Listening to the thrasher

Dawn. The third-quarter moon is setting through the branches of the flowering cherry by the side of my front porch. I’m up a little later than usual, and the brown thrasher has proceeded me, improvising rhyming couplets since first light.

If you’ve never heard a thrasher in full throat, you may think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. Researchers have documented the thrasher’s ability to improvise over two thousand unique phrases in one session – and I mean unique to a human ear, not (as with so many songbirds) only discernible through a sonograph. The thrasher is a close relative of the gray catbird and the mockingbird, so if you’ve ever heard either of those birds, you have a pretty good idea of the tone quality and range of sounds available to a thrasher. But as I said, the thrasher tends to sing in rhyming couplets – in other words, to repeat almost every phrase once before going on to the next.

This pattern not only assures identification, but produces a very pleasing effect. The lines are all approximately the same length – very short – but the variation in pitch and melody between couplets, and the bird’s habit of mixing things up with occasional three-line and one-line phrases, sustains my interest as a listener almost indefinitely. Since the thrasher is also a bit of a satirist, it’s fun to listen for echoes of other birds’ songs or calls; this morning, I was surprised by a brief snatch of whip-poor-will.

The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez once declared that “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together.” I’m tempted to make a similar statement about songbirds such as the wood thrush and brown thrasher. While the former models lyric concision and allegiance to a single, elegiac mood, the latter makes me hunger for virtuoso displays of craft and wit.


Speaking of virtuoso displays of craft and wit, I’ve just finished an excellent book-length poem that I picked up at the used bookstore last week: Song of Lawino, by Okot p’Bitek. I hadn’t heard of the work or the author before, but it looked good, and I’m a bit of a collector when it comes to poetry. I didn’t have anything from Uganda yet, and this looked like a good place to start.

Turns out that Song of Lawino is one of the most famous works of postcolonial East African literature. What really turned me on, though, is that the whole thing – over 200 pages in the author’s English translation – is in one of my favorite poetic forms, dramatic monologue. Lawino is a very tradition-minded woman from the Acholi society, a Luo-speaking, Nilotic people of northern Uganda. Her song – which, according to the Wikipedia, was based solidly on traditional Acholi verse forms – is a satirical lament for her husband’s abandonment of traditional values and customs in favor of what she sees as a shallow aping of European practices. Though translated into free verse, apparently the original does consist of metrical, rhyming couplets. The author was educated in Britain as an ethnographer, and published scholarly works on religion and collections of proverbs as well as the several book-length poems which – if Song of Lawino is any indication – showcase his insider/outsider knowledge of his native culture very well.

The poem veers from sincere-sounding lament to scatology and denunciation, all employing the praise-proverb mode familiar to any fan of traditional African poetry. Like Don Quixote, or Jaroslav Hasek’s Schweik, Lawino herself remains something of a cipher. Is she really as clueless as she maintains, for example, when she declares, “I am ignorant of the Good Word in the Clean Book”? But as with Schweik, the pretence of ignorance provides an excellent cover for the author’s sly critques. I was particularly struck by the sense of how the Protestant and Catholic missionaries’ teachings might have sounded to a traditional Acholi.

We sang the Faith of the Messengers
Like parrots,
I did not understand it at all!
I thought about it
In my own head
But I could get nowhere,
And there was nobody
To turn to.
The Padre and the Nun are the same,
They only quarrel
They are angry with me
As if it was I
Who prevented them marrying.
To them
The good children
Are those
Who ask no questions, who accept everything
Like the tomb
Which does not reject
Even a dead leper!
Who accept everything
Like the rubbish pit,
Like the pit-latrine
Which does not reject
Even dysentery.
[ . . . ]
We recited
The Faith of the Messengers
Like the yellow birds
In the lajanawara grass
The teacher shouted
As if half-mad
And we shouted back:
I accept the Hunchback
The Padre who is very strong
Moulder of Skyland and Earth…

“Hunchback,” incidentally, is how Lawino understands the focus of the missionaries’ petitions because, as a footnote in a section on traditional versus modern medicine informs us, “The name of the Christian God in Lwo is Rubanga. This is also the name of the ghost that causes tuberculosis of the spine.”

Song of Lawino is not an epic or narrative poem; the arrangement is thematic, though almost every section does contain stories. Lawino’s complaints seem believable in the sense that it is very easy to believe in her as a character – a proud, all-but-discarded first wife of an ambitious man who is embarrassed by her. One does sense that her complaints are frequently hyperbolic, as in her description of the utter foulness of the public restrooms for a modern dance hall, which might make even Rabelais blush.

The stench from the urinal is thick!
It hits your nose
Like a blow,
Like the horn of a bull rhino!
You choke,
Your throat pains sharply
You get out quick
And shout a curse!
You meet a big woman
She staggers toward you
And leans on the wall
And before she unties her dress
She is already pissing;
She forces out the urine
As if she has syphilis.
The stench from the latrine
Knocks you down from afar!
It is as if you have entered
Into a lion’s mouth.
The smell of Jeyes
And the smell of dung
Rise to the roof
The entire floor
Is covered with human dung
All the tribes of human dung!
Dry dungs and dysentery
Old dungs and fresh dungs
Young ones that are still steaming,
Short thick dungs
Sitting like hills,
Snake-like dungs
Coiled up like pythons.
Little ones just squatting there,
Big ones lying on their sides
Like tree trunks.
Some dungs are red like ocher
Others are yellow
Like the ripe mango,
Like inside a ripe pawpaw.
Others are black like soil,
Like the soil we use for smearing the floor.
Some dungs are of mixed colors!
Vomit and urine flow by
And on the walls
They clean their anus.
And there are writings
On the walls
With knives.

