Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Natives Songs From Nyasaland 1921

by Mrs. Ella Kidney
Source: Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 20, No. 78 (Jan., 1921), pp. 116-126
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society 

IT was with great pleasure I accepted your invitation to give a lecture this evening, and I feel it an honour to do so among you who are so learned in things African. Long ago I remember reading, with much interest, Sir
Harry Johnston's wonderful book on British Central Africa, and you will know that it was greatly owing to the wisdom and tact of your President that treaties were successfully arranged with the slave raiders, whose persistent and warlike operations were a constant trouble in that little corner of the world. And when a British Protectorate was afterwards proclaimed, the first Commissioner appointed was Sir Harry Johnston. So you will know all about the geography and history of Nyasaland.

But in bringing the subject of her music before you, I hope it will reveal a new interest, and I should like to say that I have written the music exactly as it is, untouched by European influence, and before degeneration had set in, as it has in the case of the negro music of America. In some of the settings I have tried to suggest the complex atmosphere of the quickly changing emotions. Anyone who has heard a native telling stories to his companions round a camp fire at night will know of the subtleties of expression and change of voice that he puts in, and the acute way he portrays each character in the yarn he is telling. And so it is in his music; and I suppose because it rings true to life it accounts for the occasional strange kinship to our modern musical thought.

Most of the music which we are to consider comes from Nyasaland, a land of lakes and mountains in the highlands of Africa, but some of it is from the sandy, tropical rivers flowing from the heart of the continent.

Nyasaland is called the "Cinderella" Protectorate by those who love her and believe that a fair future lies before her, but is more familiar to home communities as the land of Livingstone.

I should like you to understand that this music was sung or played by the various native tribes entirely for their own ceremonies, enjoyment, or amusement-never for European ears. There are certain melodies sung when travelling, known to those who are observant of such things, but the average person travelling, or even living, in Nyasaland is unaware of the extent of native music and of the very large part that music takes in the native life. Whether in highlands or lowlands, of warlike or pastoral habits, the natives are very shy of singing their choruses except among themselves, and quickly hush when it is known a stranger is approaching. During my first year in Africa I was often travelling up and down the Zambezi River, and was then able to study the boat songs. At that stage I could not understand their meaning, but later found it fascinating to follow the tilt of the
words also. At the end of a year I left the Zambezi River, and my home for sixteen years was among the mountains further north.

As time went on the natives around gradually gave me their confidence, and dusky visitors came often, bringing presents of sheep, beadwork, or skins from various parts of the country. At certain seasons of the year I occasionally visited other parts of the mountains, or went to Lake Nyasa, and thus was brought into touch with a variety of native life. I must confess that primarily my interest was among the women, and their customs and thoughts, and being a keen musician I gradually formed a collection of their songs. Looking back, I can see I could not have chosen a better way to gain the confidence of the menfolk and thus learn their music also. But it was a long labour, and at times discouraging- I have waited three, or even five, years for one song or chorus.

More than once, however, apparently in recognition of some slight service I had rendered to wife or child, a man would tell me of certain dances or war songs sung in his village, and knowing I had what to him seemed a mad craze in that direction, somehow persuaded his friends to let me hear them. On two occasions a little party of ten or twelve men even came to my garden, and sitting on the grass under the trees, sang their short repertoire to me, accompanied, native fashion, by a combination of sounds, crude enough, but, truth to tell, very effective with the voices.

In such a native orchestra there is first, a stringed instrument, something like a small lute, which has three strings and is plucked by the fingers.

Second, there are metal rattles to be shaken, giving tinkling sounds.

Third, rattles made of gourds, bringing in (shall we say?) the wood-wind !

Fourth, the tapping of small sticks on a large hollow bamboo (suggesting perhaps the xylophone).

Fifth, the rhythmic clapping of hands. And last, as a good foundation for all, drums, large and small.

These little performances were given on the distinct understanding that there should be no stranger present, and also that native women should not be allowed near. I suppose they felt it a little beneath their dignity to be seen entertaining a woman, even if she were white, but whatever the reason, the conditions were faithfully kept.

Before a more detailed account of the actual songs, I should like to convey something of the atmosphere of their surroundings, and ask you to imagine the care-free, open-air life of the primitive people who live there, and you will understand their natural effort to find expression of their emotions in music, crude though it may be.

