Saturday, May 4, 2013

The REAL Meaning of The Song "Gwabi Gwabi" (Guabi Guabi)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is Part I of a two part series on the Zimbabwean song "Gwabi Gwabi". The title of this song is widely but inaccurately given as "Guabi Guabi".

Part I of this series provides information about the song "Gwabi Gwabi", showcases three examples of Arlo Guthrie's performances of this song, and includes comments about & corrections of Guthrie's early stories about that song.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II of this series provides additional information about this song, and features information and additional examples of "Gwabi Gwabi".

The content of this post is presented for cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

[Update June 16, 2017, with words omitted or changed from the earlier edition of this post written in brackets]

"Gwabi Gwabi" is a Ndebele folk song and a Zulu folk song which was first recorded by the Zimbabwean guitarist/singer George Sibanda in the 1940s or 1950s. American folk singer Arlo Guthrie is credited with popularizing the song "Gwabi Gwabi" in the USA and in other parts of the "Western" world.

Here's information about Arlo Guthrie's early recordings of this song that he titled "Guabi Guabi": [Link no longer active as of at least June 16, 2017]

To summarize the first two parts of this article, White American folksinger Arlo Guthrie made up two completely inaccurate stories about the meaning of the word that he spelled "guabi" and the meaning of the song "Gwabi Gwabi". Those stories can be found at the link given above.

Guthrie's stories about this African folk song "read" like American fanciful "lying contests" ("tall tales"). In both of those stories, Guthrie incorrectly translates the word "gwabi" (which he spells "guabi") as a personal name. In both of these stories that Guthrie made up about this African folk song, the man is depicted in ways that mirror the United State's coon stereotype of Black men. And in both of Guthrie's "explanations" about this song the man is depicted [as slipping] on a banana peel and dying for one reason or another.

In the first story the man is arrested because "he cut some sandals out of the tires down there at the dock and they brought him up to the police station--about 13 stories up in the air. The next day they found Guabi had somehow got out the window of a room in a police station that was "13 stories up in the air" and "ended up down the road about three miles."

Continuing that story that Guthrie spins about the song "Gwabi Gwabi" -which he calls "Guabi Guabi", the police gave another account of Guabi's death- that he slipped on a banana peel and fell out that 13th floor window. But, as a result of an investigation, the "actual" account of Guabi's death was that he was chased by the police and his sandals made out of tires blew up.

You will recall that this "tall tale" was used as an introduction for a Southern African song during the time of South African apartheid when numerous acts of police brutality toward Black South Africans [were] occurring, the result of which led to [a number of] "unexplained" or fancifully explained deaths. In my opinion, this makes Guthrie's inclusion of such a tall tale in a Southern African folk song even more unconscionable.

The second "explanation" that Arlo Guthrie gives for the meaning of the song "Guabi Guabi" is said to be an earlier "translation" pf this African song. That story is featured in Example #1 of this post. In that story, the main character is again named "Guabi", but is called "Guabs" by his friends. Guthrie indicates that both of [these] names were "Guabi" because he was "so poor that he didn't have 2 names".

Not only in his introduction, but also during his singing of that song, Arlo Guthrie describes "Guabi" as a stupid man. According to this story, that man slips on a bananna peel, falls off a bridge, and is killed by piranhas.

While it's true that the actual lyrics to the song "Gwabi Gwabi" mention bananas, in light of the widespread trope in the United States of describing Black people as monkeys, I believe that Guthrie's inclusion of the "slipping on a banana peel" ruse is quite problematic.

It's probable that Arlo Guthrie didn't intend for his "tall tale" stories of the meaning of this Southern African folk song to be to be racist. However, intent is no defense for what actually is racist.

The actual story of that song is given in the third section of that article which is entitled [several duplicate words deleted from initial edition of this post] "The Truth of It All": [blockquote added for increased clarity]
"Guabi, Guabi: a South African folk song tremendously popular with folkies in the 60s and 70s, thanks to the recordings of Jack Elliott(1), Jim Kweskin, and Arlo Guthrie. It's a Zulu children's song with a wonderful melody and addictive guitar fingerpicking, and was taken from the singing and playing of guitarist George Sibanda(2). It can be found on an album put out by Decca called Guitars of Africa.

