Saturday, February 23, 2013

In search of the seeds of "Banana Stalks"

I have been working up a new version of the Poetry Scores house band, Three Fried Men, to play a benefit for a record I am helping put together, Murder Balladeer by Fred Friction (with Jason Hutto producing). It's this coming Wednesday at Nico in the Loop (formerly, Brandt's). Three Fried Men plays at 9:30 p.m. (doors open much earlier for an auction to benefit Fred's record), and we are followed by a Fred Friction cover band.

I always ask the same people to play with me first, so we have familiar faces: David Melson on bass, Adam Long on cello, Heidi Dean on vocals, and Robert Goetz on guitar. They are joined by two people whose work I have admired for nearly 25 years but never played in a band with before: Ann Hirschfeld (drums) and Mark Buckheit (guitars).

Mark Buckheit, David Melson, Chris King, Adam Long and Robert Goetz
rehearse with Three Fried Men at Yellow Bear (with John Eiler, listening).

Mark is new to the Poetry Scores project of setting world poetry and folklore to music. At rehearsal he showed some interest in where the words to the songs come from, so I decided to brush up on the sources of our songs; I'll blog some of my discoveries leading up to the Fred gig.

We are going to play "Banana Stalks" which dates back to the Poetry Scores precursor band Eleanor Roosevelt and the record Crumbling in the Rain (recorded in 1995 and still digitally in print). This song was written long before we became conscious that setting other people's words to music (and art and movies and ...) would be our big thing. I've always said "Banana Stalks" is collaged from Akan proverbs and assumed that I got them from Leaf and Bone, a collection of African praise poems edited by Judith Gleason that I used to teach.

I got out the book and paged through it, and in fact none of the lines in "Banana Stalks" are underlined or scrawled on an inside cover. I mark up books as I read them, and it's just not possible that Leaf and Bone could contain the Akan proverb "If your body stinks, people will fart around you" and me not underline it then scrawl the proverb on the inside back cover with a page number.

So then I figured I must have switched up my sources and it must be in Technicians of the Sacred, Jerome Rothenberg's immortal compilation of ethnopoetries. I have treated this book more like a sacred text, copying poems and lines into notebooks rather than marking it up, but Rothenberg organizes his material so meticulously it didn't take me long to figure out there is no African brother boasting his "legs are banana stalks" and his "teeth are fine fish teeth" in Technicians.

This sent me digging deep into my stash of road notebooks and reading journals. "Banana Stalks" was written when I was a traveling rock musician who somehow patched together adjunct college teaching gigs while disappearing in a van for two weeks every few months. It was a distinct time in my life, and I could quickly pick a few journals from those years out of a crammed box. One of these tattered gigbooks, I was convinced, had to have the source for "Banana Stalks".

Eleanor Roosevelt songwriting session inside van, ca. 1994.

And I was right. The basic lines of the song appear in a notebook bursting with discoveries from the library and the road. I was moving fast in those days and doing a lot of reading and writing in the van and at diner countertops in strange towns, mornings after gigs. I was moving too fast, it seemed, to properly document my sources, for all of the sudden what became the song "Banana Stalks" pops up in a notebook with nothing other than a reference to the people and language the line was translated from.


My legs are banana stalks
My teeth are fine fish teeth
The owner of the drums is Rain

If your body stinks, people will fart around you

And I was given a skull as a face-washing bowl

The beer drinkers behind the river and bitterness never meet.

It will get in my eyes
It will get in your eyes


That's it. No text, no context, no translator, no nothing.

Knowing how I work, this was probably distilled from a free-standing page of notes I took down at a library or a diner on the road. That page must have once been folded and tucked into this notebook, but it's since been lost. Given that different traditions from different areas of Africa are jumbled together in these notes, I must have been reading an anthology of folkore. The lines are so few, they could even be copied from liner notes to an anthology of music. Wherever they came from, I've lost the trail.

Before I dug into my archives, I had lazily web-searched for "banana stalks Akan proverbs" and come up empty, but now I saw the "banana stalks" bit actually was a Gbaya line; but a "banana stalks Gbaya" search didn't get me anywhere, either. The business about your body stinking and thereby attracting farts also didn't turn up a source text from a web search.

So I moved along to the Mande line, "And I was given a skull as a face-washing bowl," and searched it with "Mande". I didn't find the book where I found this exact line, but I did find other interesting things. In a book that analyzes African oral literature, Isidore Okpewho quotes a blacksmith/songster from Mali named Seydou Camara in a discussion about patronage. The songster had a hunter patron who liked to hunt in the buff, we learn in a praise song to the hunter. After praising the hunter's habits and prowess, Seydou Camara sings of the skull bowl.


Naked Buttock Battler and Naked Chest Battler.
Look to the Green Head Smasher for the Green Eye Gouger.
You who have offered me a skull
As a face-washing bowl.


Isidore Okpewho is quoting Seydou Camara from a book of his songs documented and co-translated by Charles Bird, but since this is the only Mande line in "Banana Stalks," Bird's book with Camara can't be my source either.

Since I found the skull bowl line on Google Books, I searched in there for "my legs are banana stalks" and was quite surprised to see a close variant of that line appear in only one place: not among the Gbaya of Central Africa, but rather in a folk epic from the Phillipines. "Your legs are like banana stalks" is a refrain in The Epic of Labaw Donggon, which itself is one of three sub-epics about three brothers in the Hinilawod, which means "Tales from the Mouth of the Halawod River.

Erik Edward Jaiga as Labaw Donggon from Hinilawod.

Since a little research tells me that Hinilawod is an epic with a whopping 28,000 verses that takes three full days to perform and may be the most epic epic poem ever documented, maybe that poem just has every freaky line ever sung in it.


"Banana Stalks" and the rest of the Eleanor Roosevelt record Crumbling in the Rain is available on iTunes and the other major download sites via Hollywood Recording Studio.


Image of banana stalks borrowed from Sustainaburb.

No comments: