The Sound That Men Produce

The music teacher told the choir consisting of boys and girls with good and bad voices alike to sing loud just the same.

Let your voices rise to the heavens, he said. “Those with good voice, please sing louder, that way you will please the Lord; and those of you cursed with dreadful voice, you should also sing louder just the same, that God in His mercy might remember you and restore your original voices”.

The problem with some people is that they think they can bewitch a man-eating leopard with their ‘angelic’ voices while in truth they can only succeed in causing a cat to scream in terror and take refuge with the Tasmanian devil.

Bad singers of the world, don’t despair yet, for your music may be sold and be used in airports to scare away predatory birds for a safe take-off and landing of airplanes!

Once there was a boxer-turned-singer. He performed in nightclubs and the poor people clapped their hands in spite of themselves. One evening a lady who was in the club whispered to her husband:

“Honey, this is the worst singer I have seen in years.”

“I know,” sighed the husband, “but who’s going to tell him.”

Good voice is always associated with angels. But this is a medieval belief. Only humans using their lungs and vocal cords can emit joyful or horrific sounds.

The gods must be very patient with their creatures given the fact that they had to endure for ages the monotonous litany chanted in temples and houses of worship by priests and priestesses alike. At times even the deity can have enough of it. But not, I should add, with Gregorian chants. If angels could sing, they should learn Gregorian chants.

Do you know that we Eritreans have church music that can compare with the best of spiritual hymns world-wide? The Yared chants used by the Eritrean Orthodox Church are pleasing to the profane and sacred ears alike. So are the Koranic chants performed during the Ramadan. 

In Eritrean tradition, the leopard is the most trusted connoisseur of harmonious voice. Hence, the beauty of one’s voice or musical performance is measured by how close one can draw this feline guest to one’s side. In such a precarious situation, when the leopard is listening wistfully to your music seated a few meters away from your pounding heart, you have only to keep singing and playing the flute if you don’t want the bewitched beast to come back to his senses and drag you away for a special dinner.

Next in the order of music-loving animals according to our tradition appears to be the dancing falcon (Lilo) and the humble snail.

When we were kids, we used to sing to the dancing falcon in the following manner:

Lilo Lilo, Dance for Me
And I will give you a chick
For your daughter’s wedding feast

And the Lilo would hover and fly in circles trying to oblige us. Or perhaps he hovered above thinking we were something to eat.

After singing for the Lilo, we would look for a snail buried deep down in his shell (oh no, they are going to bore me to death again!) and we would sing thus:

Snail, Snail
Your cattle are stolen 
So take your sword and run after the rustlers

Okay, that’s enough. And the snail would grudgingly stick out his neck from the shell and raise his telescopic antennas and we would feel very happy for the unfailing show.

Why did the Lilo dance and the snail come out of his shell as we sang to them? Did they really appreciate our voice? I doubt it. It is like the Indian cobra which sways to and fro to the music of the snake charmer. All these animals simply respond to certain types of vibration or to any coordinated movement. In that case even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would not have made them act differently.

Some Europeans don’t seem to enjoy our music and songs at all. I remember a certain French teacher who asked me to intervene on his behalf regarding his crooning maid servant.

“She sings all the time (laloye laloye) while cooking and mopping the floor, would you please tell her to stop it,” he suggested.

“Well, I can’t do that. She will be very much offended,” I told him.

“Please do something.”

So I went over to the lady and told her that if she stopped crooning while at work she would get 5% increase in her monthly salary.

“Over my dead body!” the experienced maid servant blurted. “I will continue singing, and he can go to hell.” And she started to sing in a very plaintive manner which touched my heart.

When I told the French teacher about the outcome of the negotiation, he couldn’t believe his ears. Merde!

Are songs expressions of joy? Not at all. The African Americans sang in the cotton fields out of deep sadness and grief for what the hands of the white man have wrought. The Israelites, who refused to sing when asked to do so as captives by the river of Babylon, sang (not all) as they marched to their death in Nazi Concentration Camps.

When I was young, they taught us that birds sang the praises of God. But, with the passage of time we came to realize that most animals sing either to defend their territories or to attract the female for eventual copulation.

Anyway, whether they do it for violence or for sex, animals are better singers than humans. Take, for example, the nightingale. Its voice is so beautiful that the Sudanese use the name belabl for their singers (meaning nightingales).

In Eritrean culture, bad voice is easy to detect and the singer knows when to stop, unless he is under the influence of alcohol.

Malu: “Aster, does my song remind you of something?”

Aster: “Of course, Malu, I really miss our home in the range where the cattle bellowed as they returned from pasture.”   

This reminds me of another joke about a singer who got non-stop encores on stage. Beside himself with joy, he thanked the audience for enjoying his song and after bowing three times was about to leave the stage.   

“No way!” shouted the crowd. “You will remain on stage and sing it until you get it right!”

Well, as the famous Irish wit, Oscar Wilde, once remarked, if we do not have to shoot the pianist, it is because he is doing his best.

If singers fail to learn from experience, there is always the free market to compete. And only the best win. In such contest, the ear and the heart are the judges.

Music and songs were used by ancient people to soothe their nerves. King Saul felt better after a song or two from David who played the harp for him. The shepherd boy must have been very careful not to make false notes, for Saul slept with his spear by his side, in case.

Songs can arouse both bad and good feelings. They help people to kill their fears and their enemies. They lift the soul in times of depression and do have the power to save those in the verge of committing suicide. Especially when they are spiritual songs like Amazing Grace or nationalistic ones like the French Marsellaise.

If there were men who with their voices changed history, the credit goes to Elvis Presley and Sir Winston Churchill. The voice of the former was used as one of the most effective single weapon by Americans against the Communist Block during the cold war. The latter, sarcastic and defiant, helped the British to win the battle of Britain.

Some music, like the one emitted by the Sirens in Greek mythology, is said to have been irresistible and could be fatal unless one thrust his fingers into his ears. Nowadays, you take similar steps to avoid what is passing as modern music.

One thing I noticed in our musical culture is that we enjoy very loud music. But, loudness has often the tendency to cover mistakes. Blessed are the deaf, for they are spared of infernal din and nonsensical lyrics that come out of some audiocassettes.

A decade or two ago, the Eritrean singer remained in the background with his voice drowned by the cacophony produced by his own band.

 Thanks to exposure and market competitiveness, at present, Eritrean singers are coming to the fore and we are listening to their messages for the first time.


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