Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


THE AFRICAN SONG

THE AFRICAN SONG 

The following article appears in the Black Pearl Sings! study guide, and is intended to help audiences learn more about the production. If you have not seen the play, this article does contain spoilers that give away the ending.

South Carolina Sea Islands

The African song sung by Pearl at the end of Black Pearl Sings! was not invented for the play. In fact, it is a traditional African song that has quite a story of its own. The song is the focal point of a documentary called The Language You Cry In. The documentary explains that in the 1930s, there was an African American linguist named Lorenzo Turner who catalogued over 3,000 names and words of African origin in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. He found that in these states, some of the Gullah living there could recite texts in African languages. One of the longest texts he came across was a five-line song sung by Amelia Dawley, who lived in a Georgia fishing village. She did not know the meaning of the song, but a Sierra Leonean graduate student in the US recognized the language as Mende, the major language of Sierra Leone.

Bunce Island, Sierra Leone

It took 50 years for someone to finally follow up on these clues. In the 1980s, Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist teaching in Sierra Leone, picked up where Lorenzo Turner left off. He discovered that Bunce Island, a British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many of its captives to Georgia and South Carolina. This is because these slaves already had experience growing rice in Africa, so they were of great value to the slave owners. This resulted in a relatively coherent community of slaves in the area, and why the Gullah have been able to preserve many of their roots.

After learning of the song, Opala and his colleagues set out to see if it was still sung in Sierra Leone. They learned one of the words in the song was unique to a dialect in southern Sierra Leone, and discovered a woman named Baindu Jabati, who knew a song very similar to Amelia’s. The song was traditionally performed at graveside ceremonies called Tenjami (crossing the river), and she knew it because in her culture, woman were responsible for birth and death rites.

Joseph Opala (right) interviewing an African elder living near Bunce Island in 1988.

Opala and Cynthia Schmidt, who discovered Baindu, then traveled to Georgia, and were able to get in touch with Amelia’s daughter, Mary Moran, now 69 years old. She knew the song as well, and it was discovered that women on both sides of the Atlantic were responsible for passing down this song. In 1997, Mary and her family were able to travel to Sierra Leone, visit Baindu’s village and meet her, and take part in a Teijami ceremony. Opala asked the tribe’s 90 year old chief why this song would be preserved by woman ripped from their homeland 200 years ago; he said, “That song would be the most valuable thing she could take. It could connect her to all her ancestors and to their continued blessings.” Then he quoted a Mende proverb, “You know who a person really is by the language they cry in.” Today, Opala is credited with identifying the “Gullah Connection” between Sierra Leone and the Gullah people in Georgia and South Carolina. 

The African song Pearl sings at the end of Black Pearl Sings! is in fact a real, traditional folk song, just like all the others in the show. As Pearl’s daughter has just died, and the song is traditionally associated with funeral rites in African, it is a fitting way for Pearl to honor her daughter and reclaim her roots.

AMELIA’S SONG 

Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay
yah lee luh lay tambay

Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay
yah lee luh lay kah.

Ha suh wileego seehai yuh gbangah lilly
Ha suh wileego dwelin duh kwen
Ha suh wileego seehi uh kwendaiyah.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION 

Everyone come together, let us work hard; the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be perfectly at peace.

Everyone come together, let us work hard: the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be at peace at once.

Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, like a firing gun.

Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, oh elders, oh heads of family

Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, like a distant drum beat.

(translated by Tazieff Koroma, Edward Benya and Joseph Opala)

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5 Comments so far
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[…] original post here: THE AFRICAN SONG « Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog Posted in Africa | Tags: Africa, focal, Language., Pearl, pearl-sings, Play, song-sung, […]

Pingback by THE AFRICAN SONG « Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog | Black Africa

No one has done more for the Gullah/sierra leone Heritage research than professor Joseph Opala.I am of a Sierra leonean descent and this phenomenom has fascinated ever since i was growing up. Thank you Professor.

Comment by Mophamed Mansaray

Thanks for the songs, I will check it out.

Comment by Bess

Is it possible to get the music already transcribed for this song? I am hosting the African Literature Association conference in Charleston in March 2013 and would like to have a small choir sing the song as part of a memorial ceremony that will be incorporated into the conference. Please contact Simon Lewis at lewiss@cofc.edu. Thank you.

Comment by Simon Lewis




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