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 http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/05/more-examples-of-zimbabwean-song-gwabi.html 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.
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INFORMATION ABOUT THE SONG "GWABI GWABI"
[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":
http://www.arlo.net/resources/lyrics/guabi.shtml [Link no longer active as of at least June 16, 2017]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
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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."
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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXnn9ihSqes
"- 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
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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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0mo9tAxrLI
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.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND THANKS
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.