A New Toy

Anyone who knows me knows I love music.  From the time I sang my first solo in church when I was four until the present, I have been involved in music in some way.  I started taking trumpet lessons when I was ten and played that instrument through high school.  I also played the French horn for a number of years.  I sang in choirs and loved to listen to good music.

However, it was when mom insisted that I take piano lessons that I really fell in love.  It was 1972, and I was 13, trying to find out who I was, like any other teenager.  Mom made me and my three brothers take at least one year of piano lessons.  I was the only one who continued after the first year.  I took eight years of lessons and got most of my musical training on the piano.  I played for musical groups in both high school and college and often in church settings.  I never really wanted to take up the guitar.  All my friends played the guitar, and I was the only one who could really play the piano, so I carved out my identity on that instrument and tried to be different.

When I left home to go to college, I continued my musical training on the piano, but the piano on which I first learned to play remained at my parents' house.  Here it is, the Baldwin spinet I loved so dearly. 

As the time approached for me to leave for Africa in 1984, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to haul a piano all over the world.  Affordable electronic pianos were just beginning to appear on the market at that point, but I still couldn't justify the price nor the astronomical shipping costs.  So, I taught myself to play the guitar, a much more portable instrument.  Over the years, I have enjoyed the guitar, and as my skills on the piano got rusty, my guitar abilities got better.  

But I always considered the piano my first instrument and longed for the day when I could have constant access to one.  I ran across pianos in Africa and in the US and would play whenever the opportunity arose, but in all my adult life (33 years) I have never owned a piano.  Until now.

Before dad died, my parents and I had discussed the possibility of giving me the old piano that had sat in their house all these years.  The problem was we had no place to store it and couldn't haul it to Africa.  Pianos like that don't work well in the tropics.  Then a few months ago I ran into a Christian man who operates a music store and repairs musical instruments.  He suggested we trade mom and dad's old upright for a newer electronic version.  Both are used, but both are still valuable instruments.  And all we would have to do would be to pay for the shipping.  

For five years, I have been praying that the Lord would give me my piano back.  He has done that beyond my wildest imaginations.  On March 20, we picked up the new (used) piano from our friend.  It's not fancy and doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles.  But it's what I have needed for a long time.  Now I can rehone my skills and get better.  

Now I'm headed to England to start a doctoral program.  I won't have my piano (nor my guitar) with me, but the subject of my studies will be music, specifically, ethnomusicology (a branch of anthropology), the study of ethnic music played in various cultures. I'll be taking a more intense look at the Songhai people and their music, and I'm really excited.   I leave tomorrow (March 24) for Oxford.


Zollo nda nga korfo (A gourd and its string)

African languages have many proverbs, and the Songhai language is no exception. This is one of my favorites:  "A gourd and its string."  Now you're probably wondering what in the world that means.  Well, first, a little explanation is in order.  

There are many types of gourds in Niger, each with its own word to describe it.  Some are spherical in shape and when cut in half, gutted, and dried, make nice bowls of various sizes.  Others grow in such a way that they make spoons when cut in half.  Sometimes the Nigeriens decorate these different gourds with various beautiful carvings and colors.  But there is one type of gourd that grows roughly in the shape of an hourglass.  It's called a zollo. Here's a picture of one of these gourds growing. 

Ever see anything like that?  Amazing, isn't it?  Now these gourds have a variety of uses.  People may cut off the top of the smaller end and put a stopper in the hole.  Then they carry it around as a water bottle.  Or they may put cream in it, put a stopper in the hole, and give it to a child to carry around all day.  When he or she gets home in the evening, voila,.... butter, a little runny to be sure, but very much like butter.  In both these cases the gourd will normally have a string attached to it so the person can carry it.  The string may be long enough to carry it around your neck.    So this gourd (zollo) is associated with a string attached to it.

So here's the meaning of the proverb.  Actually, it's only half a proverb.  But, like many proverbs in English, if you say half the proverb, most people could complete it. (Try completing, "A stitch in time...").  So the full proverb is, "A gourd and its string are always together."  But the Songhai only have to use the first half of it, and everyone understands what they are saying.

That still leaves us hanging.  What in the world does it mean?  Well, the proverb is used about two people or things that are always together:  A husband and wife, two close friends, two donkeys pulling a cart, etc.  It got to the point where one of my friends in Tera would come to greet and during the long series of greetings that all Africans are really good at, he would ask me, "And how is your string (korfo)?"  He wasn't literally talking about a random piece of string, but rather my wife.  We all use euphemisms when talk, and this was one of them in Songhai.  He didn't refer specifically to my wife.  He used an expression which meant the same thing.  And he didn't mean that my wife has me by the throat with a string.  It is more of a metaphor indicating a close relationship of mutual support.  

I could think of a lot of applications for this proverb in our own culture (our supporters and us, our supervisors and us, pastor and church, teacher and student, etc.).  We are dependent on many others for help, support, and growth.  We need to work together and rely on each other more. Our rugged individualism is not always such a good thing.  This is especially true for Christians.

There is another use for this gourd which really interests me.  As a musician, this one is especially intriguing.  You can let the gourd dry out and leave the seed inside it without cutting it open in any way.  Then you tie a net of beads to it, and it becomes a clacking rhythm instrument like a maracas.  Here I'm holding one in my hands. 

Lots of uses for a zollo, aren't there?