Thursday, April 8, 2010

From South Africa: "Mangawani Mpulele"

One of the delights of the 1950s-1960s popular folk explosion was the attention drawn to folk songs from around the world. This started with the Weavers, who despite the general take on them that they were somehow "more authentic" than the "collegiate" pop folk groups who followed them, were popularizers who set the pattern that everyone else followed of a) finding, rearranging, and copyrighting public domain English language songs, and b) seeking out songs from other countries to include in their albums. Two of the Weavers' hits in their first run of popularity in 1949 and 1950, in fact, were "Tzena, Tzena" (Hebrew from Israel) and Pete Seeger's own discovery, Soloman Linda's "Wimoweh", which Seeger had transliterated from the Zulu "M'Bube." And one of the Weaver's most popular numbers included in their Carnegie Hall concert album was "Around The World," which had snippets of folk songs in five different languages.
Since the Weavers were the template for all who followed, it's no surprise that other groups also chose to do foreign language songs, most notably Bud and Travis with their extensive knowledge of and feeling for Mexican songs (though B&T also did other languages as well) and the Kingston Trio, which covered the globe but is likely most notable for bringing the Polynesian songs (both Hawaiian and Tahitian) of Guard's and Shane's background to the mainland. [Parenthesis: I'm reading Richard Noble's book on the Highwaymen called Number #1; he's ascribing the foreign language bit to that group. Sorry, Richard: the KT has you beaten by several years.] Soloists like Theodore Bikel and Joan Baez also included international songs in their repertoires.
It is from Bikel (the original Capt. von Trapp on Broadway's Sound of Music - remember?) that the Trio got "Mangwani Mpulele," a South African song that even Bikel misidentifies (see HERE) as Zulu when it is in fact a Sotho song - Sotho being a language and group of people related to the Bantu (not Zulu) and living in Botswana and (suprise) Lesotho in addition to South Africa.
Bikel does not suggest that the lyrics are exactly nonsense - he mentions that it means something like "auntie open the door" and "come in from the rain." Well, sort of. Here's what a native speaker of Sotho named Sibusiso Mbokazi posted to a Sotho website (yes, there are such things):

Mmangwane mpulele, ke nelwa ke pula
Mmangwane mpulele, ke nelwa ke pula
Ha di le pedi le ha dile tharo ke nyala mosadi
Mmangwane=your mother's younger sister
mpulele=open for me
nelwa= (raining)pouring on me

Ha di le pedi le ha dile tharo ke nyala mosadi
dile pedi=they are two
le ha=even if
dile tharo=they are three

This makes for a very different meaning. Remember that the Irish "Foggy Dew" originally had an explicitly sexual meaning, and as this is a celebration song, note - YOUR mother's younger sister is not my auntie; rain is something like the foggy dew; "open for me" is likely not the door; the robust intent of the speaker to "marry" (if that's correct) two or three women is clear at the end.

So I'm guessing that the Kingston Trio would have been fine with the slightly blue implications of the song, if they knew - but their vocal arrangement treats it somewhat like nonsense:

They actually make it sound fun and just a tad naughty - good round effect here, and much different as we'll see from the choral groups' renditions.

With his flair for foreign language songs and his especial feeling for the music of Africa, Harry Belafonte here works off of a fabulous instrumental arrangement, which not surprisingly has strong elements of Jamaican music overlying the African rhythm:

Laura Brannigan (who I was shocked to see had died at 47 of a brain aneurysm in 2004) of "Gloria" and "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" fame gives the song a more serious treatment:

Brannigan sub-titles this "The Wedding Song."

If I'm right about the slightly naughty implication of the lyrics, I wonder how many of the vocal groups following were aware of that? First, here is the Vorarlberger Landesjugendchors (national youth choir) of Germany:

Listen to the end - there's a swinging clarinet solo - lots of fun.

And for the fun of it (dig the hairstyles) from 1988 the Woodbury School chorus from Salem, NH:

And the Champlin Park High School chorus from Minneapolis:

So - whatever "Mangwani" may be, nonsense it is not. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.....


Pete Curry said...

Jim: The words for “Mangwani, Mpulele” provided by the native speaker of Sotho that you quote may well have a double meaning, but they are NOT the words that Theodore Bikel and the Kingston Trio sang, which are as follows:

Mangwani, mpulele, kinelwa kipula (2X)
Lehaele mula, lehalay mule, kinelwa kipula (2X)

And according to Dr. Audrey N. Mbeje, Director of the Program in African Languages at the University of Pennsylvania who I consulted about this song, Bikel's translation as found in his book “Folksongs and Footnotes” is accurate:

Aunt, open the door for me, I am getting wet with rain (2X)
Whether it is here, whether it is there, I'm getting wet with rain (2X)

Of course, “open the door” could have a double meaning. But in the context of the lyrics as sung by Theodore Bikel and the Kingston Trio, I'm inclined to believe that a door is just a door and rain is just rain and they're both just fun things to sing about. Regards, Pete Curry

P.S. The Bikel recording was probably the first in the western world (if not anywhere), but another possible source of this song for the KT was “Songs of the World” by the Norman Luboff Choir, a double album on Columbia that was released in 1958. While Luboff, not Bikel, is credited as composer on the label, the liner notes contain the words which are the same as those sung by Bikel and the KT, and the arrangement, especially the guitar harmony intro., is very like the KT (and Bikel) versions. (For what it’s worth, the Luboff LP set also contains the Welsh song “All Through the Night” which the KT also recorded). You can hear the Luboff version here:

Jim Moran said...

Could well be, Pete. Of course, it'd be less fun if so, and even with Dr. Mbeje's accurate translation of the Bikel/KT words, it's hard to see how the song fits into the context of a wedding without some other meaning to the words. Doors and passages and rain and water in general are nearly universal symbols in both folklore and serious literature as well of the universal feminine and life and the life force respectively, which would make the tune appropriate for a wedding (which both Brannigan and Belafonte identify the song as being) with another dimension to the lyrics that could be symbolic without being salacious, the humorous tenor of my remarks notwithstanding. The 40 year lit teacher in me tends to see the symbolic in the very simple - which is quite often very real even when unintentional at a conscious level.

Or it could just be about getting soaked in the rain, in which case it could have no connection to a wedding at all. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Brannigan is doing something very close to the lyric I included; Belafonte appears to be doing a hybrid and adding lyrics not in other versions; the school choruses are doing what sounds like a hybrid as well, though the third and fourth lines are clearly from the Bikel/KT version.

I'll certainly check out the Luboff version - always one of my favorite chorales.



Pete Curry said...

Jim: It is possible that, as with most folk songs, several versions of this song were (and remain) extant in Africa. And it is possible, maybe probable, that one or more of these versions were “wedding songs.” All I’m saying is that the version Bikel and the KT and the Norman Luboff Choir sang appears to have nothing to do with a wedding--other than in the sense that rain, in a very broad sense, can be equated with fertility…or less, titillatingly, good fortune.