The song is about someone who teases his girlfriend by holding something behind his back and saying, "Guess what I've got." It's an interesting mix of Zulu and French expressions, and this English transliteration and translation is from Andrew Tracy of the African Music Society thanks to the guitar tutorials of Happy Traum (who put out a book with the tablature for Guabi Guabi):

"Guabi, Guabi, guzwangle notamb yami,
(Hear, Guabi, Guabi, I have a girlfriend)
Ihlale nkamben', shu'ngyamtanda
(She lives at Nkamben, sure I love her)

Ngizamtenge la mabanzi, iziwichi le banana."
(I will buy her buns, sweets, and bananas.)

If you've never heard the song sung before, the above is miles away from the actual sound of the African language. Such is the transliteration and its shortcomings.

Good luck with pronouncing the transliteration if you don't have a recording. As for the chords, it's straight C, F, and G. The fingerpicking takes a little more...

One other possibility-write to the Int'l Library Of African Music at Grahamstown,SA (Andrew Tracey) for more on his, and his dad's remarkable work. Their albums, obviously, fueled many-a-crafty folkie, besides doing their intended work...

(1) Jack recorded "Gaubi Guabi" on a 1964 LP called JACK ELLIOTT (Vanguard). That LP has been combined with a live recording from that era and released on a single CD as THE ESSENTIAL RAMBLIN' JACK ELLIOTT (Vanguard).

(2) George Sibanda was an Ndebele guitarist who recorded for the Gallotone label (78rpm) in about 1950; a discovery of Hugh Tracey, eminent saviour of trad. African music. For a time he was funded, in part, by this commercial concern, acting as a "talent scout" for potential "hit" material (as was the case here) in exchange for the ability to document more traditional styles. The record gained some prominence in Europe, being reissued in a series of 10" discs on London(1950s); the series re-shuffled & augmented on 12" Gallotone lps (1960s-S. Africa) and in the early 1970s re-reissued on Kaleidoscope (NYC) -all under the editorial imprimatur of Dr.Tracey. Sibanda was (is???) a lovely guitarist and had many successes in his early days.
CORRECTIONS: This song is from Zimbabwean and was originally sung in the Ndebele language and not the Zulu language. I'm not sure if any of the words to this song that Guthrie sings are in Zulu or French.
Additional information about the song "Gwabi Gwabi"
can be found in Part II of this series.

*[This sentence re-written for clarity] The spelling "Gwabi Gwabi" is the one that is most widely used probably because it is the one that Arlo Guthrie, who popularized this song, used.

Example #1: Arlo Guthrie /Guabi Guabi

embedding disabled by request

jguth3, Uploaded on Jul 14, 2007

Tour of 1978 with Shenandoah. This tour was recorded live. Guabi Guabi didn't make it on the "One Night CD" However this song (not the story) is on his CD titled, "Amigo."
Editorial Comment:
Some commenters on this video's viewer comment thread excused Arlo Guthrie's made up story about this song with statements that such as "This is just what Arlo Guthrie does; He is known for telling inaccurate stories".

However, it seems to me that the fact that Black Africans and Black people of African descent have been negatively stereotyped and dehumanized so often and to such a large extent, and the fact that traditional Black African songs are so scarcely known outside of Africa that it should behoove a singer of goodwill to be careful not to use negative, racist stereotypes, not to poke fun at, and not to demean Black Africans while introducing or while singing an African folk song. My conclusion is that Arlo Guthrie's stories about this song is that they are indeed racist and I'm thankful that some commenters called him to question about the erroneous and in my opinion racist stories he made up about this song.

Here are a few selected comments from this video's viewer comment thread
devojane, 2010
"- Not racism, just ignorance. Arlo didn't know, nobody told him, so he made up a funny story. Piranhas are from South America anyway"

andries. Colin van niekerk, 2011
"Sorry but your comment about Guabi Guabi are not quite right yes it is a tease song to his friend that he has a girlfriend and that she is with him in the camp could be a prison/police camp not jail and that he is going to buy her buns/sweets/and bananas...."


Mduduzi Michael Ncube, 2011
"The song was done in Zimbabwean Ndebele closely related to Zulu. Your translation is very proper.The camp in this sense refers to a Compound(inkomponi)"
“Very proper” here probably means “quite correct”.

