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Singing the morals: The function of musico-linguistic shifts in Kisii folktales

  • Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana


It is well known that the act of invoking a genre is fundamentally one of social action: speakers perform texts with specific social ends in mind, drawing on intertextual connections to imbue their performance with social meaning (Basso, 1996; Bauman, 2004; Briggs & Bauman, 1992; Hodges, 2015). But when a particular genre consists of or includes musical signs in addition to linguistic ones, the question becomes, ‘What does music add to the social act? Why mix the two modalities, and why switch between them?’ This paper describes the use of short songs in a particular moralizing genre of narratives called ‘folktales’ in Kisii, a Bantu language of southwestern Kenya, and shows how these musical performances not only play a role in the socializing function that these narratives have, but are in fact central to how the narrator accomplishes social action through the genre. Because the moral messages of these folktales are never supposed to be told explicitly, Kisii narrators must use indirect means of conveying the proper stances that listeners are meant to have towards events and characters in the narrative. By having characters within the narrative sing emotionally expressive songs, narrators avoid explicit moralizing by either themselves or the characters, while simultaneously layering the text with an implicit social metacommentary. In this way, the switch from linguistic to musical signs becomes the most central component of the text-as-social-action.
Singing the morals: The
function of musico-linguistic
shifts in Kisii folktales
Daniel W. Hieber
University of California, Santa Barbara
AAA 2016, Minneapolis, MN
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation
Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. 1144085
Hieber, Daniel W. 2016. Singing the morals: The function of musico-linguistic shifts in Kisii folktales. Panel on Playing the
changes, saying the changes: The social meaning of musico-linguistic style-shifting, organized by Jessica Love-Nichols (UC Santa
Barbara) and Morgan Sleeper (UC Santa Barbara), Nov. 17, 2016, American Anthropological Association (AAA) Conference,
Minneapolis, MN.
Kisii (kegusi; Bantu, Niger-Congo)
Endangered – few speakers under 30
2.2 million ethnic Gusii people, ~600,000 speakers
kegusi Encyclopedia Project (EEP)
2 mo. eld trip in Summer 2014: 24 folktales; lexical
database with audio (14,000 words)
Generic features of Kisii folktales
Self-erasure of the narrator
Personication of the story
Moganongchá nde? ‘May I, Story, come?’
Moganonchó. ‘Story, come.’
Avoidance of metacommentary and self-correction
No third-party descriptions of mental states
Generic features of Kisii folktales
Characterological types – anthropomorphized animals
Girae, Lion, Hyena, Hare, etc.
Provides the listener with the proper moralizing stance
Usually a single stanza, ~5 lines in length
Voiced by characters in the story (rather than the narrator)
Integral to the plot
Varied in style – from extremely melodic to very chant-like
Why song?
In the absence of metacommentary, songs are a useful
mechanism by which characters express their attitudes
towards events in the narrative.
This in turn tells the listener what kind of stance they are
expected to take, on the basis of their prior knowledge of
characterological types.
Who sings?
25 stories total
12 have human main characters
These same 12 stories – and only these stories – have songs
Only humans sing (unless animals are aided by supernatural
mwná momurá nkerandi
A boy, a girl, and a gourd
Mother wants son to get a
Son brings home gourd
Gourd has woman living
inside it
Woman does house chores
Mother discovers woman
Mother makes son marry
mwná momurá nkerandi
A boy, a girl, and a gourd
The song is how we know the attitude of the mother
Reects common social expectations in Kisii society thatː
men nd wives to marrya)
wives help the women of the husbandb) ’s family with chores
The song does the moralizing work of establishing the stance that the
listener is expected to have towards the son’s negligence
The ironic fact that the ideal wife is living in the much-criticized gourd
further highlights this contrast more starkly
bná btno bnyɔ́ɔ́rté chnkɛnɛnɛ
Five girls pick some mulberries
Five girls go picking mulberries
One girl eats all the mulberries
The girls each sing an oath
promising bad luck if they ate
the mulberries
When the culprit attempts to
sing, she cannot
She falls into the river and
Trí nché nrté
It’s not me who ate them, la di
motwé poopó kemnkrma.
‘Your head bangs, la di da.’
magoró sngʼsngʼí
‘Your legs make noise like
crushed glass, la di da.’
bná btno bnyɔ́ɔ́rté chnkɛnɛnɛ
Five girls pick some mulberries
Song is the key element telling the audience which moral
stance to take
We as listeners are not meant to feel sorry for the girl, but
rather to view her ill fate as punishment for her lie
moské monyakni
A beautiful girl
A girl refuses to marry any suitors
The disgruntled boys pretend to be river beasts,
and turn the river to blood
Father of the girl sings to the river beast, oering
various gifts
The river beast (i.e. the suitors) accepts the girl as a
Girl is given to the river beast.
Suitors take girl away and one marries her
Father is none the wiser
moské monyakni
A beautiful girl
King Lear-style narrative
World is in chaos until the proper social order is restored (i.e. the
girl is properly married)
Father never knows why the river beast wanted the girl
Song informs the
of what the suitors want, and the
source of wrongness in the world
Songs may seem like nothing more than aesthetic ditties
But then why use song at all?
Why at these particular points in the narrative?
Why by these particular characters?
Each of stories show moralizing functions for their songs
Songs provide insights into the attitudes of the characters
Neatly sidesteps the need for third-party metacommentary
Help establish the moral stance that the audience is
expected to take
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