Why Toty Sa’Med Writes Songs in Kimbundu.

BBC News has a nice piece in which Angolan singer Toty Sa’Med explains why he writes songs in a language he barely knows:

My great-grandmother was the last person I knew personally who spoke only Kimbundu. She died 15 years ago. It’s a local language in Angola, spoken in the area surrounding the capital Luanda. That’s where I was born and brought up but, even so, I can only speak a few words. […]

When I was a teenager my headmaster decided to put Kimbundu in our timetable at school. This was unusual – it wasn’t on the curriculum in Luanda but I went to a private school. As a 13-year-old I didn’t realise that it was important – it was the lesson we used to chat through and disrupt.

I had some prejudices about Kimbundu. We were taught by society that the language wasn’t beautiful or civilised. We dismissed it because we thought it was a language for savages. When the Portuguese colonised Angola, they tried to diminish the value of Kimbundu and other local languages. Suppressing the culture made it easier to colonise us. […]

I decided that I can do my bit to keep the language alive by writing songs in the language. The problem is that I can’t construct a sentence. So I asked my friend to help. I wrote the lyrics in Portuguese and she translated them. […]

The next stage for me is to learn how to construct sentences for myself so I’ve enrolled at Kimbundu school. I’ve already persuaded my girlfriend to go to the classes with me and I want some of my friends to register as well so we can speak the language together. If we start now, maybe 60 years from now we will speak Kimbundu, with a few words of Portuguese, rather than the other way round.

Sure, it may be a quixotic attempt, but it’s a noble one, and I hope he gets others to go along with him. (Thanks, Eric!)

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    This is very encouraging. Are there other places where people use music to try to give life to their culture and language? Are there, for instance, efforts in places like Russia to give life to moribund languages by writing songs in that language?

  2. I’d say Māori people have been doing that in New Zealand for a long time.

    A recent and striking example is thrash metal band Alien Weaponry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lx_xGv70Yyo

  3. marie-lucie says:

    The Māori people have an advantage over many others since theirs is the only indigenous language (and group) in New Zealand, so there is no problem about which indigenous language best represents their culture, spirit, etc. In many other
    cases, such as in Africa, Asia and the Americas, there are multiple indigenous languages and even the best-intentioned leaders are hard pressed to treat all of them more or less equally. The situation is even worse in places where a single language is spoken by a group whose traditional territory overlaps the colonial borders and who are therefore under the control of two or mors states or nations.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Stephen, thanks for the information. I thought that the Moriorii had been wiped out several generations ago.

  5. @Stephen Euuurrm you are stepping into a minefield.

    Unfortunately I don’t have my Michael King History of New Zealand to hand. More specifically, he has a whole study titled Moriori: a People Rediscovered. “Michael King clears away all the nonsense, rumour and vilification that has surrounded the Moriori. He identifies who they were and where they came from. He reveals that Moriori people were not a race, and that they are far from extinct. ”

    (From memory) Moriori peoples are best seen as one of many waves of settlers from islands to the north. They are not culturally nor linguistically distinct from Māori. Their ‘language’ is best seen as a dialect, and there were many dialects of ‘Te Reo’ across Aotearoa (before the European colonisers did their usual number).

    Yes other warring tribes took advantage of Moriori’s peacable nature; (some) tribes were at war almost continually — again until Europeans arrived and played favourites by selectively dishing out guns and steel.

    It was convenient for the British Crown to point to the alleged wiping out of Moriori by Māori as evidence that they were all savages and cannibals, and needed to be ‘civilised’.

  6. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Are there, for instance, efforts in places like Russia to give life to moribund languages by writing songs in that language?

    a folk rock band singing in Khanty and Mansi (dunno if most of their lyrics are traditional or not, some probably not)
    Despacito in Udmurt 🙂

  7. Despacito in Udmurt

    My day is made!

  8. selectively dishing out guns and steel

    The now-traditional third member of the trinity, germs, were rather less selective, and wiped out perhaps 20% of the Moriori. Many more were killed (and sometimes eaten) during the Māori invasion of 1835, but many more remained as slaves, and there are a few thousand people with partial Moriori ancestry today, though the last full-blood died in 1933.

  9. SFReader says:
  10. David Marjanović says:

    “to be honest this song sounds like a gramma rapping to a techno beat.” In some kind of Mansi.