Mduduzi Michael Ncube, 2012
"Gwabi gwabi kuzwa ngilentombi yami ihlale enkambeni shuwa iyangithanda

(Look I have a girlfriend she [s]tays in the compound surely she loves me)

Ngizamthengela amabhanzi, iziwiji,lebhanana

I will buy her buns ,sweets and banannas"

Example #2: Arlo Guthrie - Guabi Guabi (with Translation).wmv

[embedding disabled by request]

MyMoppet52,Published on Jun 20, 2012

This African folksong is about a young man who wants to bring sweets, buns, bananas to his sweetheart. There is a loose translation below. Arlo Guthrie sings, "Guabi Guabi" on his ninth album released in 1976, "Amigo". I hope you enjoy! The song is about someone who teases his girlfriend by holding something behind his back and saying, "Guess what I've got." It's an interesting mix of Zulu and French expressions, and this English transliteration and translation is from Andrew Tracy of the African Music Society thanks to the guitar tutorials of Happy Traum (who put out a book with the tablature for Guabi Guabi): "Guabi, Guabi, guzwangle notamb yami, (Hear, Guabi, Guabi, I have a girlfriend) Ihlale nkamben', shu'ngyamtanda (She lives at Nkamben, sure I love her) Ngizamtenge la mabanzi, iziwichi le banana." (I will buy her buns, sweets, and bananas.)
This "video" is a high quality slide show with a sound file of Arlo Guthrie singing this song. The publisher mistakenly gives the language as Zulu instead of Ndebele.

On a viewer comment thread of another video of "Gwabi Gwabi" (The song title is given as "Guabi Guabi") in which this song is performed by another artist, a commenter shared this information:
"Zulu & Zimbabwean Ndebele are closely related as both nations came from Zulu Kingdom.However give credit to the proper Nation. It was done by George Sibanda Of Zimbabwe . the song is in Ndebele & not Zulu"
-08736409, October 2011

Example #3: Arlo Guthrie - Guabi Guabi - Guthrie Center - Oct 7, 2012

moonchilddave, Published on Oct 8, 2012
This video begins with Arlo Guthrie sharing a story about how he was introduced to eleven Africans who he helped perform at a "hootenanny" in which Guthrie was performing. Guthrie sung "Guabi Guabi" that evening, and he said that the Africans enjoyed the performance and one of them said to Guthrie "You could make a living singing songs like that".

The song "Guabi Guabi" begins at 3:56.

Thanks to George Sibanda for introducing the song "Gwabi Gwabi" to the world and thanks to Arlo Guthrie for popularizing this song, even though in my opinion his early stories about it were very problematic.

Thanks to all those who are featured on this post, including the commenters who I have quoted and the authors of online post about this song. Thanks to the producers of these videos and to their YouTube publishers.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Here's part of a comment that I wrote on the viewer comment thread of the second video in this post:

    ...I didn't publish that cultural post or write these comments seeking sympathy. I took those actions as a means of sharing my opinion. That said, I want to make clear that I'm not calling Arlo Guthrie a racist (not that he would care if I did so or not).

    I believe that a person can do or think something racist and he or she and others can learn from discussion about that racist act or thought.

    1. sorry, but the only thing funnier than the fact that you took a story arlo told on stage seriously is the story itself. i think a quick google search should be enough to convince you that he's about as far away from being a racist as white people can get. he is however a brilliant musician and COMEDIAN.

      ps get off your horse we're all a little racist

    2. Anonymous, I stand by what I have previously written about Arlo Guthrie's take on the story of "Guabi Guabi", and I chose not to write any more about that subject. Furthermore, I chose not to respond to your comments that Guthrie is "about as far away from being a racist as white people can get" and " we're all a little racist"

      As to Arlo Guthrie's brilliant talents and skills, I agree.

  2. Guabi Guabi was on the "Music of Africa" disk put out in the 1950s on Decca and this was picked up by many folk singers in the U.S.: Jack Elliot and Jim Kweskin and others made recordings, Happy Traum put it in a book (as mentioned above). "Guabi Guabi" was the spelling on the Music of Africa disk, and that is the spelling that was used by all of these folksingers afterwards. I don't know what the correct translated spelling is, but if it is incorrect, it isn't Arlo Guthrie's doing; this is how it was handed to him by the other folkies or by Hugh Tracey who compiled these African disks.

