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Story of a Mende Song
Jury Award
Film Fest New Haven 1999
Audience Award
Film Fest New Haven 1999
Best Documentary Award
New York International Independent
Film & Video Festival 1998
Silver Award
Houston Worldfest 1998
Community Choice Award
Prized Pieces Film and Video Competition.
Columbus, Ohio 1998

Auction advertIn July, 1931, an African-American professor, named Lorenzo Turner, made a remarkable discovery. In Harris Neck, a remote fishing village in coastal Georgia, he found a fifty-year old woman, named Amelia Dawley, who could sing a song in an African language. Amelia's song had been handed down in her family for so many generations she did not even realize it was language, mistaking its strange cadence --starting with a-wa-ka-mu-mona -- as nonsense syllables, like the doe-ray-me of Western music. But Turner, the first black American scholar to specialize in African languages, knew right away that it was not just an African song, but the longest text in an African language ever handed down by an African American family.

But what language was the song in? Turner. recorded it on the primitive wire recorders of the day, and over the next ten years, played it for a large number of Africans studying in the US, hoping to identify the language. Many failed to make sense of it, but a young student, named Solomon Caulker, from the West African country of Sierra Leone, identified it immediately as his own Mende language. Although some words had changed, the opening line was especially clear -- "Come, let us struggle, the grave is not yet finished, the deceased is not yet at peace." Caulker had never heard it before, but was sure that Amelia's song was an old hymn, once used by his people to call villagers together for a funeral ceremony.

Dr. Turner found Amelia Dawley through his research on the Gullah people, a distinctive group of African Americans living in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. In 1949, he published a study of their language, called Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect.
For forty years, no scholar took up the mystery of Amelia's song. Was it really a funeral song'? Was it still known in Africa? Could it be traced to a specific place? And how had Amelia's family managed to preserve it for so long?

The story picks up again in the 1980s, when Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist at the University of Sierra Leone, was studying the history of the slave trade in that country. Opala found that large numbers of slaves from Sierra Leone had gone to South Carolina and Georgia, and he was intrigued by Turner´s book because so many of the words, songs, and stories he had collected among the Gullah sixty years before reflected influence from Sierra Leone. Opala's conclusion that Sierra Leoneans had a strong family link to the Gullahs excited official interest, and when President Joseph Momoh went to the U.S. in 1988, he took the opportunity to visit a Gullah community. Momoh was impressed by the cultural similarities, and he invited a group of Gullah people to come on an historic "Homecoming" to Sierra Leone the following year.

The Gullahs would arrive in Sierra Leone in November, 1989, and for weeks before, Opala was busy helping make arrangements for their reception. Working with a local music group to develop performances reflecting the cultural links between the two sides, he remembered Amelia's remarkable song, but since Turner provided the words, and not the music, he sent for the professor's field recordings preserved in an archive in the U.S. where he had left them before his death. Opala had no idea if the original recording still existed, and his task was made even more difficult when the tapes arrived, and he was confronted with fourteen hours of recordings made over Turner's long career. With the Gullahs arriving in just a week, he wondered if Amelia's song could be found in time.

Opala turned to Cynthia Schmidt, an American ethnomusicologist teaching at Fourah Bay College that year. Schmidt was skeptical of finding one song in fourteen hours of tape, but agreed to try, and a few days later, she found it, six hours into the recordings. The two scholars rushed the sixty year old song to the Freetown Players, the theatre group doing performances for the Homecoming, and when they performed it in Sierra Leone, it caused a sensation. First to hear it was the presidential committee planning the Homecoming, including a number of Mende cabinet ministers. Dumbfounded, they looked at Opala with blank expressions, as if to say -- Is this a joke'? It was hard to believe that a song in their. own Mende language was coming from a little village in coastal Georgia.

When the Gullah Homecoming ended, Opala and Schmidt realized that, armed with Turner's original recording, they might now be able to trace Amelia's song to a specific place in the Mende area, and they set out by car, going from town to town, explaining their mission to various bemused chiefs, and playing the recording for assembled villagers. Although the Mendes recognized many of the words, and could follow the gist of the old song, no one claimed to have heard it. Then, in a small village called Senehun Ngola, a hundred miles south of the capital city, a group of women listened to the old recording, and began singing. Recognizing it as a variant of a song they believed to be the oldest one in their village, they sang along with the recording, just as they would accompany a lead singer who had taken up the song.

Villagers pointed to Baindu Jabati, a thirty-five year old women's leader, as the person who had pioneered the preservation of the song in their community. Baindu told the researchers that, as a young girl, she had often heard her grandmother. singing it while working in the rice fields, and, given its old fashioned language, had once asked her what it was about. The old woman said it was a funeral song used long ago to bury people in their village, including all of Baindu's ancestors, and she urged her granddaughter to learn it, and pass it on to the younger women. After her grandmother died, Baindu popularized the song in her memory, changing the words a bit to make it less maudlin, and urging the other women to include it among the songs they sing on festive occasions.

