Monday, June 21, 2021

Honouring the song 6: summing up and further resources

This is the last in my series of how to honour the source of a song.

photo by WorldFish

I’m going to sum up briefly give an overview of the process and point you to some further resources which might help.

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.

The fourth asked What is the cultural and historical context of the song?

The fifth was all about finding out Who wrote or arranged the song?

This is the final post in the series.

I do hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it useful. Do let me know if I’ve got anything wrong or left anything out.

summing up

It’s important for us as singers and choir leaders to honour the origins of the songs we use. This is especially important if those songs are from different cultures from ours.

I’ve outlined five questions that you need to ask when honouring a song:

1. Where does the song come from?

Which country and/ or culture does the song originate from? It’s too lazy to say things like “This song is from Africa”.

2. What does the song mean?

Identify the language that the song’s lyrics are in. Try to get a word-by-word translation first, then look deeper into what that might mean in its cultural context.

3. Can you teach or perform the song accurately?

Make sure you pronounce the lyrics correctly. Try to get the rhythm, speed and ‘vibe’ of the song correct in its cultural context. Is is appropriate to harmonise the song?

4. What is the cultural and historical context of the song?

What is the song’s usual context? Is it appropriate for you to sing here and now?

5. Who wrote or arranged the song?

Not all traditional songs are written by ‘Anon’. Try to find out who the songwriter is/ was so they can be recompensed and credited appropriately.

if in doubt, don’t use the song!

If you can’t answer all these questions satisfactorily, I would suggest that you don’t use the song. Better safe than being insensitive, incorrect or culturally appropriating something which is not yours to use.

case studies

There are many songs that I no longer teach because I’ve discovered their true origin (and found that it’s just not right for us to use the song) or I’ve been unable to answer all five questions above.

For example, I no longer teach Tongo or Babala gumbala as I can’t find out enough information about them.


Tongo is apparently “An uplifting call-and-response song from the mangroves of Polynesia.” An arrangement by Greg Gilpin states that it’s a “canoe song from the Solomon Islands.”

Some people have said that tongo means “mangrove” in certain Polynesian languages, but I can’t find a source for that. There are countless different phonetic versions of the lyrics so it’s impossible to track down the original language. There are approximately 40 Polynesian languages.

Ashley Wickham wrote (see the Mama Lisa website): “I am from New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. I am 70 and have not heard that song before. The lyrics don’t make sense to us.”

Babala gumbala

Credited by some as a “traditional African greeting song”!!!!

When searching the internet I came across at least three alternative spellings:

Baba lagumbala
Babala gumbala
Baba la gumbala

It’s always worth trying different spellings when trying to track down a song.

When I first tried to track this song down, somebody told me that it was a harvest song from West Africa that she’d learnt from a Canadian. I found his website, but he’d credited the lyrics as being in Zulu!

Another source says the song is “a traditional Yaruba song when two villages are welcoming or greeting each other” (note the misspelling of Yoruba), which places the song somewhere in West Africa.

There are two guys singing the song on the Cumbrian Music Service website. They appear to be Ghanaian.

The word Baba in Yoruba means “father”, but I can’t find the meaning of any of the other words, no matter how I spell them. Yoruban for “harvest” is ikore, which doesn’t appear in the lyrics.

further resources

Here are some other blog posts that you might find useful:

Finding out about songs: don’t believe everything you read!
Before you use songs from other cultures check your sources!
Finding song information – Chinese whispers, wishful thinking and the oral tradition


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Chris Rowbury




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