Essay / Expressions

How a Song Bridged Diné and Ndebele Worlds

An anthropologist recounts a magical moment of songwriting collaboration between Diné (Navajo) and Ndebele artists gathered for the WOMAD Festival in South Africa.
A photograph features a large crowd at a concert waving their hands in front of a dark stage lit by directional overhead spotlights and illuminated letters that spell out “WOMAD.”

Audience members cheer at the World of Music, Art, and Dance (WOMAD) Festival in the U.K. in 2008.

WOMAD Photography Archive/Wikimedia Commons

In October, I traveled with the Diné-led jazz and funk trio DDAT from New Mexico to South Africa to perform at the World of Music, Arts, and Dance (WOMAD) Festival. One evening before the festival, we were invited to Grammy Award-winning sound engineer John Lindemann’s house in Johannesburg for a listening session. We gathered in his modest home recording studio, created to fly under the radar of apartheid authorities, where Lindemann recorded iconic South African vocal groups such as the Mahotella Queens and Ladysmith Black Mambazo before the end of the system of institutionalized racial segregation in 1994.

As we munched on hot dogs and white bread typical of a South African braai (barbecue), magic entered the storied studio. The simple melodic tune we’d all heard before, “Grandma’s Song,” had been transformed.

The song’s previous version, written and performed by one of DDAT’s collaborators, Alex Rose Holiday, had been spare—just a voice and a drum. The song featured Diné (Navajo) language lyrics that spoke of the intergenerational connections between the women in Alex’s family, starting with her maternal grandmother (másání in Diné).

A photograph features several people in a room seated in a circle facing and conversing with one another. Electronic piano keyboards and open laptops line the room’s walls.

DDAT members and collaborators, including the author (in red), meet in sound engineer John Lindemann’s studio to listen to “Grandma’s Song.”

Nicholas Lucero

But in the recording that night, we heard African hand percussion and shakers, followed by the twangy entry of the Brazilian musical bow, the berimbau (all played by producer and WOMAD festival director Dan Chiorboli). The song—filled out with guitar (played by Lindemann), drums (played by DDAT’s Nicholas Lucero), bass (played by DDAT’s Michael McCluhan), and trumpet (played by DDAT’s Delbert Anderson)—gently pulsed with a new, quiet intensity.

Then, about halfway through the song, we heard a second voice join Alex’s in the mix. The second singer riffed up and over Alex’s sweet, clear voice. And she sang in a language none of us from New Mexico could identify or understand.

A song featuring one Indigenous woman’s voice had been joined by another woman’s voice from another tribe, across the ocean. What kind of intercultural, intersonic exchange was taking place, and who was this second voice?

“Grandma’s Song” had, in fact, begun many years before.

The song, like many of the songs Alex composes and performs as a singer-songwriter, was written en route to a gig. It came to her on a long drive across her home on the Navajo Nation. She then walked into the band DDAT’s headquarters in Farmington, New Mexico, and sang it for the trio. They decided to feature it on their upcoming album.

Before the festival, DDAT had sent over some demo recordings to Chiorboli and Lindemann. The idea was that Chiorboli and Lindemann would also include a version of “Grandma’s Song” on a new, cross-cultural album featuring voices and sounds from women artists from around the world, including South Africa. The forthcoming compilation album from the musical collective Solidarity Express, titled “Strike a Rock,” will address gender-based violence and honor women’s resistance to apartheid in South Africa. [1] The title refers to the phrase “You strike a woman, you strike a rock,” popularized during the 1956 women’s march against apartheid in South Africa. The album is slated to be released in spring 2023.

This kind of cross-cultural exchange is built into the larger vision for the WOMAD Festival, founded by British musician Peter Gabriel in 1980 to celebrate international artists. As a non-Native ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, and singer-songwriter, I had been invited to play several roles at the festival, including facilitating conversations, recording, performing, and teaching workshops. When I could, I also followed DDAT on their own tour, learning about the cultural exchanges they are activating with other Indigenous artists around the world.

The other voice who had been invited to sing on the recording of “Grandma’s Song” was Nelisiwe “Neli” Mtsweni (a.k.a. the Songbird). The 33-year-old Ndebele singer and songwriter lives in the apartheid-era township of Duduza, in South Africa.

Live performance of "Grandma's Song" at WOMAD Festival in South Africa
“Grandma’s Song” (Lyrics in Navajo with English translation)

Written and composed by Alex Rose Holiday; Diné orthography provided by Alex Rose and Kendrick McCabe:

Shimásání nizhónígo yishááł
Nizhónígo hádit’é’
Dootł’ízhíí bee bits’áhónííyee’
Shamásání bikéh’góó yishááł
Nizhónígo niháyínááł
Abínígo ch’ééhhaghá
Tádídíín hxideenííł

Note: The song also includes sung syllable-sounds such as neyo wo (similar to scatting or “fa la la” in other musical contexts).