The Rev. Dr. Norman McLean, who visited the country some few years ago on behalf of the Church of Scotland, and contributed a series of articles to the Scotsman, in one of them wrote: " It is strange to think how this great Lake of Nyasa lay here in the heart of Africa, with villages scattered thickly on its shores, and canoes gliding on its waters, and the wooded hills along its sides, and the glory of sky and cloud, sunrise and sunset, glowing on its bosom as on a polished mirror, while the centuries rolled and knew not even of its existence. As one sails out into the lake's deep and wide spaces, one forgets that it is an inland lake-it seemeth
as the sea. And there are ramparts of hills along its sides, and here and there valleys and dells opening among them. Its vastness appeals to the imagination; there is a haunting flush of loveliness on the face of Lake Nyasa."
* * * * * * *
It is rare in these enlightened days to come across music, untouched by softening and civilising influences-its rugged and melodic outline preserved-and from an historical point of view you will regret with me that it is so rapidly disappearing. In the last ten years I have often heard the younger natives singing, or rather murdering, good old English hymns and tunes, and the children are ignorant of the wild music of their fathers.

And now as to the circumstances of our first illustration, a very simple song sung by the Chikunda tribe, and written twenty years ago while on a little river flowing north from the sandy reaches of the Zambezi, within a short journey of the sacred spot where, by the river bank, Mrs. Livingstone was buried. A lovely glimpse of silvery water between mountains covered with primeval forest, grassy plains, a barge, dignified by the name of houseboat, intense heat, slow, lazy travelling-these all make up the journey. On each side of the deck of the barge stand eight brown figures, their supple, well-built bodies showing to perfection under the bright light of a tropical sky.

Each holds a long pole for punting, and their only clothing is of leopard or other skins, fastened around their loins. They make a picturesque group, with their silhouettes clear-cut against the sky. Were it not for their singing and slow, rhythmical movements, one could almost imagine them to be Greek statuary, so graceful and full of suggested strength is their wonderful poise. They sing in antiphonal fashion first one side, then the other taking up the refrain. The barge goes lazily on with the sixteen men punting while singing their slow songs, the time varied to the movements of their poles.

I have written English words, thinking they would be more interesting to you.

1. Out from the waters deep
Arose a misty cloud.
The palm-tree sprang from sand; it rears its head.
The white bird sings.

2. Now on the silvery stream
The grasses nodding float.
The sand-bird builds her nest, her cry is heard.
The sun sleeps on.

3. Low in the West she goes,
The rocks are dark and cold.
The village fires rise high with red and gold.
The night-jar sings.

The women do not take part in native music, and there are two distinct classes of male voices among Nyasaland Bantu tribes :-the first of high pitch, somewhat similar to falsetto in quality, much admired by the natives, and always used for solo parts when available; and the second, which approximates to our baritone, but is of a very rough description, and is the voice of the majority of the men.

Some of their music is founded on the Pentatonic scale, but not all of it by any means. Occasionally, but not often, certain notes were sung slightly, but definitely sharp or flat. These notes did not depend upon the idiosyncrasy of the singer, but belonged primarily to the song itself, and they were always sung in this manner though by different singers. In my manuscripts I have marked these specially inflected notes to indicate how they should be sung.

I have been surprised to discover among the natives their accurate sense of absolute pitch. It is natural to me, but I always carried a tuning fork as a check, and observed that the same songs and choruses sung on various occasions and by different people were practically unvarying in pitch, and in the spirit in which they were sung, though other words were often substituted.

The next illustration is from the Angoni, a race descended from the Zulus, who, resenting the fierce rule of Chaka, went North and settled on the shores of Lake Nyasa, intermarrying with the people there. These are two short songs sung by solo and chorus chiefly at dances during harvest time. The first is somewhat of nursery type about a little chicken with a little cry, but has a fascination of its own. You will notice the interweaving of the parts, and it is wonderful to watch the precision of the entries, remembering there are no conductors or trained singers there.

1. The little chicken ka-lira,
Oh! hear its grief and sorrow!
Cries softly,
Cries "Peep-peep "
Oh! hear its grief and sorrowl

2. The little chicken ka-lira,
Flut-t'ring its wings and feathers:
Cries shrilly,
Pecks gently,
Oh! hear its grief and sorrow!

The second is a merry-hearted impudent song of mischievous boys calling one another, and stealing Indian maize from the fields in the absence of the owner.

