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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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