English translation by Alex Rose and Kendrick McCabe:

My (maternal) grandmother walks in beauty
She is traditionally and beautifully dressed
She is adorned with turquoise jewelry
I walk behind my grandmother, in her footsteps
You walk with beauty in front of us
She goes outside in the morning
She sprinkles and blesses herself with corn pollen

“Grandma’s Song” (Lyrics in isiNdebele with English translation)

Written by Nelisiwe Mtsweni:

Snje nje nje nje nje
Sbonga Nina!
Zalukazi zezizwe bazali
Okhokhokazi bokhokhokazi
Snje nje nje nje nje
Sbonga Nina!
Nzalabantu nezizwe
Syathokoza begodu syavuma ngnina abakhulu komkhulu bomkhulu
Aw Nomkhubulwane ngiyiszukulwane
Sicel’uthando nemvisiswano
Inde lendlela inzima lendima
Snje nje nje nje nje
Sbonga Nina!

English translation by Nelisiwe Mtsweni:

We are who we are because of you, and we are grateful to you
Our great grandmothers, grandmothers of nations
The greatest, greatest, greatest grandmothers and mothers we thank you
We bow our heads, and we agree that you are the greatest of the greatest
You are the queens, and we are the grandchildren, we are inherent of your powers
We ask for love and understanding, we ask for gratitude, we ask for communication
We ask for the feeling of communion between us as your children

For Neli and Alex, “Grandma’s Song” is an effort in reclaiming parts of heritages and identities that have been oppressed. In her mostly reggae and Afro-pop songs, Neli uses Zulu, English, and her mother tongue of Southern Ndebele (isiNdebele), one of 11 officially recognized languages in South Africa. The apartheid regime used a racial “divide-and-conquer” strategy not only by segregating White and Black residents in everyday life—such as in the forced relocation of Black residents to townships like Duduza—but also through active language suppression. Under apartheid, isiNdebele was suppressed to the point that today many people instead speak only Zulu, a related language, in public spaces.

Similarly, the Navajo language has been violently suppressed through English-only education—including Native boarding and day schools. Today English is the dominant spoken language among Diné citizens aged 40 and younger. Younger speakers like Alex, who is 24, are rare. As I know through my long-term research with Diné communities, intergenerational trauma impacts people’s ability to speak Navajo today: Even if they understand it perfectly, they may or may not feel comfortable speaking Navajo in a public space, such as in a “bordertown” to the Navajo Nation.

The power of the new recording of “Grandma’s Song” comes from hearing the singers joyfully perform these separate and unrelated languages that have long been aggressively suppressed.

Language, as so many linguists and activists have shown us, plays a fundamental role not only in creating and maintaining cultural heritage, but also in the creation of an integrated sense of self and of place. Reclaiming language, word by word and song by song, means reclaiming fundamental and essential parts of ourselves, in community and in relationship to one another.

A photograph features five people in colorful clothing standing on cement tiles in front of tall trees and green grass.

Collaborators Delbert Anderson, Nelisiwe Mtsweni, Michael McCluhan, Alex Rose Holiday, and Nicholas Lucero (from left to right) pose for a photo at the WOMAD Festival in South Africa.

Kristina Jacobsen

A few nights after we heard the track in the studio, Alex Rose and Neli joined one another on stage at the festival to perform. As they sang to Lindemann’s backing track, alternating verses and joining voices at the end, the crowd was ecstatic. Audience members and DDAT shared with me that they could feel something new—collaborative and cross-cultural—in the making.

Singing the song publicly in Navajo and isiNdebele, especially as young women singing about their mothers and grandmothers and speaking out against gender-based violence, was not only an act of courage, it was an act of cultural defiance and reclamation. “I walk behind my grandmother, in her footsteps,” Alex’s voice rang out. Neli’s voice reaffirmed, “We are who we are because of you.”

Kristina Jacobsen is a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and singer-songwriter living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An associate professor of music and of anthropology (ethnology) at the University of New Mexico, her research interests focus on language, identity, and expressive culture. She is the author of The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging. The book focuses on her time singing and playing with Navajo country-western bands on the Navajo Nation, and is the winner of the 2018 Woody Guthrie Award for an exceptional book about popular music. Jacobsen is a touring singer-songwriter and fronts the all-female honky-tonk band Merlettes. The Cultural Anthropology Advisor to WOMAD South Africa, she founded and facilitates three culturally immersive songwriting workshops for anthropologists that take place on the Navajo Nation, in Sardinia, Italy, and, beginning in 2023, along the historic Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.


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