Nourishing Who We Were; Becoming Who We Are:
Music of the Sudanese Refugee Community of Portland, Maine
Like the blueberry in Maine, the pumpkin grows wild in southern Sudan, and it ought to be treated with some respect. It is not some old, lowly gourd left behind in a dusty homestead. It represents a way of life to be remembered and cherished, even as new life takes root in a new land. When leaving home, never uproot the old pumpkin—let it provide nourishment for those who couldn’t make the journey; let it be your memory.
Behind the circular grass-roofed huts in the village where the father of Portland High School Language Coordinator Alfred Jacob lives, papaya and, especially, pumpkin vines can always be found. Every Saturday in July during dry season, under a blue sky, the children of the village gather on the dirt plaza to sing and dance. A leader stands in the center of the circle of dancers, a large drum—the Mother Drum—next to her. She chants, sings and motions to the children, who, following her movements, stoop, bend and lift hands to the sky. The circle of singers and dancers rotates slowly. Spontaneously, one, two, perhaps three girls raise their voices in vibrant kajilas—long, high-pitched ululations. Dancing and singing inspires such expressions of joy, and, sometimes, sorrow.
As far as the pumpkin goes, an Acholi proverb, Te okono obur bong’ luputu, upholds the plant as symbol of traditional Acholi ways of life to be hallowed during times of change. According to Acholi novelist, poet and musicologist Okot p’Bitek (1931–1982), who documented traditional song and verse in “Horn of My Love,” [Heinemann, 1974], and whose poem, “Song of Lawino,” [Heinemann, 1966-67; 1984], is considered to be the greatest single work of Acholi literature, the proverb means, “The old pumpkin in the deserted village must not be uprooted.” The meaning is not lost on the members of the Acholi refugee community of Portland, Maine: moving to a new home will cause you to change, whether that new home is in Juba, Cairo, or Portland; do not forget who you were as you become who you are.
Alfred’s sister, Anna Oryem, has inspired the young singers of the ASERELA Maine Youth Chorus, who have lent their voices to the production of this CD, to do just that. Most of them are second-generation Americans, born in Portland. Their fathers and mothers were forced to find political refuge here after their lives had been uprooted following decades of war between the minority Christian population of southern Sudan and the majority Muslim of the north—a different war, a different source of long-term suffering than the tragic genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan. For some, this meant being compelled to serve in both rebel and government forces at the whim of locally dominant commanders of locally shifting wartime fronts.
Anna was 16 or 17 when she first sang these songs in Juba, southern Sudan, in the early 1990s. The memory of this now—and, still, the singing of these songs—inspires in her much joy, and some sadness. She fondly recalls her first choirmaster, Nelson, from her student days at the Usratuna Primary School in Juba, who taught her many songs. A kajila, she says, is not just reserved for use as an expression of joy, but for sorrow, too. “They use them for joy,” she says, “when the bride and groom are escorted home after a wedding. Also, as a last funeral right, people gather with drums and songs.”
Anna finds that her voice is no longer able to respond as easily as it used to when, during a song, her feelings call for her to raise a descant above the others. She says she feels she’s getting old, and she can’t quite reach the highest pitches. But she is pleased now to pass this tradition along to younger members of the ASERELA Maine Youth Chorus, such as Christine Adiye, Joska Charles and Linda Nag, whose kajilas can be heard on several tracks.
Anna remembers, too, the church bell in Juba, which would be rung in the morning and evening for prayers. But whenever it was rung at any other time of day, the bell was sounding a warning, calling the people together during a time of crisis. Interestingly, this resembles the practice of some of the older churches in Portland. For example, the bell of The First Parish in Portland, installed in 1804 in the tower of the original structure, Old Jerusalem, was rung daily at sunrise, 11 AM, 1 PM and 9 PM, according to William Goold. On July 4, 1866, it was rung to warn the population during the great fire. This catastrophe left many people homeless, forcing them to seek temporary shelter in surplus Civil War-era US Army tents, which were set up along the southern slope of the East End hillside—historic photos show a scene resembling a refugee camp among still-smoldering ruins.
