Saturday, 13 February 2010

Overhearing African songs

I am sitting in my back garden at 1:30AM, writing my book. A light drizzle falls, but not on my laptop because I'm covered by an ecosystem-y sort of thatch formed by ivy, dead silver oak leaves, insects, spiders' webs, and the remains of whichever small vertebrates nature selected against recently in the form of Hobbes, Suzy and Pimento -- respectively ginger tom, piebald black and white female neuter and a black smoke queen.

Clarification: The thatch is on top of a covered frame. Not on top of me. That would be unsanitary.

A bunch of young black men just walked by outside. My first thought was "That's really loud. Someone is bound to call the cops." Then I listened again and thought "Man, that is beautiful." Imagine hearing this:

Six or eight young black men's voices at quite reasonable volume -- I could (literally) hear them coming from a block and a railway bridge away. Not every one of those voices was stellar on its own, but they *harmonised*. They sang their song in a language I do not understand, but I knew exactly what they were saying. Their voices spoke of togetherness, the pride of the group, the feeling of Africa's fel sun on your face. Of the sweet smell and soft skin of the girls they danced with tonight. Of brotherly love and their awareness of being together in the moment. The song was banter, good-natured teasing, friendship. Though they didn't literally laugh, their song had the feel of a shared laugh suppressed and then channeled into a song sung whilst walking home. Think about it. Ten or fifteen minutes of being this close, this in touch with your friends. To converse in song.

This put me in mind of something else I was lucky to witness a while ago. I was dumping garden refuse at the Wynberg recycling station and happened to be standing close to two fifty-somethings black men, close enough to overhear them conversing. Note that I didn't say "speaking". To this day I am convinced that they were having a conversation in song. The one would sing a snippet of a minute or two, about the length of a few sentences. The other would then fall in with a few lines of his own. Wash, rinse, repeat. I could hear the song's content, emotional and conversationally, change over time. What it sounded like most, frankly, was two old friends talking about their travels... one telling the other of a place they'd been to and what it was like, the second person in this case asking questions and making comments about the first person's statements.

I have not heard of day-to-day conversational singing before, but I know what I heard. Do you have a similar story to tell? Did you grow up in a culture where this is commonplace? Please tell me about it in a comment, I'm dying to find out more.

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