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Traveling in Fairyland: Visiting Swaziland's Colorful Culture and Wildlife

Swazi Music

You can hear Swazi drumming and singing yourself... you'll have to close your eyes to imagine the dancing!

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Kings, queens, and princes, wild beasts and exotic birds--Shawn and I have traveled to the land of fairytales! Swaziland, the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world, is definitely magical. When the people speak, it is as if they are singing. Their native language, Siswati, is quick and bouncing, like a gazelle or a hip-hop song. But when they speak English, which most do, it is slower and more melodic. The words they choose in English are like poetry, a small indication of the richness of their language to non-Siswati speakers like me.

Map of Swaziland
For example, today I asked a man on the street for directions to the Post Office. His reply went something like this: "You move straight, do not turn, until you reach the place where the water bubbles up from the ground. Then you will move left, down the hill."

I wandered off smiling, entertained by visions of a mountain spring here in the middle of the city of Mbanane. My smile broke with laughter when I saw the empty blue concrete fountain indicating my turn. An American would have said, "Ya go straight 'til ya hit the fountain, then turn left." My country could learn a little magic from the Swazis.

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Moon Over Fairyland
Swazis smile and laugh a lot. They are genuinely friendly, curious people. When they greet each other, it is as if they are singing a call and reply. The first calls out joyously, "Sawubona!" The second replies, "Yebo," often holding out the "Ye" note for emphasis.

After being taught this simple bit of Siswati, I entertained myself by walking through the streets, smiling at everyone and saying "Sawubona!" just to hear them sing back "Yebo!" They smile, surprised that an obvious foreigner like me knows this simple exchange.

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Emma & Sibongile share a laugh outside our hostel
As with the Zulus (see my last article) music and dancing are an important part of traditional Swazi life. Whereas western Africa is known for its amazing drumming, southern Africa, where we are, is the source of great harmonic singing. Native music in many parts of the world--like some of the traditional singing we heard in parts of Peru, and Indian or Arabic music--uses different chord structures and doesn't sound quite "right" to my ears at first. But when the Swazis sing in harmony, it sounds good. Really good! Much modern "western" music--including gospel, R&B, country, rock-and-roll, and all the music that grew out of those, like rap and hip-hop--can trace its roots to this music.

Siswati Language

My Siswati teachers are Sibongile ("see bone GEE lay") and Emma, two women who work at the hostel where we are staying. Click here to hear them speak this Siswati greeting:

Emma--"Sawubona!" =Hello!

Sibongile-"Yebo!" =Hi!

Emma-"Unjari" =How are you?

Sibongile-"Ngikhona" =I'm fine.

Shawn and I were lucky enough to see a performance of traditional drumming, dancing, and singing when we visited Milwane, a game reserve which is the official royal hunting ground. The employees, who wear the typical "park ranger" khaki uniforms during the day, don their "skins" and traditional dress at night and perform for the people who are staying in the camp grounds and hotels.

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shake, shake, shake your booty
Although the culture is very related to that of the Zulus, there was one difference I quickly noticed in the performance-the Swazis were really having a lot of fun, laughing, improvising, encouraging, and teasing each other. The Zulus we saw, on the other hand, were much more serious and many of their dances seemed warlike.

In the performance, three men were singing in Siswati, and it sounded like a funky barbershop quartet! Then, suddenly, they broke into a few lines of Paul Simon's song "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and I realized that it was almost identical to what they had been singing, only in English! Wait, did anyone get a copyright on that? This singing is known as "township jive" or mbaqanga, and was made world famous by Paul Simon on the Graceland album, and a South African band called Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Can you feel the beat

One dance that both the Swazis and the Zulus performed almost identically was the bull dance, which consists of kicking one foot at a time as high as possible, then slamming it to the ground in time with the drums. I learned that this dance actually originated in the nineteenth century, when both the Zulus and the Swazis, along with Xhosas and all the other tribes in the region, flooded to the gold mines of South Africa in search of work. Even though they spoke different languages and could not talk, they all shared similar traditions of singing, dancing, and raising cattle. The bull dance, then, started in their dorm rooms, after work. Because there was very little space to move, the men would line up between the beds and dance, in unison, kicking straight ahead, acting like bulls. When they went home for the holidays, the women saw them do this dance and made up a version of their own.

Don't think that the music of southern Africa has stalled in tribal custom. Lots of great jazz, rock, hip-hop, rap, and reggae comes from this part of the world, too--What do you expect from an area with such a strong culture of music and such poetic language? It's not always easy to find music from international artists in the U.S., but I know most public radio stations have at least one "World Music" program where you can get a chance to listen to some of this excellent music. You should check it out!


Kevin - Music Can Keep A Family Together... Even After Death
Monica - So Who Was Shaka Zulu- Really?
Kavitha - da Vinci and Michelangelo Have Nothing on the San Bushmnen
Kevin - Mbira, Mbira, in the Hand, Who's the Coolest Cat in the Land?
Shawn - Swaziland: Rich in History and Smiles

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