or annual Egungun festival?

Senzeni na

This is a song from South Africa. It is based on a Welsh hymn tune. The song is in Zulu/ Xhosa and means: “What have we done?”

The song was sung as an anti-apartheid song, commonly at funerals, demonstrations and in churches. Some white British choirs sing the second verse without realising that it means “Our sin is that we are black?”.

I have always felt comfortable singing this song with my (predominantly white) choirs since it is a great opportunity to educate British people about the terrible things that happened to black people during the apartheid era. I always explain the meaning, context and history of the song to singers and audiences, and we never sing the second verse.

The song is very popular in the UK amongst community choirs. Kerry Firth wrote an interesting PhD thesis for the University of Manchester which includes Senzeni na: British Amateur Singers and Black South African Choral Music: The Politics of Access and Encounter.

I posted one of my groups singing this song on YouTube and got the following comments:

So the oppressors become the victims?! Sheesh … and that’s how you steal history folks. In another decade or so their offspring will point to this video and say their parents created this song and were amongst people fighting apartheid in south Africa just like they said and are teaching their children that when they got to SA there were no black people there and it was actually black people that got to them. Cannot make it up!! Extremely repulsive to say the least. The way they even sing the song actually gave me demonic vibes!!

It's really annoying to us Africans who see this as a part of our history fyi! And to see South Africans or whatever their name is travel to other parts of the world e.g. the USA and be on national television singing these song amongst other African songs in remembrance of a painful past which they inflicted and continue to inflict across the continent and telling us it's cultural heritage and togetherness, words cannot begin to explain what it feels like. Next time at least even have the decency to include the people whose words made this song okay!! You might be doing it out for entertainment and what not but to us who remember it's not a game!

It seems this individual is Kenyan rather than South African, and it may well be his personal opinion. However, it does give pause for thought.

songs with a questionable past

There are many, many songs with questionable pasts which are no longer appropriate to sing.

I came across a fantastic list which is regularly updated: Songs with a questionable past by Lauren McDougle (email:

Lauren is from the US, so the list is US-centric and most of the songs are in English.

I was surprised to find songs like John Kanaka, Shortnin’ bread, Shenandoah, and Winter Wonderland on the list! It’s an incredibly useful resource though, and you can make your own mind up after reading the background of the songs. Plenty of links to further references.

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: who wrote or arranged the song?


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Chris Rowbury




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