Sunday, 27 September 2020

the noise in which it lives

 From "African Folktales - selected and retold by Roger D Abrahams";

Unfortunately, this quality of immediacy in an African story, including the noise in which it lives, is very hard to capture on paper. Among the attempts to record storytelling as it occurred at a specific time and place, and to record it in such a way that the other major situational factors are also conveyed, it is, perhaps, Laura Bohannon's "anthropological novel" Return to Laughter, describing her work among the Tiv of Nigeria, she provides us with a description of a tale-telling scene which, though not wholly characteristic of the look and feel of a usual storytelling - the scene occurs after a smallpox epidemic has passed through the village - is nonetheless especially vivid. Her description focuses not on the stories, but rather on the noise out of which the performance emerges, and the performers mastery of the tumult. She dramatizes the way in which the immediate situation is drawn upon in the stories and wedded to their universal qualities, and how the continuities and the interlayering of voices may be seen to work together in an actual performance context.

"A few nights later we sat under the cold moon of the harmattan in a circle in Kako's homestead yard. My pressure lamp was carefully paced, under Kako's personal direction, to illuminate the storytellers as they passed before us and the assembled elders. Gradually the people gathered from the neighbouring homesteads. They brought their wives and children, and the bought wood for the fire and stools to sit on. The homestead was full of preparatory bustle as people borrowed coals to start their fires and jostled each other for a place close to the front. Then, places staked out with fire and stool, people circulated to greet each other, as people do in a theatre lobby. The air was filled with happy hum of an audience sure of good entertainment.

Behind Kako's reception hut there was a great deal of coming and going, whispering and giggling, very much like the noise of people plotting charades. Cholo, who was to tell the first tale, squatted before us in brief, friendly greeting and gave me news of his sister: Atakpa was well; her co-wife had been blinded by smallpox. "It makes more work for Atakpa. They're both after their husband now to get them a little wife to help."


"I'm coming." Cholo shouted toward Kako's reception hut. He glanced at the gathered audience and left. he waved Ihugh to join him. Soon Ihugh was running towards his hut, consulting with his uncles, and then back to join Cholo behind the reception hut. people settled down to wait, with anticipation.

Cholo came out before the lamp, and, with many gestures, began the story of the hare and the elephant.

The hare went hunting one day. He armed himself with a club made of cane grass and, knowing his weapon weak, wore a ferocious mask to petrify his face with fear.

Here Chlo began to sing, stopping to instruct us all in the chorus of his song: nonsense syllables with a rousing rhythm and a lilting tune. I got interested. This would be far more fun than mere storytelling.

First the hare met a mouse. The mouse screamed with fear when he saw the terrible mask, but instead of standing trembling and ready to the hares club, the mouse turned to flee.

Again Cholo waved us into the chorus.

As the hare pursued the mouse, his mask slipped down over his eyes. But the hare has long ears, and he was able to follow his prey by the rustling in the dry grass. In his flight, the mouse ran straight into an elephant and the elephant also began to run. The hare, unable to see, now followed the elephant and beat him with his cane club. The elephant, thinking this was the tickle of the mouse's whiskers, ran ever faster.

Again the chorus. Then Cholo disappeared. I had enjoyed the song, and prepared for the next story. But this one was not yet finished. Cholo returned. This time he was the hare. To his head he had tied two waving fronds as ears, over his face a cloth daubed with mud, and in his hands a weak blade of cane grass. He mimed his story, dancing before us, searching for game, finding the mouse, and pursuing it blindly.

Then out came the elephant, roaring: a long bed tied to a man's back - those huge, splay feet could be no one's but Ihugh's - covered with two dark togas that swayed with the elephants dancing. The youngest children screamed most satisfactorily and had to be comforted by their parents, while the older children told them with great superiority that the elephant was really a man. Cholo now struck the elephant boldly with his grass blade, used it as a bat to wave us all into his song and chorus. One or two of the young men beat sticks against their chairs, the better to mark the rhythm while the hare and the elephant danced. In a final surge of enthusiastic singing and dancing, the hare and the elephant disappeared.

Immediately one of Ihugh's cousins sprang into the centre of the circle and began his tale of the goat who was a blacksmith and how he was tricked by the hare. He too had a song for his story, for the fables themselves are common property, and a storyteller makes his fame with his songs and dancing. Again I found myself laughing wholeheartedly and joining in the singing. I was enjoying myself immensely.

As the evening wore on, other men also rose to tell their stories, pressing brothers and cousins into service in the charades and commandeering props from the women of the homestead. A pot tied snoutlike over the face made a hippopotamus. Sheepskins, leaves and cloth-covered stools created strange monsters and sprites. There was not a single dull story. The audience wouldn't allow it. They shout down any fable teller who fails to hold their attention: "That's too long." "Your song's no good." "You've got the story wrong." "Learn to dance." Sometimes it needed only the momentary inattention of the audience to embolden one of the other storytellers to jump into the centre even while another fable was being told. Then for a few moments we heard two tales, two songs at once. Soon people would take up only the one chorus and the other fable teller would sit down.

