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Getting to grips with our languages

By Tessa Dowling

“Iminwe phezulu!” (Fingers up!) belts out the rapper, as if he’s singing something of the utmost relevance and consequence.

The white people, as a black comedian once noted, are in awe and ask: “But what does it mean?” And the joke, according to that funny man, is that: “They always want to know what our lyrics mean! Half the time, vernacular lyrics don’t mean anything!”

I laugh heartily, recognising myself as one of those insatiably-curious-about-all-things-African ‘whiteys’, but it makes me think. African language songs, both traditional and contemporary, sing of the love of language; the way it sounds – the clicks, the naturally occurring rising and falling tones, the unexpected implosive pops and exaggerated aspiration, the ability to say a whole sentence in one ‘word’. And it’s the feeling of togetherness it brings: the clapping, the stamping and the spontaneous, utterly uplifting ululating – “Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!”

Lyrics a part of life

But aside from their beauteous sounds, traditional African language lyrics are far from meaningless: they are a part of a person’s life from birth to death. A Ndebele mother composes a special lullaby (susuzela) for her baby when it is born, and this song stays with the child until she is married. How maternally eloquent is that? Folk tales get an injection of dramatic tension from a well-placed song that can introduce some supernatural creature or event into the narrative, and children certainly wouldn’t play games without singing. A Venda child can sing tunefully standing on her head – literally! And, I promise you, the African language lyrics are just so much more, well, lyrical than their literal English translations:

Ndo ima nga thoho
Nzhelele, nzhelele
Ndo ima nga thoho.

I am standing on my head
Kite, kite
I am standing on my head.

Venda children also sing to help their balance. I can just imagine those sombre Olympian gymnastic halls being cheered by the melodious chant of a competitor on the balance beam:

Dadamale! A ri kandi fhasi.

Walk carefully! We are not falling off.

(both Venda songs in Levine, 2005:203)

Lyrics for rites of passage

Puberty songs contain explicit carnal references, something 19th century missionaries obviously did not like, thinking that they aroused ‘sexual impulses’ – but actually those lyrics would have included cautionary messages about sexual behaviour, which surely they would have wanted.

Zulu wedding songs used to warn about the awfulness of married life, and would express the desolation of a young woman leaving her family:

Ngona ngani?
Ngona ngani kwabendlu yakwethu?

What have I done wrong?
They no longer love me
What have I done wrong to those of my home?
( Joseph, 1983:74)

Women also vent their dissatisfaction with married life in beerdrinking songs – which are accompanied by such vigorous dancing it must be difficult for them to stay drunk! – and in Tsonga say things like, “If only I had stayed at home without experiencing all this anguish!”

Ku lava ku tekiwa loko a ndzi Lo
Tshama ka mhani, hinkwatswo leswi
I nge ndzi nga swi vanangi (Levine, 2005:218)

Talking of anguish, Sotho migrant workers’ songs, known as difela, used self-praise to help them endure the humiliations of their working conditions. At funerals, the sadness of death is made comfortingly quotidian when you send your loved ones home with a friendly farewell, as if they were just walking up the road, past their fields, to a warm fire and family: Hamba kahle! (Zulu: Go well!)

Tapping into tradition

Just as religious music and lyrics form a massive part of the Western musical canon, the spiritual music of diviners in Africa is hugely significant and influential. As God must be flattered and praised, so too must the ancestors.

What is fascinating is that contemporary singers are tapping into their traditional pasts to enrich their musical offerings and connect with their audiences in a far more visceral way. And it is the lyrics of diviners that have a particular impact on performers like Camagwini, a Xhosa-speaking Afro-soul artist, who says she has had a calling to be a healer and who asks her ancestors for “more songs to sing” as she experiences ukuthwasa (the process of becoming a diviner or healer): I asked them to give me more songs to sing so that they can also be able to ukuxhentsa (traditional Xhosa dance) (Twala, n.d.).

Here are some of Camagwini’s lyrics that speak to the poor and the downtrodden:

Ndiyimvumi ndombeleleni
Ndiyimvumi yabahlolokazi
Ndiyimvumi yamahlwempu
Ndiyintliziyo yeentsizi

I am a singer, clap for me
I am the singer of the widows
I am the singer of the poor people
I am the heart of the destitute
(Dowling & Stinson,2011:182)

Of course, African languages also have some love songs, ballads, rap and hip-hop with pretty banal lyrics. But if you tune in to any vernacular radio station and listen – really listen – to the lyrics of contemporary pop songs, you’ll be surprised: there is something deep going on there. The ancestors are talking.


1. Dowling, T. and Stinson, K. (2011) ‘Pop singer as healer: the use of Xhosa – lyrics as cultural self-realisation’. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 23 (2), pp. 177-188.

2. Joseph, R. (1983) ‘Zulu women’s music’. African Music, 6 (3), pp. 53-89.

3. Levine, L. (2005) Traditional music of South Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana.

4. Twala, U. (n.d.) ‘Camagwini has a story’. Black Rage Productions. Available at: 20Camagwini%20Dowling%20and%20Stinson.pdf.

Category: Winter 2013

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