Robbers! Come to gather in your neighbour's field!
Lightly I Quickly come and gather up his corn.
Stealing softly in among the golden grain,
Gather! Pluck the fruit and hasten on again.
Golden corn. Seel It's ripe
Quickly come and gather up your neighbour's grain.

Now we turn to the songs of the road. When native chiefs or Europeans wish to go a long distance, they are carried in a canvas hammock called a machilla, slung on strong bamboo poles, and the teams of natives who bear these poles on their shoulders frequently amuse and encourage one another along the road by means of these songs while carrying out their arduous labours. They can carry a machilla a distance of two hundred miles at the rate of twenty miles a day, camping by the roadside at night, and it is no uncommon thing for them to make a single journey on foot of from forty to fifty miles in one day while assisting in the bearing of a heavy machilla.

While being carried thus I have been enabled to write many of these songs, and when halting for a rest in the middle of the day during the great heat, the natives making a fire and cooking their food, I have often elicited interesting information about the songs they had been singing. Some of these songs are sung by Angoni, of whom I have already spoken, and others by Ajawa or Yao tribes.

In the next illustration, the first originated among the boys who had been captured and driven from their homes by slave raiders, and then forced to work in strange countries, where their hearts hungered for their homes and kinsfolk.

1. Our work now is bitter: grievous. Howa-Howa.
Our work now is bitter: grievous. Howa-Howa.
Our brothers are smitten.
Our homes are forsaken: desolate.
Our children are scattered: homeless. Howa-Howa.

2. Our brothers are starving: hungry;
Our spirits are weary: hopeless.
Our shoulders are heavy: broken.
The day brings us sorrow and darkness.
Our work is bitter.

The second of these road songs is in a happier strain-of contented, strong workers looking forward to a good meal when they had reached the end of a journey. I need hardly remind any of the audience who have experience of coloured labour, of the unconcealed delight of the natives at the prospect of a lucky shot at game, which will provide them with a welcome meal.

1. Come, my people-come for fresh meat.
Come, my brothers-come and seek food.
Come, my people-come to buy meat.
Distant going-runs the wild buck,
Horns upraised, and eyes a-glowing.
Come and find him, quick we'll slay him.

2. 'Neath the thorn-tree, 'twixt the branches,
Round a valley, cross the streamlet,
Up the mountain now we track him,
Speed the arrow Hear its laughter!
Spear the wild buck! On the rafters
High we'll place his horns among us.
There are many of these travelling songs, but it is impossible
in a lecture to give more than an "impression " of them.

There are also many "calls "-long-drawn whistles and other sounds used by the natives to communicate with one another, each having its own particular meaning, and I was interested in making notes of them when possible. Although living among the natives so many years, I have never been able to obtain direct information about these "calls," so well are they guarded. When questioned concerning them, the individual always pretended not to understand. So, apart from general knowledge gathered from overhearing or taking part in native conversations, it was only by keen observation over an extended period that I was gradually able to make out the definite communications intended by definite sounds.

Among these children of Nature the sense of rhythm is evoked with intensity, and they are brothers to the modern student, who with a keen ear for the finish of phrases and gradation of tone, concentrates chiefly on the manner of singing, and the regular recurring pulsations, but I am afraid you would be horrified to hear the rough quality of many of the voices. It is interesting to note that I have never come across a song which might be classed as analogous to the civilised so-called "love-song," and this perhaps indicates their attitude of mind. They are very fond of their children, and are generally kind to their fathers and mothers, but singing a love-song to a dusky fair one is-unheard of! We will now turn to a side which in so many countries is voiced in passionate song--that of mourning and lamentation.

The first song of the next illustration is monotonous by reason of its having only three notes, but it vibrates with a real passion when sung in its homeland. The singer is in trouble, and the words present, not the literal meaning, but the native picturesque way of describing his sensations. The allusions to his pipe and his smoke mean his nearest and dearest. His smoke is much to him.

This will be immediately followed by a two-part boat song, from the Elephant March on the River Shire, and represents the villagers turning out of their huts to frighten away the large and fierce eagles they see flying overhead with evil intentions of carrying away any young birds or animals for their prey.

In the settings I have tried to convey that, although only three notes are sung in the first, it is sung in a varied manner and worked up to a certain climax, and also in the second to give the feeling of the gentle rocking movement with which the boat-song is sung. The first part of the former is accompanied by the deep sound of large drums, and later by both large and small. The words are.