Talking to the elders in Senehun Ngola, Schmidt and Opala discovered that Baindu's song -- which begins with almost exactly the same words as Amelia's -- was once sung to call villagers together for a funeral ceremony. It was a women's song, because women traditionally preside over births and deaths. But it was abandoned after about 1918 when Mende soldiers, drafted by the British into the First World War, returned home having learned about Christianity and Islam, and demanded that the old "pagan" burial rites be rejected. Some of the old women, like Baindu's grandmother, however, never forgot the song, remembering that their "first people" had all been buried with it, and regarding it as something sacred connecting them with their ancestors.
Tenjami CeremonyWith the discovery of the women in Senehun Ngola, half the mystery of Amelia's song had now been solved -- its origin in Africa -- but Opala and Schmidt were now anxious to find out if the song still existed in the United States. Sixty years after Turner found Amelia Dawley in Harris Neck, Georgia, she was obviously long dead, but could her descendants be found? And, if so, would they know the song? And could they explain how their family had managed to preserve it for so long? Fortunately, one of the Gullah people who had come on the Homecoming, a young woman named Lauretta Sams, was from coastal Georgia and, hearing the song in Sierra Leone, had promised to try to locate Amelia's descendants after she returned home.

When Opala and Schmidt visited Lauretta in Georgia in July, 1990, they were delighted to learn that she had actually found Amelia's daughter, a seventy year-old woman, named Mary Moran. Lauretta explained that Harris Neck no longer existed, but that Mary and her husband, a crab fisherman, lived in a rural area near the site of the old town. When they went to see Mary, they were astonished that not only did she remember her mother's song, but she could recall the summer day in 1931 when Dr. Turner sent for her mother to go record it. The twenty dollars Turner gave Amelia had meant a lot for a rural black family at the height of the Depression.

Mary sang her mother's song for Opala and Schmidt, and her version was virtually identical to Amelia's recording from sixty years earlier. And, afterwards, when Mary heard her mother's voice on the tape the researchers brought, she fought back the tears -- Amelia had died in 1955. But when Opala and Schmidt told Mary about the women in Sierra Leone who still sing a similar song today, the tears finally flowed. Like her mother, Mary had no idea that the song was a legacy of her African ancestors. For her, it was just "a silly little old thing," a play song her mother sang for the children when they were still too young to work in the fields. "We just danced to it," she said.

But how had Mary's family preserved such a remarkable fragment of African culture? Interviews on their family history soon revealed the answer.
Amelia, grew up on a isolated hammock, learning songs, stories, crafts, and folk medicines from her mother and other female relatives, and she did not leave until it came time for her own marriage. Then, she moved to Harris Neck, where she gave birth to Mary, and where Dr. Turner found her in 1931. But by wider American standards, even Harris Neck was isolated. The Gullahs have preserved so much African culture because of the isolation of their coastal settlements, but, as we have seen, Amelia's family was even more isolated than most, which almost certainly accounts for their remarkable Mende song from Sierra Leone.

After meeting Mary Moran, and learning the fascinating history of her family, Opala returned to Senehun Ngola in 1991. The chief of the village called a town meeting and asked him to tell about the old woman in America who knew their village's most ancient song, a woman who might very well be their long lost relative. The townspeople were excited at the news, and asked when Mary would come to see them, but what Opala would never forget about that day was an old man who took his stunning news very much for granted. More than ninety, this respected elder remembered the time when Christianity and Islam had not yet arrived in the area, and when Baindu's song was still being performed by the village women at funerals.

When Opala asked the old man why a slave taken from his area so long ago would have chosen to take this song, and pass it down to her descendants, and not some other one, the old man told him it was a foolish question. "There was nothing else she could take," he said. Opala asked what he meant by that, and the old man countered with his own question. "Did they allow her to take any of her possessions," he asked, "even her clothes?" "But that song," he said, "would be the most valuable thing she could take, because, just by singing it, it would connect her to all her ancestors, all the way back, and to their continued blessings." And, then, the old man quoted a Mende proverb "You know who a person really is by the language he cries in."

What makes Amelia and Mary's song so remarkable is the amount of specific information we can infer about the person who originally sang it. It was obviously a woman, as the song is a women's song in Africa, and has continued to be a women's song in America, even as its purpose was transformed on both sides under changing circumstances. We know she was a Mende from the language of the song, and we can say, from some dialect clues, that she came from a place not far from Baindu's village. But we also know when she went to Georgia, for Opala's research on the slave trade records of the port of Savannah show that during the decade of the 1790s, an extraordinary forty-five percent of slaves taken into coastal Georgia were coming from the Sierra Leone region.

So, if this Mende woman, kidnapped in the 1790s, and taken thousands of miles from her home, did think as the old man in Baindu's village believed -- that her people's funeral song would connect her and her descendants forever with their lost family in Africa -- she has been proven entirely correct. We will never know her name, but her descendants today, in Africa and in America, can use her song to trace their connections to one another after two centuries. And, indeed, the government of Sierra Leone issued repeated invitations for Mary Moran and her family to "come back" to their home in Africa. " We regard you," one official letter said, "as the descendants of Mende people taken forcibly from our. shores more than two hundred years ago.�

Baindu's village was destroyed by the war, and she had to live in a refugee camp some miles away. Now, Baindu and her. family are rebuilding their destroyed homes, an experience, by no means, new to Mary: Harris Neck was destroyed in 1942, eleven years after Dr. Turner's visit, when the U.S. Army commandeered the land for an airstrip. Mary's home was demolished by bulldozers, and she and her mother and father were driven into temporary shelters in the woods where they lived for two years before being able to rebuild their home.
TogetherMary Moran finally visited Sierra Leone with fourteen other members of her family. She met Baindu Jabati at Senehun Ngola, and the village greeted her with a big feast. That was a major event both for the village and for the Morans. And at the end, they sang their song.
Mary and Baindu share an old song about tears and sorrow, a song that has helped them and their families endure their suffering for two hundred years. A magic song able to keep people in contact with their ancestors.

After all this time, the song has showed its power.