Is language a barrier in music?

Fred Zindi Music
Have you ever thought of the reasons why our music finds it an uphill struggle to make it in neighbouring countries? In October, last year, I gave 10 copies of Jah Payzah’s “Jerusarema” CD to delegates at a music conference in Brazzaville, Congo and asked them to listen to it, then give me feedback on what they thought about the music. The group of 10 was made up of one Zambian, two Congolese, one Rwandan, two French, one Cameroonian, one South African, one Nigerian and one Ugandan. Their responses were almost uniform: “The beat is okay but we do not understand the language”.

When I asked them if they would go out to record shops and buy this CD, seven of them answered with a resounding “No, because I don’t understand the language!” Three of them simply said: “Maybe, because I like the beat”.

I told these delegates that this album was a big hit in Zimbabwe and they all said they appreciated that because Zimbabweans understand the language and can relate to the messages being portrayed on the album. The delegate from South Africa said, “If this artiste came to perform live in Johannesburg, perhaps, we would appreciate him better, because we will see his stage antics and listen to the band’s beat despite the language barrier.”

The impact of language barriers cannot be underestimated. I had problems trying to understand the proceedings at the conference which were being conducted in French because my French is limited. I had to depend on an interpreter for everything. If I saw a book written in French, I would just ignore it, because I do not understand the language. This is the attitude the delegates also showed on the Jah Prayzah CD.

Even if Jah Prayzah himself had come to deliver a live concert in Brazzaville, he would have difficulties communicating with the crowd the way he does in Zimbabwe.

It does not matter how his 3rd Generation Band lays out some sinister sounding harder rocking licks. When Jah Prayzah shouts “Masojamuriko here uko?”“Mabhebhi muriko here uko?” “Ko Boys dzangu muriko here uko?”, the Congolese crowd will not respond as they do not know what he is talking about. They will probably have an idea when he goes on to pronounce, “Heavy! Heavy!” before belting into his songs. Even within Zimbabwe some Ndebele speakers will find it hard to understand some Shona songs and therefore will not be persuaded to buy music which they do not understand.

This means that our musicians have got to learn the languages of each country they visit in order to make themselves more marketable. But then, how many languages must a musician learn in order to communicate with all his audiences? Why is it that even when we cross to neighbouring countries, such as Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana or Namibia, the language differs?

To understand each other, we end up communicating in European languages, which in the case of many Africans are English, French or Portuguese. However, if an African from an English speaking country like Zimbabwe moves to Mozambique, he will still have communication problems as Mozambique’s European language is Portuguese.

I am persuaded to agree with the arguments put forward by Tofara Dube in his book, “Rise You Downtrodden Blacks” who writes:

“Different colonial administrations produced different orthographies. The result is that an African who has been to school in Zambia (a former British colony) writes the same language differently to a person who is in contiguous Angola (a former Portuguese colony).

While remaining in Africa, an African who crosses from one country to another has to learn a new language. With all these problems the only consistent language across geographical regions of Africa are the European languages.

Therefore, Africans have to communicate with one another in European languages when they cross from one country to another. A Nigerian who speaks Hausa cannot communicate with a Rwandan who speaks Tutsi because the Nigerian was schooled in English, and the Tutsi was schooled in French, and their vernacular languages are orthographically incompatible. This is ridiculous, my fellow Africans. This is one factor that will cause our languages to die, if nothing is done to rectify the situation.

Our destiny is in our hands. Given that, nobody will save us from irrelevance as a language entity if we accept the status quo. We started to be independent from colonial rule more than half a century ago. In those years we have expended energy in our coups, our genocides, and our competitions of who is more European than the other. It is now time for us to revert to being Africans. Other than our skin, our language is a significant identifier of us. But our language scene is convoluted, and requires a serious overhaul. It requires a revolution.

There is not even one African language which all Africans can use and understand each other. Those who are fighting to save our languages do not want to use even one of the languages!

This is not their fault. Theirs is a mammoth task given the thousands of languages that they are dealing with. We are in Africa. It is important that exercises of this nature be done in an African language that everyone in Africa understands. But there is no such language yet. It is a dereliction of our duty to perpetuate this state of affairs.

Africa must have one vernacular language as the universal African lingua franca and universal African official language. We will not be given that language by the Chinese. Nor will we receive it from Mars. We have to accept that our destiny is in our hands, and that we no longer leave our destiny to fate. That means that we the Africans of this world are the ones who will select or develop a single universal language for Africans. We have not considered the language of Africans in the African Diaspora. Many blacks in the Diaspora now speak European languages. They have been stripped of the language aspect of their identity.

Africans in America, otherwise known as African-Americans, generally no longer speak their African languages. Their surnames are British, such as Brown and Williams. In Brazil they have surnames such as Silva. The name part of their identity has been stripped or sanitised, depending on our perspective. To that you add the stripping-off of their languages, and virtually all that’s left is the skin colour, which most bleaches cannot remove without removing the life.

South Africa’s constitution states that there are eleven official languages in South Africa. When there is a problem, sometimes one can make a solution for the sake of “progress”. So when a government cannot decide which language to make official, they make all languages official. It’s a way of leaving the problem to future generations. It’s a cowardly way of solving a problem.

The brave solution has many political repercussions. Politicians tend to have their interests first, and ours next. If we need one official language, and the politician needs continuous access to power, and the two needs appear to be mutually exclusive, the politicians will opt for the decision that keeps them in power. Legislating for 11 official languages means that there is no need to campaign, and there is no offence against any ethnic group. That is why we have 11 official languages in South Africa.”

Unfortunately, that applies to scores of African countries. Is it not time we removed the language barriers firstly through music which is a powerful form of expression? This can be done if all African musicians sang in one language such as Swahili.

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  • Togarepi

    Brilliant suggestion and observation especially on languages, legislating for 11 official languages is not just cowardly but its retrogressive to say the least. Africans have been bitterly divided across ethnic lines and this was used strategically by colonialists. I would take it further and ensure that each country should have one ethnic language as official whilst others are still learnt in schools. For example in our Zimbabwe 96% of the people speak or understand Shona (which by the way is not a tribal language) but political correctness has meant that there is no one with balls to legislate for all Zimbabweans to at least learn Shona. That should be seen as progressive and not tribal. For those who do not understand, Shona is made up of 6 ethnic languages and therefore it is by all intents and purposes a national language. Historically, it may well explain why the builders of Great Zimbabwe, Munhumutapa Empire, Rozvis etc managed to progress because people were united by language. I read the other day that the original Chief Hwange was Shona/Karanga speaking and the Colonialists had to bring a Ndebele chief from Kezi to dilute the Shona culture. I had always wondered why there are Shona names originating from Hwange etc. What this means is that the country is much more artificially linguistically divided than in reality. Naletale was changed from its original Nharitari name by a White District commissioner because he reckoned no Shona names should be in Matebeleland. That’s how the country was confused and this government has just perpetuated it.
    I don’t agree with Zindi though about the use of common language in music, we listened and bought a lot of rhumba music from DRC without understanding a word of what they were saying. Likewise Zimbabweans buy and listen to a lot of South African music without understanding what’s being said. They say music transcends language barriers. Ndatenda.

  • Emru Kunanti

    Problem nana Jah Praza they sing trivial issues difficult to translate to a foreigner. No foreigner can relate to the lyrics nomatter how you try to explain. h eee ngazvitenderere ngazviende mberii

  • Gushaz

    Language or attitude?
    Koffi Olomide – Loi
    Awilo Longomba – Karolina
    Extra Musica – Amniste Shalai
    Papa Wemba – Wake Up.
    I rest my case.