Friday, September 7, 2012

Lost Somewhere In Translation: "Banuwa"

Before the passing of Neil Armstrong and my resulting article last week on the John Stewart song about him intervened, I had originally intended this week's piece as a direct follow-up to the article on "Canastas y mas canastas/Coplas" from two weeks ago because of several interesting parallels between that Mexican tune and our present selection from Africa, "Banuwa." Both songs appeared in U.S. folksingers' repertoires about the same time in the mid-1950s; both are in languages other than English; both were interpreted by a number of high-profile artists - and both may well have been contextually misunderstood by the American performers who sang them - or who still do.

In that last respect, "Banuwa" may share more in common than you might at first guess with two other traditional numbers that originated in Africa, "Mangwani Mpulele" and "Wimoweh." If you glance at the piece on "Wimoweh" and pay especial attention to the remarks by Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo - and listen to that group's sublime rendition - it becomes immediately apparent that the "hunting chant" approach to the song presented by The Weavers, the Kingston Trio, and The Tokens is far off base in terms of the song's actual meaning. Likewise, "Mangwani" may well be a wedding song as Theo Bikel and Laura Brannigan present it, but if so it is closer to the naughty "Canastas/Coplas" than it is to Noel Stookey's wonderfully religious and romantic composition also called "The Wedding Song."

American folksingers' occasional inability to appreciate cultural contexts is hardly surprising, especially if we remember that the songs cited above found their way into our pop/folk music song bag well before the era of broadened legal immigration policies of the 1970s and of the economic globalization that began to take serious shape in the 1990s, both of which have begun to chip away at the parochialism that has afflicted our country fully as much as it has most others. The usually stately grandeur of our wedding ceremonies, for example, makes it hard for us to understand places where that event is a raucous and highly eroticized celebration of fertility - where, for example, as in some Mediterranean nations, the sheets from a bridal bed would be paraded around town the morning after as "proof" of the bride's virginity, or as in a traditional wedding in India where at one point the bride performs an extremely suggestive dance while singing a song whose lyrics couldn't even make their way into a rap number in our country.

Though such cultural disconnects may sometimes result in unintentional offense (discussed in this blog, for example, in a song like the rewrite of "Si Me Quieres Escribir" into "Coast of California"), more often than not no harm is done by a folk process that converts one song into another, often very different in topic or intent from the original.

The Liberian song "Banuwa" exemplifies both a misunderstood original intent in some versions but a delightful transformation into a very different tune in others. The traditional number is tribal in origin and is said to be either a lullaby or a processional. Possibly so; take a look at the brief, simple lyric:

Banuwa, Banuwa, Banuwa yo
A la no, nehnio la no
Nehnia la no
Banuwa, Banuwa, Banuwa yo

which is generally translated as something like

Don't cry, don't cry, pretty little girl don't cry.
Don't cry, don't cry, pretty little girl don't cry.
Your father off at the village
Your mother's out for a while
Your brother's down by the river.
Don't cry little girl, don't cry.

This may be what it appears literally to be, a lullaby comforting a fussy and discontented little child. Compare it to, for example, "Rock-a-bye, Baby" - which, when you think about it, is really a pretty terrifying lyric, what with the breaking branch and falling baby. The soothing singing voice of the mother (traditionally) takes the terror out of it, we hope.

But consider the "Banuwa" lyric again - why would it comfort a child to know that father, mother, and brother are away from home? It sounds like cause for sadness or anxiety rather more than relief. That leaves open the possibility that the song functions on two levels, like most fairy tales and nursery rhymes do. There is an entire critical literature on that subject - on the dual meanings of, say, the many Red Riding Hood stories (in the original, she is killed and not rescued in what author Charles Perrault in 1698 strongly implies is a rape by a handsome young "wolf") or Mother Goose ditties like "Ring around the rosey" ("bring out your dead!" from the black plague and so on) or "Georgie Porgie pudding and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry" because the George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham who is the proven model for the rhyme seduced and abandoned many a young lass (and a lad or two, if the stories are to believed). A five-year-old need not know these underlying themes (though Freud argued that children did get them at a subconscious level) to enjoy the parent's voice reciting or reading them, but the parent might well be aware of the second level of meaning - and in some cultures earthier than our own might well enjoy a small chuckle at the child's innocence. Considered in that light, the "Banuwa" lyric used to lull a child to sleep could well become the ever-so-slightly naughty suggestion of one adolescent to another - no reason to cry or fear 'cause no one's home, baby, but you and me.