  11. gwenllian says:

    They are not culturally nor linguistically distinct from Māori. Their ‘language’ is best seen as a dialect, and there were many dialects of ‘Te Reo’ across Aotearoa (before the European colonisers did their usual number).

    I see this a lot, and while I understand and appreciate the motivation behind these claims is to correct colonialist lies aiming to invalidate the Maori as indigenous, they always strike me as overkill. The Moriori had no contact with North and South Island iwi for centuries. Surely their extreme pacifism alone is a pretty massive cultural distinction.

    Language vs dialect… Moriori differs more from the various North and South Island dialects than they do among themselves (at least if I recall correctly… and given its historical isolation, it’d be surprising if it didn’t). Perhaps more importantly, while we know Maori consider all the North and South Island dialects one language, the Moriori position on Moriori is understandably much harder to come by. In the little I have seen of the Chathams so far (a few news stories and short documentaries), they always referred to it as the Moriori language.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Despacito in Udmurt

    Not bad… not bad at all. 🙂

    Manchu song

    With a Chinese accent, right? Every sirdan coming out as siledan
    English translation here under “show more”.

  13. I believe the accent is Inner Mongolian. The singer is supposed to be a native Mongolian speaker from Inner Mongolia (who rediscovered his ethnic Manchu heritage).

  14. Here is a Google-translated excerpt from Chinese Wiki on the singer.

    Song Xidong
    Original name Manchu: akšan
    Nickname Dongzi, Dongge
    Nationality People’s Republic of China
    Born in 1979
     Bailang Town, Ulanhot City, Xingan League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China
    Professional singer
    Language Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian
    Types of music Ethnic music, Manchu music

    Song Xidong grew up in Inner Mongolia and was particularly interested in music since childhood. In 1997, Song Xidong, who just graduated from high school, came to Beijing alone to achieve his musical dream. After a brief introduction by a Mongolian fellow, he learned about the Tengger Blue Wolf Band. He helped Song Xidong find a job at a bar near Tsinghua University. Therefore, Song Xidong also met some teachers and classmates of the Conservatory of Music of the Central University for Nationalities and learned a lot of music knowledge. A year later, Song Xidong quit his job at the bar to help Quan Sheng and Tuli Gul (Cang Wolf keyboard player) take care of the recording studio. That was a happy learning time for Song Xidong. Song Xidong came into contact with many masters in the recording studio. When recording to Tengger, Song Xidong often consulted him about singing skills and benefited a lot. During this period, he also had the privilege of serving as the pre-recording work for Dedemar’s song “The River of the Father’s Prairie Mother” [Ref. 2].

    Heritage Manchu Music
    Because Song Xidong was a Manchu man, he always wanted to know what Manchu music really was like. With more friends playing music around, this idea is getting stronger. It was a coincidence that in 2006, Song Xidong met the same man who was a Manchu member. They both wrote or adapted many Manchu songs together. Since then, Song Xidong has successively met more friends who have learned Manchu language through Sule. After several years of learning, he has been able to use Manchu dialogue and exchanges with many Manchu friends. Everyone often chats and sings together in Manchu. They also often go to the northeast to learn from the winds. On one occasion, due to the extremely bad environment, they almost died of freezing on the banks of the Songhua River. In October 2009, Song Xidong went north to go to Sanjiazi Village, Fuyu County, Heilongjiang Province and various villages under the Heihe River to learn from the wind. There he found a lot of old people who still speak the language. When Song Xidong sang the Song of Manchu songs he had produced to the old people, the old people sighed: “The original Manchu and Manchu songs have not lost!” This gathering was assisted by Jilin TV Station and students from Northeast Media University used DV to produce and documentary “The Last Batu Lu”. In November 2010, Inner Mongolia TV provided an exclusive interview with Song Xidong in the “Blue Hometown – Musical Tribe” column. On December 4th, “Manchu singer Song Xidong” was aired to show the audience the Manchu language and Manchu tradition.

    This is how languages get revived these days

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Despacito features a brief appearance by a “коллектив ‘Бабушки из Бураново'”. They turn out to be these people, which means I’m probably in a minority of Europeans not to have heard of them before.

  16. Our host will be reminding me shortly about presuming to speak on topics where ‘I have not walked in their shoes’. Also I’m relying too much on memory. never the less …

    The Moriori had no contact with North and South Island iwi for centuries.