The church bells accompanying Anna as she sings Rwot Rubanya (“The Lord Is my Shepherd,” Psalm 23), are, in fact, not church bells at all, but organ chimes rescued a fewyears ago from the organ of the former Chestnut Street Methodist Church in Portland. The church has recently been renovated and reopened as a restaurant called Grace. Early during the renovation process, audio engineer Marc Bartholomew discovered them where they lay dusty and forgotten in a corner of the structure, and, with permission, took them to the studios of his Acadia Recording Company in the Back Bay area. He later offered them for use during the production of this CD. It is remarkable, and poignant, to hear again the chimes of the Chestnut Street Church as they mimic the church “bells” of Juba, Anna Oryem’s solitary voice lifting a fragile melody above the pealing.
Moving to a new place requires adaptation. In Portland, Anna and her singers lacked two key elements of their music, one was the Mother Drum, the other was the traditional string instrument, the adung, used to provide melodic accompaniment. Inanna, Sisters in Rhythm have provided the former in what has become a collaboration that synthesizes time, culture and place—something old that becomes something entirely new.
The Acholi Language and Meaning of the Texts
In its written form, the Acholi, or Luo, language—spoken in northern Uganda and southern Sudan—is less than 100 years old. Catholic missionaries in the early 20th century were the first to attempt to fabricate a written language based on phonetic sounds. An Italian missionary, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara (1884-1976), is largely responsible for laying out the basis for alphabet (the letters h, f, s, v, x and z do not exist), grammar and word meaning. Even today, regional variations in spelling make translation difficult.
Of all the tracks on this CD, two, especially, will stand out as remarkable to an English-speaking listener: Track 9 (Wor Oling Tik, “Silent Night”) and Track 5 (Rwot Rubanya, Psalm 23). The drumming of Annagret Baier and the young voices of Grace Oryem and Charity Lodua combine to produce just about the freshest, hippest version of Franz Gruber’s familiar tune that you will ever hear. Framed by the Chestnut Street Church chimes, the solo voice of Anna Oryem, as she sings The 23rd Psalm, calls to mind the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). The same can be written about Track 2 and Track 11 (Ai Rwot Adyero , “I Give My Prayer,” and Binen Ki Wangi, “Come and See the Wonder”), which are meditative invocations to prayer. Track 7 (Man Latin Pa Rubanya Ada, “This Is the True Child of God”) and Track 13 (Tin Dyerwor Muywek, “Tonight Is the Well-Celebrated Night”) are two additional Christmas Eve songs. Track 1 and Track 10 (Rubanya Lwongo Abramo, “God Calls Abraham,” and Wot Pa Jo Israel, “The Journey of the Israelites”) are especially meaningful for the Acholi in that the stories depicted in both of these well-known Old Testament texts inspire belief and trust in the purpose and guidance of God, no matter what difficult sacrifice is called for. Track 3 (An Aye Cam, “Here Is the Bread from Heaven”) is a song for celebrating the Eucharist; this is a remastered recording from an ASERELA fund-raising concert given in The First Parish in Portland. Track 4 (Wakelo Tyerwa, “We Bring Our Gifts”) is an offertory of atonement; each verse describes a different offering for God: wealth, food, wine, poverty and goodness. Track 8 (Rubanya Maro Lobo, “God so Loved the World”) paraphrases John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son;” the alleluia refrain features interjections of the angelic solo voice—accompanied by cowbell—of the youngest member of the ASERELA Maine Youth Chorus. Track 6 (En Omiyowa Or, “He Tells Us to Love One Another”), featuring the voices of Anna Oryem, Francis Oryem and Alfred Jacob, is a setting of 1 John 4:7-12, a passage frequently associated with wedding ceremonies. Tracks 12, 14 and 15 contain the only English words on this CD. While “Whatsoever You Do” is already familiar to almost anyone who has attended Mass in Catholic churches at anytime over the past forty years, this version gives the words of William F. Jabusch a strikingly fresh meaning. On the other hand, what makes “Amazing Grace” so charming is its rendition by the two youngest members of ASERELA Maine Youth Chorus, Charity and Grace. These two young women were not always in agreement about how the song ought to be sung, as is evident in “Amazing Grace Outtake,” but the last word here is that, allowing for a bit of precociousness, both Grace and Charity had an amazing amount of fun making this CD.
This project had its advent nearly three years ago. The first time I heard these singers, it was Martin Luther King Sunday 2007 in The First Parish in Portland. As music director, I had asked Alfred Jacob and his group to contribute a few of their Acholi songs. No one knew quite what to expect. When the ASERELA Maine Youth Chorus processed down the center isle singing “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” with kajila, using a harmonic variation I had never heard, it was an unforgettable experience. This special CD preserves these singers as they were in that special moment in time. —Charles Kaufmann