Though there are one or two YouTube videos of African groups performing "Banuwa," they are church groups from central and east Africa, more than a thousand miles distant in geography, language, and culture from the west African coastal origin in Liberia of the song. This first version is by a German choral group called SingLust, and except for a slight mispronunciation, they are doing the lyrics as noted above:

SingLust (which would be accurately translated here as "LoveToSing") also preserves both the vocal round and gentle rhythm of the Liberian proto-song. Ditto this version by an unnamed Brazilian choral group:

And of course, Brazil traces much of its own musical culture to the west African slaves brought over by the Portuguese in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Next, a children's choir from the Philippines syncopates and accelerates the tune a bit, which will figure in another version below:

This is pretty far afield from anything remotely resembling a lullaby, and I strongly doubt that the children know what the words mean.

Similarly, the westerners who found the melody and harmony pleasing in the 1950s did not seem to know much about "Banuwa" except for its African pedigree. My friend Art Podell of the early New Christy Minstrels told me this morning that the song swept through Greenwich Village like wildfire mid-decade, and he had heard performers do it at college folk festivals as well. Pete Seeger seems not surprisingly to be the source of the tune in the U.S., as he was for dozens of songs from around the world. One of the first American recordings, if not the earliest, was by on a 1955 LP by a Village pick-up group directed by Seeger called The Song Swappers that included Erik Darling (soon to replace Seeger in the Weavers), Alan Arkin, and a chorus of teens from the Little Red Schoolhouse including a 17-year-old Mary Travers, later of Peter, Paul and Mary. This page from Smithsonian Folkways Records includes a sample of this version, and you can clearly hear Mary's not-yet-mature voice at the top of the vocal blend.

I would be willing to bet the farm that this record was in the possession of Kingston Trio founding member Dave Guard, who has the solo copyright for the next three versions and that he listed as "adapted by" for the KT's debut album. Most Trio fans will recognize from that Folkways page that the Song Swappers also include two more songs - "Bimini Gal" and "Oleanna" - that were later rewritten by other lyricists and that appeared on two other very early KT albums. Guard took his cue from the Swappers' more uptempo rendition of the African chant and turned it into a brief but entertaining calypso tune, reflecting his interest in that latter genre. No YouTube video exists of the KT version from their first LP, and I do not wish further to antagonize Capitol/EMI by posting yet another copyrighted song to the web. Not to fear, though - we have a near-perfect rendition of DG's arrangement as performed by Dave's son Tom and Tom's son Pascal McGilvray-Guard:

Tom is an accomplished musician and music teacher,* and this video was not intended for general release but rather as a gift to family and friends - so I am greatly in Tom's debt because he re-edited the piece and allowed me to use it here. In addition to having the same energy of the original Kingston Trio arrangement, Tom and Pascal are both using Martin 0021DG guitars, Martin's commemorative model in memory of Dave Guard.

Also employing Dave Guard's calypso arrangement is a delightful North Carolina roots group called Both:

The group's website is lots of fun and well worth a visit. Luckily for me and this article, Both posted this to YT just about 2 weeks ago...

...and exactly one week ago, this next rendition was posted by COD, which stands for "Cool Old Dudes":

The Dudes are Art Bivins on guitar, Eric Jones on bass, and Harvey E. Kaufman on banjo. They have several other equally entertaining videos as well.

"Banuwa" has "legs" as they used to say on Broadway in all of its many versions. It is widely performed by choral groups worldwide, especially in the arrangement by Mike Brewer, who included it in his Three African Songs collection. Lullaby or flirting song or calypso, its essential simplicity and tunefulness guarantee that it will be around a lot longer than any of us will.
Addendum March 2013 - For the moment at least, Capitol has not blocked a recent upload of the original Kingston Trio version -


*Tom Guard has a great website as well here:


with a link to his own CD of mostly original songs:

Tom Guard: Shy River

one of which, "Aloha Mr. Guard," is on YouTube HERE.

Thanks again to Tom - good on ya, mate!

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