Singing songs of Africa

2010-11-24 00:00

THE hate speech complaint against ANC Youth League president Julius Malema about the singing of the words “dubul’ ibhunu” (shoot the boer) in the struggle song, Ayesaba Amagwala, was postponed at a court hearing earlier this month until next year.

Malema might be interested to know a more acceptable version of the song can be found in Listen! Africa’­s Calling — New songs to traditional folk tunes by Gertrud Tönsin­g and illustrated by Philemon Bayipon, a political exile from Nigeria and now resident artist at Basani, African Art and Craft, in Pietermaritzburg.

Tönsing is a local Lutheran pastor who, speaking to The Witness in April when her book was in its final planning stages, told of learning “a sanitised version of Ayesaba Amagwala in my radical student days — without the ‘kill the boer’ line”, and was including it in her collection “with a new English text which makes it into a battle song for the sports fields: ‘They can’t win, they know it now ...’”

Last week, Tönsing launched her book at the New Hanover Primary School. One reason for the location, as she said at the function, was that “New Hanover is the epicentre of German culture in South Africa.”

She’s probably right. The school sits amid the canefields on the Dalton road just outside New Hanover, part of a complex of buildings that includes the Brunfelsia Care Centre for the Aged and a 142-year-old Bavarian-style Evangelical Lutheran Church with an elegant spire that is now a national monument.

Walking towards the school hall where the launch was to take place along with a performance of some of the songs by the school choir, I heard greetings in German, Zulu and English, but mainly in German.

Tönsing told the audience of how she values her German heritage and that her book is a way of accommodating that rich German heritage in contemporary South Africa.

The book began life at a campfire sing-song. “A couple of us had guitars and we began singing German folk songs. But I realised I felt uncomfortable because not everyone understood the words. People said it was fine, they liked listening, but I still wasn’t happy.”

Attempts to sing something in English that everyone knew faltered after Coming Round the Mountain. Pondering this on her way home, Tönsing thought that translating German folk songs into English might provide a future solution, songs like The Old Mill by the Stream. “But, I thought, I don’t want to sing about an old mill in the Black Forest but about a mill in Africa.”

So Tönsing began looking for German songs with African settings and others from the English and Irish folk tradition that could be adapted. She also searched out South African songs — in Afrikaans and Zulu. Some of the latter came from her student activist days, including the “song that Julius Malema got into trouble for singing”.

Having selected the songs, Tönsin­g then rewrote the lyrics, something she says is totally in keeping with the folk music tradition where songs are borrowed and adapted according to different circumstances. Similarly with Ayesaba Amagwala, which she appreciates as part of our history, but has rewritten for a different situation.

If all this sounds like a rose-tinted recipe for the Rainbow Nation, it’s not. “I don’t think we are a rainbow nation yet,” Tönsing told the invited audience. But if we are to become one her book is one of its building blocks and its launch in New Hanover provided a glimpse of that rainbow’s possibilities. I hope someone sends Malema a copy.

• Listen! Africa’s Calling — New songs to traditional folk tunes by Gertrud Tönsing is published by Osborne Porter Literary Services. Copies are on sale at Basani, African Art and Craft.

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