THE ODYSSEY OF A SACRED SONG

by BILL THOMPSON

 

Herb Frazier was captivated by a centuries-old funeral song and its ancestral echo. He had gone to Africa in the spring of 1994 to report on efforts to collect hospital supplies for Rwanda, a drive in which the Medical University of South Carolina was involved. Writing for the Charleston Post and Courier, he covered the local medical community as well as an agonizing recovery from the Rwandan genocide.

A year later he ventured to Sierra Leone on a grant from the National Association of Black Journalists, which provided funds to members to go to an African country to report on issues other than famine and war—an effort “to try to change the narrative of the mainstream media.” Sierra Leone’s history of rice cultivation and the connection to the slave trade in South Carolina and Georgia was a natural fit. But Joseph Opala, a fellow American, persuaded him that there was a more intriguing story: a West African funeral dirge that had reemerged in Georgia, its original meaning and cultural significance lost to time.

This story is the linchpin of Frazier’s new book, Crossing the Sea on a Sacred Song: A Gullah-Mende Musical Bond. Frazier, a Charleston native, is public relations and marketing manager at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. During a 30-year career in journalism, he also was a staffer for The Dallas Times Herald, Charlotte Observer and New Orleans Times-Picayune. His previous book was Behind God’s Back.

Q: How was this song unearthed?

A: Lorenzo Dow Turner, America’s first black linguist, discovered the song in the 1930s while seeking to prove that Gullah speech is rooted in West African languages. Researching in Georgia, he met Amelia Dawley and eventually recorded her version of the song. Dawley was the granddaughter of a woman named Tawba, who had been sold into slavery. Tawba still had a lot of African culture within her, including the song. She sang it to Amelia, and Amelia sang it to her young daughter, Mary Moran. But it was never written down. They didn’t know the language or the meaning of the words. Turner’s English translation appears in his 1949 book, Africanism in the Gullah Dialect, which remains the first and only full-length study of Gullah speech.

Q: Sixty years after Turner’s book, other researchers picked up the baton. Who were they?

A: Yes. The original song in the Mende language was discovered by Joe Opala in Sierra Leone, the sacred lyrics being in the possession of Baindu Jabati, the leader of a singing group in the village of Senehun Ngola. Opala, an anthropologist from Oklahoma, joined with Iowa musicologist Cynthia Schmidt and Taziff Koroma, a linguist from Sierra Leone, to construct a refined translation of the song. They also arranged an improbable meeting of the then 75-year-old Mary Moran and Baindu Jabati.

Q: What is the nature of the song, and how far back does it go?

A: Opala and the other researchers believe it came to Georgia in the late 1700s, when the state needed more labor for its rice plantations. It was a dirge, to call the village together because the heart (of the deceased) is not at rest. The women sang the song during a long period of mourning—a six-day ceremony for a woman and seven for a man—but only one family in the community would have the authority to sing it.

Q: You say the song not only endures as a cultural treasure but illustrates the profound ties between West Africans and Gullah-Geechee people of our Sea Islands. How so?

A: The Rice Coast of Africa is just a small sliver of land, with many languages. West Africa as a whole has many more. Not every African brought to regions of South Carolina and Georgia spoke the same language. Forced into this crucible of slavery, they had to find a way to combine each dialect and borrow from English to create a new language. That’s the genius of African American culture. The song survived here due to cultural isolation.

Q: What do you hope your book will accomplish?

A: That it will provide a background and angle of approach for the further appreciation of Gullah culture. I also hope that it celebrates the Moran family, who have kept this treasure within their family for four generations. This family is unique in Gullah culture in that they have something of African origin within their history. They traveled back to the source of that song and now know its meaning. The song on both sides of the Atlantic changed, because the African side no longer uses it in a burial ceremony. Mary understood the cultural importance of keeping that song alive.

Q: Gullah is one of many languages worldwide that is endangered, is it not?

A: It is not out of the risk category by any means. It is changing, due mainly to English, but I pray it will always be with us. The Gullah- Geechee community has held on to and sustained many of its traditional African ways, more so than any other black population in the United States. A diet featuring okra, red rice, shrimp and collard greens is one reason, as well as the distinctive way that black people go to church services and the rhythmic aspect of it. The grouping of people in family units on ancestral land. Sweetgrass baskets. So many things.

Bill Thompson covers the arts, books and design.