Words: uplifting or degrading


During the Copenhagen jazz festival in July we went to see Oumou Sangaré performing with her band at the Concert House. Oumou Sangaré is known as the diva of Malian music. She has a very strong voice and her songs reverberate with thoughts about love and its complications, often sung through dialogue with the other musicians on the stage while waving her arms and gesturing at the audience. It was a spectacular show; the kora player, the guitarist and the two accompanying dancers excelled and the sounds built to dramatic peaks of intensity.

I thought about words while she sang. Her lyrics are in Bambara, a West African language, interspersed with some French exclamations. It is perfectly possible to listen to the music and enjoy the instruments and voices while not understanding a single word.

The world is overflowing with words, in countless languages. Our little house is full of books and there’s always a pile of magazines in the corner. The papers I have drafted and edited over the years from a thesis to various reports and study notes are filed haphazardly. Like millions of people I have become semi-addicted to flows of information on my mobile ’phone.

One of the difficulties I encounter when trying to write is a fear that all the words are useless. Sometimes I’m concerned about overdosing on reading matter. I doubt the purpose of creating more texts although for 40-50 years I’ve been actively contributing to the surfeit. Like many others I am afflicted by a strong urge to capture my thoughts on digital ”paper”…

Perhaps singing is the answer! Our grandchild aged two and a half is an enthusiastic singer; doing his best to reproduce the pronunciation of the words he has learnt at the nursery and from his musical parents. A young child’s discovery of language is a wondrous process, an uplifting dimension of grand parenting!

We went to a concert with Oumou Sangaré around 22 years ago in the Maison du Peuple on the main avenue in Ouagadougou. I remember being blown away by the thunderous drums and soaring voices. We enjoyed many opportunities to hear West African music during our two years living in the city. But often we didn’t understand the words…

Repressive Saudi Arab ideology has permeated West Africa since the 1990s. The words of the holy Quran are used to spread hatred and mistrust around the region. Musical traditions have been attacked as “unclean” and musicians have been stoned and silenced. It is hard to comprehend the mentality of those who rage against the beauty of the kora and drums.

Something scary is happening to language in these dark times. Abuse, lies and distorted trashy stories spout from the twitter accounts of the powerful, debasing the currencies of communication until we are left with… hollow men, dead men, faint echoes of humanity…

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