Sunday, August 24, 2014


Richard Strauss writes to his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, at the beginning of their long, successful collaboration: ‘There is only one thing I would ask you: when composing your text don’t think of the music at all – I’ll see to that.’ And Hofmannsthal replies: ‘Rest assured, my dear Dr Strauss, that over the whole text I shall rely upon myself alone and not at all on the music; this is indeed the only way in which we can and must collaborate.’James Fenton, an introduction to English poetry (Penguin 2002)

The French poet Marie–Claire Bancquart has worked on several collaborations with her husband, a professor emeritus of composition at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris. “He generally puts my poetry to music, but one time I wrote a poem from his music…It isn’t the same thing as writing poems (that won’t be set to music.)…My husband said from the beginning that the music must not be only a descriptive accompaniment to the poem. There must therefore be a method of transferring from one technique into the other in such a way that the two works, whether poetic, musical, or pictorial, together create a third work”. –Christina Cook & Marie-Claire Bancquart, Writing about the concrete: Marie Claire Bancquart

Recently a client called me in and very excitedly asked me to collaborate with a fellow artist, an emerging instrumentalist whom they were very excited about. I declined. Gaborone which is the capital of Botswana is rather like a fishbowl there’s only one bridge to burn and so often people say yes when they should be saying no. I suffer from a different problem, I’m attached to my instincts. But this is a good problem to have, no? I don’t know what I was trying to say there except that for the last 5 years or so there has been an increase in the number of English language poets working with music here. As an example a major festival is happening next week and of the 8 billed poets I’m the only one not planning to incorporate music. In some cases music has become a crutch in place of substantial text, for a few the collaboration feels successfully like an evenly matched effort between word and song, for others it is not a question of whether the music or text came first but whether either should have happened in the company of the other at all.

One of the most popular and longstanding shows on national radio is dipina le maboko (songs and poems). Batswana have always had a hard time separating the two, well perhaps not so much music as some kind of accompaniment. We have everything from ululators (always a female accompanying the poet and creating stanzas on the spot by literally repeatedly cutting off the poet wherever she sees fit, alternatively the poet cues her interruption) to traditional dancers blowing a whistle to augment their footwork and once when I was young I saw a drummer accompany a poet. The kind of songs they play on dipina le maboko put me in mind of off key folksongs (is there such a thing?) but of course they are not that, they are what they are, texts spoken or half heartedly sung while some sort of home made violin or thumb piano or four string guitar is played. The text feels like poetry perhaps because it is very short narrative. 

Assistant Professor of English also poet, Tsitsi Jaji ponders what one may learn about reading poetry on and off the page from musical composers' settings of poetry in arts songs."I wanted to share these insights with other scholars of texts but realized that musical manuscripts and scores are legible to me as a former professional musician in ways that might strike my literary colleagues as opaque and untranslatable. I thought that using performance as a way to translate the score might make Coleridge-Taylor’s musical commentary on Dunbar’s poetry accessible to a new sympathetic and sophisticated audience."

Why are we here? Oh yes collaboration.
I’ve had a couple of poems read by actors or interpreted into dance, a few radio hits where spoken word was put over, of all things, club (house) music. I occasionally work with music and/or musicians writing to music for the concept band Sonic Slam Chorus, and have read to Baaba Maal’s band as well as Oliver Lake and his steel pan band and later a 17 man ensemble he fashioned together for a reading . Many of these musicians will tell you how honored, eager even, I was to work with them but how hesitant to take on the music.
Here’s the deal I’m not particularly musically gifted… lets not beat about the bush I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket so whoever I collaborate with, always for me, has to be someone much, much more experienced than I am in whatever other medium. In the way I might trust a particular translator to carry over my meaning or sensibilities into a language I don’t speak, I work with some musicians. The bottomline is that the artistic integrity in a collaboration is in flux, the I in control is no longer singular; the singer drops the lyricist’s word or emphasis, the painter sees the novelist’s face one way, the translator makes I male because his tongue demands a gender. 

My partner must therefore be my crutch, which I may or may not need. I am upfront about how flexible they need to be because when you hear me working with music it is always a reproduction, in much the way Fenton says that, “When an epitaph is a poem written for a tomb, and appears in a book, we are aware that we are not reading it in its proper form: we are reading a reproduction. The original of the epitaph is the tomb itself, with its words cut into stone.” In my case the original is the unaccompanied voice for page or stage. I never think in music.

I do think collaboration happens in different ways, that because English is my third language but my first literary tongue (I read and speak fastest in it and perhaps as a consequence of that read much, much more broadly in it, there is the issue of publishing in local languages but we’ll save that for another day) I find that my many tongues must collaborate to create for me whatever passes for the final English in my writing. Senior lecturer at the University of Botswana, Barolong Seboni in his introduction to ‘Setswana riddles translated into English’ says “Those of us who have chosen English as our medium of expression find ourselves having to explain that “yes, the language is English but the idiom, the meaning, is Tswana”. For this to be possible our English should not be mistaken with the language of those who live across the seas the “eaters of fish”, as our ancestors referred to them.”

This is my current collaboration; a kind of communion with the self, who else? I’m wading through various texts that engage with Setswana oral literature ‘for fun’ but also because more and more when I ask my contemporaries “why do we say this or what does this mean” the answer is invariably “I don’t know.” Perhaps not an entirely unique or scary response but when you factor in that we are now our parents, raising tomorrow’s Batswana it’s a less than tenable state of affairs so I’m collaborating with my Setswananess to better speak through my English. By the time I started going to school there were teachers who beat students for speaking Setswana, “English, English!” they would shout. They thought English the currency to best all others, that if we had this tongue we would not need any other to carve a space for ourselves in the world. By the time we began to redress this wrong the city was a city growing into its cosmopolitanism and English was “cool”, our grandparents were far off in the villages and the little holiday time we spent with them failed to nurture a love for practicing Setswana, all year long the lessons were/are in English except for the hour spent on either Setswana or French language class. These are the cards dealt but what is now nobler, to suffer teeth on tongue or take arms against a sea of this trouble of our own making? Every man has a dog in this fight.

Achebe says, "Let no man be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it".

When this entry began I had a thought but it’s gone the way of crayons in a room full of four year olds, yes to collaboration perhaps, but I’ve no idea to which specific end.

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