“Everybody come… Everyone come together… / The grave is restless. The grave is not yet at peace…” (translation)
Lorenzo Turner, a pioneering Black linguist, recognized the origin of these lines in a song he recorded in the 1930s on the south-east coast of America, sung in the Gullah dialect. Later, in the 1990s – through the investigative efforts of scholars to track down the song’s genesis – the African-American custodians of this song were led to a homecoming with their family of origin in the Mende region of Sierra Leone. “The Language You Cry In” documents the moving saga of how the oral memory captured in Turner’s recording helped to reunite a family torn apart through the Middle Passage and horrors of slavery.
The Mende women of Sierra Leone sing these lines in a traditional burial song that’s been handed down through successive generations to bridge the community with their ancestral realm in a ceremony called Tenjami or “crossing the river.” According to their matriarchally-conscious African custom, it is the women who preside over matters of birth and death. When handing down these words and the accompanying rituals to her granddaughter, Baindu Jabati’s grandmother provided powerful and prescient counsel, stating, “Sometime in the future, when you hear anyone singing this song, you will be able to identify who that person is.”
Referring to her profoundly emotional family reunion captured in this documentary, Baindu affirms, “I believe my grandmother told the truth… That those who sing this song are my brothers and sisters.”
Novelist, theorist and Distinguished Professor at the University of California at Irvine, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has stated that there are two roles for languages: (i) as an agent of communication in our struggle for survival; and (ii) as a carrier of history and culture, thereby acting as the collective memory bank of a people. The “cultural bomb” that was unleashed through the Maafa could not penetrate the legendary powers of this Mende funeral song. Indeed, as the oral-aesthetic perspective and motifs point out, the global phenomenon of pop music itself provides affirmation of the triumph of African oral modalities of communication as they have mediated the formidable challenges of the “New World”/American landscape and cultivated the popular imagination worldwide.
“You can speak another language. You can live in another culture. But to cry over your dead, you always go back to your mother tongue… You know who a person is by the language they cry in.” This Mende proverb was used by an elder in the documentary to explain why this funeral song survived in America. It inspired the title of the film, and also suggests a way of understanding African-American musical expression, and appreciating the profound reach of the oral aesthetic motifs of Africa’s cultural traditions (click on the links provided below for greater discussion of each motif):
MOJO motif – The very word itself comes from the Bantu term kimoyo, meaning “language of the spirit.” In African-American musical expression, one hears the articulation of this language resonating from the emotional depths implicit in and as the statement: “the language you cry in.” The fundamental ingredients in the highly personalized musical style of the Blues came from the isolated field hollers and cries often heard from Africans working on slave plantations. Nurtured in America’s Deep South, the dominant feature in the Blues songs was the persona – feelings, experiences, fears, dreams, moans, protest, etc. – of the individual, solo performer.
CALL-RESPONSE motif – Ever present in African oral-tradition, call-response patterns remained in the Blues, but it was the singer providing the verbal or instrumental response to him- or her-self. As discussed elsewhere, the defining group dynamics of call-response that one hears in pop-music formats have supported and reflected the practical (work-songs), religious, political, and social needs of different occasions throughout history in African-American affairs. North-South conversations between Blues and Jazz elements in America brought about Rhythm and Blues. And, as documented in The Language You Cry In, Lorenzo Turner’s recording provided the link that reunited a Gullah family in northern hemisphere Georgia with their southern hemisphere kinfolk in Sierra Leone.
MASQUERADE motif – The color of white that the Mende women paint themselves with to enact the rituals of the burial ceremony associated with this song is recognized among Africans as a symbolic color of death, thus its designation in masks. The women’s role in this ceremony affirms their magical and matriarchal powers of creating and transforming life and providing it safe passage to its next phase, across the divide between the visible and the invisible realms.
TALKING DRUM motif – The Language You Cry In brings to my mind Nelson George’s book entitled The Death of Rhythm and Blues, in which he talks about the death of a cultural language through its crossover into the American commercial mainstream. As a metaphor for this cultural language, the talking drum motif recognizes the communicative role of instruments in the African oral life-world, and authenticates the bond linking the speech-surrogate to its creator through the language they cry, rejoice and converse in together. As such, this motif reminds us of why drums were removed by slave-masters from Africans crossing the horrific Middle Passage but also validates cultural adaptations that purposefully show up in popular music, including Motown’s globally-significant crossover mission which I’ve discussed under the masquerade motif.
UBUNTU motif – The legendary powers of the traditional Mende funeral song that was carried and nurtured through Gullah memory and performance in Georgia are uniquely evident as Turner’s recording enables scholars in the 1990s to reunite a family severed by slavery’s Middle Passage. Their North-South reunification is a triumphant testimony to Ubuntu – “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” – and of the hero’s journey of a song.
Malaika Mutere, Ph.D. is author of Towards an Africa-centered and pan-African theory of communication: Ubuntu and the Oral Aesthetic perspective Communicatio 38 (2) 2012: 147-163