  3. Also, in his obviously bogus explanation (Arlo Guthrie is known for his long wandering stories, and I'm pretty sure the fact that his translation was bogus was apparent to most of his audience), it is the police (presumably the white apartheid police) who claim that Guabi slipped on a banana peel and fallen out the 13th story window. Guthrie was making a political point, which was a variation on his usual point: distrust authority. In this case, the authority to be mistrusted is the white minority that was oppressing the people of South Africa. Arlo Guthrie was using humor to point out the racism of white South African police and the apartheid system. I would think this would be exactly the opposite of racism.

    1. Robinson, thanks for sharing this additional information.

      I appreciate the fact that Arlo Guthrie may have been using humor to point out the racism.... And maybe humor can serve that purpose some of the time. In this case, I think Guthrie's use of humor for that purpose failed.

  4. Since race does not exist in any biological sense, but only as a cultural phenomena, it is sad that people of good will spend so much time discussing insults to racial sensitivities, providing those who strive for power and position a perfect "divide and conquer" strategy. Arlo is correct--distrust authority.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

      As to whether race is a biological construct or only a cultural phenomena, it can't or shouldn't always be ignored. Besides race, ethnicity, and/or skin color being used as value neutral descriptor, people can still be emotionally hurt because of racism- both those who are targeted & those who do the targeting. And regardless of why racism is, it can still physically hurt or cause or contribute to a person' death.

      As to Arlo Guthrie, while I like him, I stand by what I wrote on August 26, 2013 at 7:13 PM which I don't think has much of anything to do with distrusting authority.

  5. Take a look at Arlo Guthries large family, and the way he spends his life serving others of all races and faiths. The Guthrie Center in Massachusetts. He is a gifted story teller and a quiet hero, not in any way shape or form a racist. I am incredibly tired of the race card being pulled on such a constant basis. If one looks hard enough, I'm sure one could find racism in absolutely anything, however, I prefer to look at things as they are, and not interject unintended ugliness into them.

    1. I totally agree. How many years will we hear all these stories about Black being mistreated by White or Jew being mistreated by Germans..what is actually happening, is that the mistreated's offsprings nowadays who has no idea about what happened 100 years ago (or more) are building unfair advantage over everybody victimizing themselves and in fact hiding their incompetence or laziness behind the race card. Today is today. Yesterday is history. Get over it.
      Arlo above all is someone above all this level and his songs and his doings prove that forever.

    2. t, thank you for your comment although I don't agree with what you have said.

      I stand by what I have written in this post.

  6. I heard the song on one of Arlo's records. I thought it was meant to demean the South African police as what I got out of it was "The South African police brutally murdered this man during an "interrogation" then dumped his body in a ditch 3 miles from the police station. When the media investigated the police claimed that "Guabi Guabi" had attempted to escape custody by running down the hall on the second floor of the station, but had slipped on a banana peel and "fallen" out of the second floor window. His extreme speed running down the hall resulted in his "sliding" 3 miles, and his injuries were the result of the "fall" and the 3 mile "slide."

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I wrote about that story in this post and also wrote about my opinion of it.

      I have nothing that I think or feel I need to add to my statements about that subject.

  7. I agree with many of the posters who take issue with the oh so casual accusations of racism towards any and all Caucasians. Among other things, it is a very racist thing to do! A previous poster was correct: Arlo, as a long time writer and singer of protest songs, told a story with this song that was a critique of the POLICE, not the black man in the story. You must feel terrible and will hopefully be more judicious in the future before recklessly calling people racist.

    1. Anonymous, June 15, 2017

      As a result of your comment, I re-read this entire post and its comments to date. I then made a few editorial corrections to the grammar and typos that were found in my initial writing and I also used blockquote for a long quote. Furthermore, I noted that the link that I referred to in that post is no longer active.

      I have commented in this discussion thread about my opinions about Arlo Guthrie's renditions of the song "Gwabi Gwabi". My opinions haven't changed.

      I didn't casually write this post or my comments, and I don't ever engage in "casual accusations of racism toward any and all Caucasians". I also don't feel terrible about what I wrote since, contrary to your opinion, I don't believe that I was wrong and I don't believe that I was reckless in stating my opinions about Arlo Guthrie's renditions of this South African song.

  8. Is a banana always just a banana, or are there no Freudians here?

  9. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot did it before Arlo Guthrie did. Guthrie’s version is taken from Elliot’s version.

    1. Anonymous, thanks for sharing that information to correct this post.

      I appreciate it.