Another one of my favorite sections contrasts Western and Acholi conceptions of time. Lawino’s husband has bought a clock, which Lawino admits “Is a great source of pride / And beautiful to see,” but the idea of adapting life’s daily rhythms to its metronome strikes her as absurd.

Time has become
My husband’s master
It is my husband’s husband.
My husband rushes from place to place
Like a small boy,
He rushes without dignity.
And when visitors have arrived
My husband’s face darkens,
He never asks you in,
And for greeting
He says
“What can I do for you?”


I do not know
How to keep the white man’s time.
My mother taught me
The way of the Acoli
And nobody should
Shout at me
Because I know
The customs of our people!
When the baby cries
Let him suck milk
From the breast.
There is no fixed time
For breast feeding.

Lawino was a success both in Uganda, in the Luo version, and internationally when the English version was published in 1966. According to the Wikipedia, it was even translated a second time into English, as The Defence of Lawino, by the Ugandan writer Taban Lo Liyong. I was delighted by the serendipity that brought it, and p’Bitek, to my attention.


Speaking of serendipity, just as I started Song of Lawino, I chanced on an article in the Christian Science Monitor that made me wonder if Ugandans might not possess a particular genius for inspired misreadings of Western cultural artifacts. As with Song of Lawino, some popular movies might have alternate translations from dueling “veejays.” These improvisational, voice-over translators/commentators are apparently creating a whole new oral art form in Uganda. Some have already become local superstars, and their fame is beginning to spread beyond the country’s borders as they experiment with taped, Swahili versions of their interpretations.

“Veejaying” is now a central form of local entertainment. But the art involves much more than translation. Part sports announcer, part street preacher, part comedian, a veejay must fill in cultural gaps and keep the audience engaged, which – for many veejays – often means taking considerable creative license.

The video jockey is an offshoot of the distinctly home-grown phenomenon of the video hall. Makeshift shacks commonly made of plywood and tin sheeting, they function as the main form of cinema for the Ugandan masses, most of whom cannot afford theater tickets or rentals of pirated DVDs.

Video halls mushroomed around the country in the mid-1980s, when a measure of relative peace and prosperity made copies of foreign movies more accessible. But since most of their patrons did not speak English well, owners brought in translators, who usually sat near the TV set, ideally with a microphone.

Well-known names include VJ Ron, who is known for his intricate translations of detective thrillers, and the Love Doctor, who specializes in romantic dramas and comedies.

Jingo, as his public knows him, is most noted for his cheeky renditions of American action films in Luganda, the local tongue. Hand grenades might become passion fruits in a Jingo translation; characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis evoke proverbs about crocodiles and chickens.

One of the most effective things about Song of Lawino is the dramatic situation itself: the narrator begins by describing her husband’s frequent, harsh denunciations of her – “My husband’s tongue is fierce like the arrow of the scorpion” – before launching into her fierce counter-attack. Apparently, Ugandan veejays also fight against strong cross-currents of criticism. Echoing Lawino’s cultural conservatism, “Some church groups and other conservative outfits here complain that the video halls and veejays are polluting the minds of Africans with the sex and violence of American mass culture.” And according to an accompanying article for the “Reporters on the Job” column, the main veejay interviewed for the story expects criticism from Westerners for the liberties he takes with the films.

“In Kampala, everyone knows [VeeJay] Jingo. At first, he didn’t understand why I would be interested to know about the changes to the plot, and the local references that were peppered throughout each movie,” says Rachel [Scheier]. “Eventually, he told me about working in at least half-a-dozen references to a Ugandan opposition leader, who had just lost the presidential election, into a banal thriller about an airline pilot. He was reluctant because he figured I would criticize his changes.”

Later, Rachel went to Jingo’s trading center to see him veejay live. “I took along an interpreter to translate his interpretation back to me in English. It took a while, but I finally got it. Veejaying isn’t really about translation; it’s about making something completely new, something uniquely Ugandan.”

“The ways of your ancestors / Are good,” Lawino tells her husband, presumably echoing p’Bitek’s own views. “They are not thin, not easily breakable.” I can’t help thinking p’Bitek would be pleased by this new evidence that Ugandan wordsmiths will not only resist but actively transform the tidal waves of cultural influences from abroad. I wish them great success in exporting this model. In time, even a hidebound poet in the benighted North may learn how to become a more active and creative listener.

7 Replies to “Listening to the thrasher”

  1. About that thrasher’s singing: could you possibly make a recording of it? And somehow insert it on your blog in a sound section?
    I suppose there are sites where one can hear various bird songs, I’ll look for one. But it would be really good to hear your particular bird and its rhyminmgh couplets.

  2. Well, now I’m convinced I’ve been listening to thrashers and catbirds at home, not mockingbirds. Thanks for explaining the differences.

  3. Sylph – The catbird has that mewing sound as its signature, and the thrasher repeats itself. If it doesn’t do either of those, and if it regularly sings at 3:00 a.m., you have a mockingbird.

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