Mainly it was a cntest between Gbodi and Ikpoom, who were the two great storytellers of the country. Gbodi, a short stock little man with a huge voice, excelled as a dancer and a tumbler. In the tale of the cricket and the praying mantis he danced holding a heavy mahogany mortar in his hands. First, as the praying mantis he held it over his head; then, placing the mortar on the ground, he continued to dance on it upside down, his hands grasping the edge of the mortar, his feet in the air - and singing all the while.

Ikpoom excelled in mime. His ugly face was extraordinarily expressive, and he was at his best when he could himself act out all parts of the story at once. Now he was telling the tale of a chief's daughter who refused to marry any man, for she knew she was far too good for any suitor who came to court her. Ikpoom's voice was shrilly angry when, as the girl, he warned lovers off the farm and threatened to shoot them with a bow and arrow. His voice was eerie and his song uncanny as he portrayed the chief of the underworld sprites, Agundu, who is a head with wild, red eyes and with gouts of blood on the raw cut neck that terminates the creature. He showed us how Agundu borrowed the radiance of the sun and moon and with them dazzled the girl, how she followed this bright illusion away from her own people whom she had scorned, and how at the very gates of the underworld Agundu gave back to the sun his glory and to the moon her beauty. Only then, when it was too late, did the girl see what a monster she had chosen, and then too late and in vain, she longed for a human mate.

I had no need to hear the shouted proverb that marks the end of each story. I knew the moral of this tale. Especially now, in this situation in which our common humanity and pleasure in amusement was so evident, the dangers of parting from one's own to follow beckoning strangeness loomed perilous and sad.

Ikpoom sang the lament of the girl whom blind pride had shut in a strange, dark world away from sun and familiar light....

Ikpoom sang for Agundu, for the grinning skeleton of the world that underlines all illusion. One can ignore Agundu. But those who follow him can never return, for they have seen and can never forget...they knew. All these people laughing around me. They knew how to come back. I still had to learn.

Gbodi was telling a tale now, of the hare's attempt to pass himself off as one of the bush sprites in their won country. Great a trickster as the hare is, infinite as is his ingenuity, he was unable to act and feel as did the bush sprites. At first this enabled him to deceive them the better and to steal the toga that bears one along like the wind, but ultimately this lack of understanding and this difference was his undoing. "This time," sang Gbodi, "the sprites killed the hare and ate him. The fable has killed the hare."

The hare would soon be resurrected in another fable. The trickster is immortal as a type no matter how often any one trickster tricks himself into disaster. But even the greatest trickster cannot transform himself. His personal habits always betray him, as they betray all of us for what we are; we ourselves are the only ones who see ourselves a what we think we ought to be or what we would like to be thought.

Many of my mortal dilemmas had sprung from the very nature of my work which had made me a trickster: one who seems to be what he is not and who professes faith in what he does not believe. But this relization is of littl help. It is not enough to be true to oneself. The self may be bad and need to be changed, or it may change unawares into something strange and new. I had changed. Whatever the merits of anthropology to the world or of my work to anthropology, this experience had wrought many changes in me as a human being - and I had thoughts that what wasn't grist for my notebooks would be adventure....

I had lost track of the fable being told. It was a long one, and I couldn't keep the characters straight. Neither, it seemed, could Accident - energetic as ever and quite unchanged save for a few pockmarks on his nose. Perhaps, though, it was just his sense of mischief that made him bound up from his seat beside his brother and take the stake with the storyteller. "I don't understand. Would you repeat more slowly?"

There was a startled gasp. Then a roar of laughter, even from the interrupted storyteller. "What was his great-great-grandfather's name? And where did he learn to perform that ceremony?" continued Accident, so broadly that I began to laugh, for it was me own accent and my own questions that Accident was imitating. Aware that he had lost his audience, the fable teller began to play informant to Accidents anthropologist. Accident in turn looked eager to baffled, scribbled in the air as though in a notebook, wiped imaginary glasses, adjusted imaginary skirts, and took off my accent, gestures, errors of grammar and habits of phrase with such unmerciful accuracy that even as I laughed myself sore I resolved on improvement. Accident finally sat down under a shower of pennies and approving applause..."


Bohannons description of an actual performance underscores the fact that the vitality of the storytelling lies in two characteristic elements: first the seizure of the role of narrator and the maintaining of it in the face of ongoing critical commentary; second, the constant interaction between storyteller and audience, maintained both through audience commentary and the periodic introduction of call-and-response songs. Thus, the occasion of storytelling calls for the same seizing of the centre, and the same kind of voice overlap and interlock as do the many other forms of audience behaviour taking place in front of the performer, who, through a sense of personal control, provide a focus for all the noise and random bustle arising on occasions of performance.


And if you liked that and want more, get all over this.


  1. Thanks for sharing!

    Please jut fix the "bought" in the first paragraph to "brought" - got me baffled for a moment ;-)

  2. Really interesting. I've often reflected on the different flavors different audiences have, stand up comedy, you have to win the audience over, with a poetry reading they start as yours but you might lose them. But I've never seen anything where the mic could be snatched away like that.

    p.s. I was looking through my old D&D files and found one that was a really innovative shaman class. But I didn't put a name on it when I saved it about six years ago. That was you! I'm glad you are still posting.

  3. So fantastic, thank you for sharing.