Sunday, October 24, 2010

Singing in South Africa

I was chatting with a former coworker from the States this week and she mentioned that she missed me, missed seeing me at work, and missed my singing in the mornings. When I am happiest, I sing, and I am happiest in the early morning, before the day has taken its toll. In my work with her, apparently, I would come in the office in the early morning hours and be singing. I smiled in thinking that she recalled this fondly, as my singing tends to grate on my family members’ nerves: especially at having to deal with it first thing in the morning!

I’ve always had music and song in my life, if not seriously, then playfully. When the approach of a new school year comes, whether I’m in the States or in Africa, I hear my mother’s voice in my head singing her rendition of “School days, school days, same old golden rule days. Reading and writing and arithmetic…” (I can also hear her belting out, with great enthusiasm, her rendition of “Bill.” “Oh won’t you marry me Bi-ill, I love you so, I always will…”). Ah, to grow up in the ‘70s.

My dad’s a musician and very talented. I think he passed along some of this talent to me, but I’ve never taken the time to foster this talent properly. At the critical time in learning about music, I was much more interested in spending my time with boys and growing my finger nails. The latter, especially, interfered with my mastering the guitar! My dad has always played in bands and in festivals, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of him loading my sister and I up, along with his van full of musical equipment, and carrying us to whichever musical adventure was headed to. I loved it when midnight or 1:00 am rolled around, and the ever-extended chorus of “one more for the road!” began. I think my dad would finally call it a night closer to 4:00 in the morning! What fun we had!

I’ve sung all of my life. I’ve never had professional training and can’t read music, but if I hear a tune repeatedly and long enough, I’ll know the song forever and can usually hit every note in it. I’ve never sung professionally, in that I’ve never earned any money at it (unless you count being “paid” in bratwurst at St. Joe’s picnic!), but I have sung in front of people, in front of an audience. I love singing; I love how it makes me feel. And it’s one of the ways I feel the presence of God in my life.

Mornings in my house in Africa have been very quiet for a very long time. I have forgotten how to sing. When I was living with my original African host family way back when I first came to South Africa, (was that only a year ago?) I would entertain them for hours singing the African songs we learned in our Peace Corps pre-service training sessions. They particularly liked when I would imitate the male parts of the chorus of a song, as I exaggerated delving deep inside my belly for those low vibrations. They would squeal with laughter and then we’d all take a turn at trying together! When I visited them again last January, I was entertaining them as always with my best attempts at African songs, and in a somewhat serious fashion, they asked me to sing “something from America for them.” I was stunned and caught by surprise. In all of the songs of my life, I could not think of a single American song to sing for them: not a single song.

A family member, some time back, sent me Patty Griffin’s newest (at the time) release: Downtown Church. I love Patty Griffin; she has the voice of an angel. She’s up there with some of my all-time favorite musicians, the women singers that move me to awe and always leave me thinking, “Wow, how does she do that?” She keeps the same company, for this fan, with Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Gillian Welch. What struck me most about Ms. Griffin’s release, however, was the opening and closing tracks: both songs hold powerful meaning for me.

The initial track of Ms. Griffin’s CD is a cover of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” I grew up listening not to Hank Williams singing it, but the Seldom Scene. My dad and his bands would always sing it and when I was older, I would join my dad in singing the song adding the harmony line that he had taught me. He had always sung the high harmonies, but being a true musician, could sing in any range. He graciously made way for me, and in this way, allowed me to “fill” his shoes.

Some of my happiest memories are of singing with my dad. I miss it.

The last track on Ms. Griffin’s CD is “All Creatures of Our God and King.” Many of you will know this song from church, as I did. I sung as a cantor in my church once, and remember “studying” it to lead the congregation in this song. It’s a beautiful song and it moved me to tears hearing Ms. Griffin singing it and of course, remembering myself singing it—singing it back home.

The CD is so achingly beautiful that I usually can’t bear to listen to it and it makes me awfully, awfully homesick. My favorite track is “Come Home to Me.”

I was thinking recently that when I return to the States, I will join a choir and have singing back in my life. Mercifully, I was saved from the waiting when a God thought came: “Sing NOW.”

I love the church in my village I’ve been attending since arriving at my permanent site. It’s a “Roman” church, in that it’s Roman Catholic, but it doesn’t matter the denomination: I go because it is the only time in my week that I feel safe and protected, and if not loved then at least welcomed and for the singing. I love to go for the singing. I’ve decided there is nothing lovelier that the Tswana people singing, especially Tswana people singing in church.

I realized today how lucky I am that I can read and write. Even though I’m far from fluent in Setswana, I know enough of it to read it, and if I can’t understand the meaning, I can at least attempt pronunciation—and am usually pretty close. This ability has helped me with singing at my church, because the congregants have figured out that if I can see a hymnal, I will happily sing, and almost always someone is nearby with a hymnal at the ready.

So I’m singing in South Africa, and if not every morning, at least on Sunday mornings.

Another friend has recently sent me some bulletins from a Taizé service I loved to attend in my neighborhood in the States. (Hey Louisville: Church of the Advent, Bardstown Road, Thursday nights at 7:00—a wonderful service—inclusive, welcoming, unfussy, singing, chanting, candlelight, SILENCE--it’s beautiful, it’s easy--check it out!) The bulletins she sent have several of the chants from the Taizé service and I’ve cut the prayers and the chants out and have posted them at various spots around my house.

So, I am learning to sing again, learning to sing in Africa. You, Ms. Griffin, and Africa are helping me find my voice agaiin. If you were walking along, outside my home, you might hear me singing a tune from Ms. Griffin’s Downtown Church, or a chant from Taizé, or an African hymn I’d sung on Sunday morning. I’m doing my best, to learn as many African songs as I can, so I can come home and sing them to YOU!



PS: the photo is a blurred (hopefully) image of Ms. Griffin's album cover... Wasn't sure how crazy she'd be at my using it for a blog post!  Copyrights and all!


  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.....this makes my heart sing!

  2. Glad to hear you're singing again. You have a lovely voice. We'd love to start playing music again when you get back. Of course we've said that many times over the years, but your life is always so busy. Seems it never lasts more than 3 or 4 times, then it goes by the wayside. Life goes by so quickly. Seems we always put off things until we have more "time." I know, I'm guilty of that too. Quite often, it's too late, when we finally get that time. Keep singing and be happy!