    Hmm? Less than 300 years. Can we be sure of no contact? Didn’t they at least trade? A small isolated group sounds like ideal conditions for preserving a historical version of the language. We do know Moriori settled the Chathams from mainland Aotearoa, not as separate emigrants from the Pacific islands. So they at least spoke (some dialect of) the same language to start with.

    Surely their extreme pacifism alone is a pretty massive cultural distinction.

    No: several Maori tribes adopted an approach of nonviolent resistance to the colonialists (not that it did them much good). Sadly one such tribe were the Taranaki group (“but living in Wellington” sez wikipedia — which shows how much displacement there was) who were the main perpetrators of savagery on the Chathams.

    Language vs dialect… Moriori differs more from the various North and South Island dialects than they do among themselves (at least if I recall correctly… and given its historical isolation, it’d be surprising if it didn’t). Perhaps more importantly, while we know Maori consider all the North and South Island dialects one language, …

    The story of the Maori language is the story of the winners. That is principally the tribes that signed the Treaty of Waitangi and thereby got the guns and steel. (Although they’d been getting muskets since the early 1800’s.) The predominant tribe in the South Island became Ngai Tahu, who are (were in 1840’s) more a North Island tribe (that travelled to the South in the Summer) with a North Island ‘dialect’. The Brit’s recruitment of tribes to the Treaty in the South Island was patchy, and there is huge resentment amongst the remnants of (genuine) South Island tribes about the dominance of Ngai Tahu.

    There was little survey of the variety of dialects/languages in the South Island before Ngai Tahu took it over. They’d want you to think it’s all one language, wouldn’t they?

    the Moriori position on Moriori is understandably much harder to come by. In the little I have seen of the Chathams so far (a few news stories and short documentaries), they always referred to it as the Moriori language.

    Yes sure, that’s understandable from their point of view. An act of identity. A language is a dialect that never had an army or navy(?)

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Мурӝол Underground & T.-D.A.B feat. Дыдыкай – Super Удмурты

    Mixing Udmurt, Russian and badly recognizable English. The Tatars in the comments love it.

  18. The Moriori really were quite isolated. They had no long-distance canoes, and few resources with which to trade. If there was contact with the mainland, it wouldn’t have been regular.
    Culturally, the Moriori were distinctly egalitarian, unlike the mainland Maori and most other Polynesian societies.

  19. Bathrobe says:

    Culturally, the Moriori were distinctly egalitarian, unlike the mainland Maori and most other Polynesian societies.

    Looks like another good argument for aggressive, hierarchical, patriarchal (just a gratuitous addition) societies.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    Mixing Udmurt, Russian and badly recognizable English

    Thanks David. I was despairing of this thread ever reverting to Russian, as the past two have.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Background information on the apparently quite famous Despacito adaptation.

  22. Looks like another good argument for aggressive, hierarchical, patriarchal (just a gratuitous addition) societies.

    Unlike elsewhere in Polynesia, the Chatham Islands did not have enough resources to create the surplus that supports a hierarchical society.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Looks like another good argument for aggressive, hierarchical, patriarchal (just a gratuitous addition) societies.

    “Like English and Scots! Irish and Scots! Welsh and Scots! Scots and other Scots! Damned Scots! They ruined Scotland!”

  24. January First-of-May says:

    Unlike elsewhere in Polynesia

    Supposedly (my sources on this are somewhat unreliable), the land that ultimately became the Pitcairn Islands did not have enough resources (per island) to support a viable breeding population at all, and when their colonizers had their own problems that prevented them from helping, the local population had entirely died out.

    (The group that settled the same land in the 18th century – that is, the Bounty mutineers and their descendants – survived due to continuing intermittent contact with the mainland that helped avoid too much gene pool stagnation, as well as due to their higher tech level and, to an extent, probably also their higher starting diversity.)

  25. The Kermadec islands (between NZ and Tonga) and Norfolk Island were also settled by Polynesians, then abandoned. Maybe the Moriori had the advantage of a lot of seals?

  26. SFReader says:

    Moriori, Beothuk, Tasmanian Aboriginals, Tainos.