1.Oh! my soul! Oh! my pipe! Troublous waters round me.
Oh the sunshine! Ah my smoke! My brother now is starving.
Alas! the moon. Alas! my pipe! You are in the forest.
Ah! The starlight! Ah! my smoke I Here are thorns and briers
Gathering round about me.
In the thicket now I go-none is near to help me.
In the clouds artf fear and woe-down the depths I'm falling.
Troublous waters round me, darkness round about me.
Splashing! Splashing! Splashing! My very soul is torn.
"The approach of the Eagles."

2. Presage of evill Bringer of fearl
Eagles of might are hov'ring near.
Gather around the lambs and the sheep.
Call the strong men to smite them.
Pinions outspread as slowly he flies.
Lizards glance up! The wee chick cries.
Bring our your arrows! Throw your spears!
Hasten! The strong men conquer.

In order to voice more passionately true mourning and lamentation, the art of drum-making is followed, and there is a system of tuning, rough and ready perhaps, but in skilled hands marvellously answering the purpose. This making of drums is prepared for many months beforehand. Likely trees are felled and cut into sections, some large, some small, all proportionate to their girth, ranging from a yard across down to four or five inches only. The inside of the section is burnt and cut out after the wood is considered seasoned; the animals are shot and their skins prepared and stretched. When the drum-makers start their work, assisted by many willing hands, they take the largest section and stretch the skins across the top of these pieces of hollowed trees, and
fasten them round tightly with wooden pegs. Then they prepare the next largest in size, and so on until the smallest is completed, and the material is all used up. The drums are then placed with the hollowed side downwards in a grass hut, and are left there some weeks "to settle."

At the end of that time, starting on a night with a full moon, the singers and musicians are called in by the village people, and there is a great gathering of happy people out to amuse themselves, something like an old English fair. The chief musician is highly decorated on his person by clothing of various handsome furs, long imposing coloured feathers on his head-dress, and weird bead-work and charms on his limbs, and he is generally highly skilled in his own particular way. It is his duty, with his assistants, to test each of the drums, a lengthy process, as there are often a hundred or even more. Some prove unsuitable; the tone is not resonant, or the wood is insufficiently seasoned and has split. The smallest drums are tested first, and great is the satisfaction of the onlookers when their excitement is worked up to the ceremony of testing the larger ones, and a particularly fine drum is passed as "quite good." The chief musician tests them all, even the very smallest, for they each have a use in the scheme.

From the good ones, however, there is a further and most critical selection, and this is how it is made. The singers sing their songs belonging to the village repertoire, and as they are singing, the musician gently taps a drum, and decides if in his opinion the sound of the drum goes with or clashes against the song, and it is chosen or rejected accordingly. Thus their tuning, and the results, are often most effective, and not to be lightly condemned by more learned folk.

These discarded drums, good, but not suitable for their particular songs, are sold among their friends in neighbouring villages, who carry out a similar process of selection, and it is considered a great honour among the native chiefs to be presented with an approved drum.

The following song is without drums. it has both melody and rhythm, and is sung during the final ceremonies of mourning among some mountain races. On the night of a full moon the chief singer stands on the top of a hill, and with hands raised to direct the sounds from his mouth across the valley below he sings the "Lament," with high voice and declamatory manner, while at the foot of the mountain hundreds of villagers sit huddled among the trees to sing a refrain between the sentences of the Lament. You will notice this refrain has a harmonic basis, and is really a series of broken chords.

I. There death now has come to the homestead,
Enter not, my brother.
A maiden, alas, there is sleeping.

2. Her rest is dark and unending.
She returns no more.
Her spirit has passed on a journey.

The last is a splendid War Song, accompanied by small drums, the brandishing of spears and movements of the body meaning courage and defiance.

1. Fight now! Come and fight now!
Slay them! We'll brandish spears!
Straight forth doth speed your arrow.
Tremble! Yes They tremble!
When we draw near,
And far they'll flee as we approach them!

2. Sharpen keen your arrows I
Brave heads upraised and shouting
Loudly our defiance.
All there who oppose us
Quickly our spears
Shall pierce their breasts. They will be scattered.

This last illustration brings our lecture to a close. Naturally in this short time I have only been able to reproduce, or perhaps suggest, a slight atmosphere of the original, but I hope these little glimpses may have roused some interest in the music of a far-away people.



1. This paper was read at a meeting of the Society held on December 9th' 1920. For report of other proceedings on this occasion, see page 140.


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