Sing, oh Africa

2010-04-21 00:00

JULIUS Malema singing Ayesaba Amagwala and its subsequent banning struck a chord with Gertrud­ Tönsing — she had included a version of it in her book Listen! Africa­’s Calling, a collection of South African traditional songs.

“I learnt a sanitised version of Ayesaba­ Amagwala in my radical student days — without the “Kill the boer” line — and included it in my collection, together with a new English text which makes it into a battle song for the sports fields: ‘They can’t win, they know it now …’ ”

A Lutheran pastor, Tönsing teaches part-time at the Lutheran Theological Institute and is completing a doctorate­ on Christian songs. Her compilation, We sing of your love — Songs of faith from many ages and cultures, is used by the Lutheran congregation in Hayfields.

“Song is a constant theme in my life,” says Tönsing, who grew up in a German-speaking family in Pietermaritzburg. “We sang as a family before I could talk.

“Folk singing is an important part of German culture,” she says. “I grew up within a folk-singing tradition and when I started moving in English-speaking circles that fell away and I missed it.”

This loss prompted Tönsing to put together a collection of South African songs, which will be published later this year.

“This collection of new South African folk songs brings together a cross section of themes and tunes from South Africa’s many cultures,” she writes in the blurb of the book. “Original texts about South African­ wildlife, its mountains, beaches, cities, food and sport have been written to traditional tunes from various backgrounds.”

All the texts to the songs are by Tönsing — “My own tunes are not that good, I’m better at texts”. She has also added background reflections and information on each song. Many of the tunes come from the writer’s German background, but she has also used Afri­kaans, English, Scottish and Irish folk tunes, as well as Zulu folk and struggle songs. “Songs have been part of our history, divided as it was, they have echoed our conflicts and have contributed to building a new nation.

“I have included some ‘problema-tic’ songs from various different contexts, giving them new texts, such as Sarie Marais from the Anglo-Boer war, some German colonial songs, a song which used to be a pub song which was ‘sanitised’ in the Afrikaans Sangbundel, and Yankee Doodle — which was used to taunt the Americans and ended up being adopted by them and sung back at the British.”

The collection’s title is drawn from the song Listen! Africa’s Calling sung to the German traditional tune Wie oft sind wir geschritten. The original, set in East Africa, was a colonial anthem of sorts but was at its core a response to the wonder of Africa. “In its rewritten version the basic intention is still there,” says Tönsing.

Most of the songs in the collection will be familiar even if the texts are new. In Cape Town’s Fair City is a reworking of the Irish song In Dublin’s Fair City featuring Molly Malone. Set in a South African context it’s given an added resonance. (See sidebar.)

Tönsing says rewriting songs is in keeping with the folk-music tradition.

“Folk songs borrow and rewrite from other tunes and lyrics. It’s part of the tradition and it’s been done since time immemorial. I’m continuing an old tradition.”

Tönsing points out that struggle songs borrowed tunes from a Christian­ background quoting a song where the name Jehovah was replaced with Mandela.

From student days, Tönsing recalls the singing of a new version of the patriotic Afrikaans song Die Lied van Jong Suid-Afrika. “It was at a National Union of South African Students (Nusas) gathering in Stellenbosch. A gifted student leader had rewritten it with new lyrics and called it Die Lied van Nieuwe Suid-Afrika. It was sung just before Beyers Naudé gave a speech. Everyone there knew the song but here it was with new lyrics. It was incredibly emotional.”

Asked about Jacob Zuma’s signature­ song Awuleth’ mashini wami­ Tönsing says that she can understand his desire to sing it.

“It taps into a tradition and culture, keeping alive the heroism of the struggle. Although I find it inappropiate, I appreciate the emotional importance of the song.”

Which brings us to Ayesaba Amagwala­.

“I appreciate it as part of our history­,” says Tönsing. “You don’t want to throw it out, but what to do with it? Rewrite it as per the tradition.” (See sidebar.)

“That’s what we as South Africans need to do. Rather than use the song as Malema sings it, let’s sing something else. Simply shutting up something is a negative thing. I am fairly certain that banning songs has the opposite effect — something our reconciliation team knew well when they incorporated Die Stem into the new South African national anthem.

“A ban on a song is difficult to enforce and provokes people to transgress it, even if they have no intention of killing anyone,” she says. “It is better to reinterpret, rewrite and sanitise texts. They are all singable songs with really nice tunes and a long history of being sung.”

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