    The list of extinct people whose extinction is now increasingly being questioned today by self-proclaimed descendants of these groups, continues to grow.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if the Picts or the Samnites resurface one day.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    the Picts

    The truest of Scotsmen…

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Two interesting claims by Mr. Sa’Med in the BBC story: a) as recently as the 1960’s (i.e. after many many centuries of Portuguese rule, and while the military campaign to overthrow that rule was already underway) it might have been necessary to know Kimbundu to speak to ones own mother, because she would not have been able to speak Portuguese; b) the once-substantial cohort of musicians who had sung in Kimbundu were mostly killed or imprisoned in a “purge” in 1977, which was after the Portuguese had been driven out (I’m guessing this purge was probably the aftermath of the failed coup attempt by one faction of the MPLA against another, in which if you believe wikipedia approx 18,000 actual or perceived supporters of the losing side were killed by the winners). So obviously the current prevalence and status of Portuguese in post-colonial Angola is bound up with the colonial history, but the causal story about the recent diminution of Kimbundu is probably more complicated. (If anything, a post-colonial independent regime may have more practical difficulties from the lack of a dominant indigenous “national language” than did the former colonial power, which might well have had no objections if different ethnic groups in different provinces had difficulty communicating with each other due to the lack of a common language.)

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    A different wikipedia piece plausibly claims that one factor contributing to the post-independence rise of Portuguese was the long-running civil war which led to a lot of population displacement (something which had probably also occurred during the pre-independence guerilla war). If you move away from your ancestral village to get away from gunfire or landmines or whatnot, you are more likely to find yourself living among people who don’t speak your village’s L1, and will need a lingua franca to communicate with them in, which in the Angolan context was going to be Portuguese. The different factions in the long-running conflicts in Angola tended to have different ethnic bases, with some corresponding difference (for those who were not L1 Lusophones) in L1. I think speakers of Kimbundu (or Lusophones who descended from Kimbundu speakers) were in general more likely to be affiliated with the MPLA which was the “winning” faction, but it might have been quite sensible for the MPLA leadership trying to consolidate its national rule and convince rival factions to lay down their arms to avoid any appearance of trying to favor their own ethnic L1 at the expense of other indigenous languages, which gets one back (absent some local alternative like Swahili) to the colonial language as the only neutral one that puts all ethnic groups on a level playing field.

  30. but the causal story about the recent diminution of Kimbundu is probably more complicated.

    Everything is always more complicated. I think our brains protect us from this truth when we’re young, so we can understand the world at least in gross outline by a pocketful of oversimplifications; many people, of course, stick with that and see no need to go further, but those of us who keep learning and trying to figure out the details eventually realize it’s all one huge swamp of entangled complications and we have no hope of grasping more than a tiny bit here and there.

  31. Bathrobe says:

    eventually realize it’s all one huge swamp of entangled complications and we have no hope of grasping more than a tiny bit here and there.

    This sounds somehow Gothic, or perhaps a great line from a sci-fi novel.

  32. “Alas,” she cried, “we are doomed! This is the Swamp of Entangled Complications!”

  33. Reminds me of the rule of thumb to recognize an expert: All their answers begin with “That depends.”

    (Unless you’re an expert in the same area yourself, of course. An expert usually knows how to ask questions that have precise answers).

  34. Many of the experts at MetaFilter have simply stopped responding to posts/questions dealing with their specialties (and in extreme cases have left the site altogether) because they can’t stand the oversimplifications and plain errors (and the pushback against their attempts to correct them). It’s a problem. To recycle my favorite TSE quote: “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.”

  35. Suddenly it makes sense that the archetypical guru lives in a cave on a mountaintop — it’s so supplicants will be too out of breath to argue about the answers they get.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    But me, I’m still on the road

    Headin’ for another joint

    We always did feel the same

    We just saw it from a different point

    Of view

    Tangled up in a swamp of complications

  37. Also so he can throw rocks down on them to discourage them from coming at all. See Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

    Hat: are you one of those experts, at least in a MeFi context?

  38. I’m a (self-appointed but generally acknowledged) language expert, and I’ve had the great pleasure over the years (I joined MeFi shortly after starting LH) of seeing the descriptivist view spread much more widely on the site — when I started, it was basically all peeving all the time, but with the help of a few linguistics students (and of Josh Millard/cortex, who is now running the site and who has been converted to the Light Side) the balance is much more on the side of linguistic science, and I no longer feel I have to stand guard over every thread where the topic might arise, because there are plenty of people who will do the good work in my place.

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