World Choir Games Flanders 2023

Finding out about songs: two real-world examples

  • [this is an updated version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    Last week I wrote that you shouldn’t believe everything you read when it comes to researching songs.



    Photo by Ashley Dace


    This week I’d like to give you two concrete examples of song research.


    an example of song hunting

    I’d like to give a concrete example that I’ve dealt with recently of discovering the origins and meaning of a song.


    I got a song from a songbook which said simply “African greeting song”. The song is called ‘Baba lagumbala’. The score said that it had been shared at a singing camp by someone in 2006. I contacted that person and was told that she’d got it from someone in Canada and told me that she thought it was a harvest song from West Africa.


    I managed to track down the song on the website of the Canadian concerned. He didn’t say where he’d learnt it from, but on his site it said that it was in Zulu! He did usefully point out that he’d:


    “learned it aurally so may not have the spelling correct. My apologies to anyone who speaks the language of origin. If anyone can inform me further I would appreciate it and will post it here.”


    I searched for the song using Google and the spelling I found on his site and only four different sites came up. One was the Canadian’s, one was about an Arkansas choir who sang it in one of their concerts, and one was of an arranger who had arranged the song in 2003 and credited it as “An African harvest song”.


    The fourth site was a resource site in the UK for children’s singing in schools. This contains a video of two black guys in traditional costume playing percussion and singing the song. The site mentions Ghana and harvest, but gives no more details. It looks fairly authentic, but I need to know more.


    Next step would be to contact someone through that website. Which I did, but didn’t get a response.


    Google then suggested an alternative spelling: ‘Baba la gumbala’ and a whole new set of pages came up, mostly from Germany and Eastern Europe. This shows that it’s worth trying alternative spellings, but I’m still no wiser about the song.


    more to meaning than meets the eye

    No single person has the monopoly on the meaning of a song, especially if it is written poetically or metaphorically. You can ask two natives of the same culture about a particular song and get two widely different answers. Also, you need to be careful about what you are asking for. Sometimes a direct translation of the lyrics is not enough.


    For example, I was taught a song called Inkonkoni iyajama by a group of Zimbabwean men in Derby. The direct translation of the nine words in the song is something like:


    The wildebeest strikes a pose. We will wait and see. They think we are blind.


    Seems a bit boring on the surface so I asked the guys for a bit more background information and a whole story emerged about the nature of the wildebeest, the fact that the wildebeest is a rare animal and it is a bad omen if you see one (although any bad things might not happen today), and that older people have a longer view of life.


    So the song ends up meaning something like:


    The wildebeest has the sweetest meat in the forest and is not very strong, yet it manages to survive the many lions and leopards which prey upon it. The wildebeest is poised ready to strike. This represents a problem approaching the community. But although the wildebeest is a bad omen, we will not be scared today, but will wait and see what happens. The very old members of the community may appear not to see well, but have great spiritual insight and take a long view of things. So the community will wait to see if the approaching problem will distract them from their traditional ways.


    Not bad for a nine-word song!


    So make sure you ask the right questions and get the views of several people before pinning a song down.




    Chris Rowbury:

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