The Noise We Knew: Swaziland & Gospel Music.

A fellow’s reminiscence.

When I am home, in summer days, and the rains are good and the fields are green, in the early hours of dawn after the roosters have sung their song, my father lets himself into my room and kick me out of bed. Go to the shed and get a hoe, he then says. And the hoe I go and get and to the maize field I make my way. The old man then follows me, on one hand a hoe of his own, and, on the other, a portable radio blaring out a popular gospel song. In the field my siblings have chosen their lines and are already on the job. I choose my own lines and get ready for the old man’s tired story about my laziness and worthlessness. You cannot work; all you know are books, books, and more books, he says. But it is the music I hear more. Defiantly, I opine on the song now playing. I say it is unimaginative and that it is outright boring. I say it may well have been written, and performed, by slow children. I then pronounce that almost all gospel songs are like that. My younger brother, who knows not a thing about silent support, giggles. The old man feigns indifference and starts humming before obstinately singing along.

The only major SiSwati radio station plays nothing but Celine Dion, West Life, and all sorts of songs about God and His son Jesus Christ. Mother, who is fond of the father and son in heaven, picks up the tune and sings along every time the DJ remembers his fellow Christians ‘in all corners of Swaziland’. She sings along, our dear mother, and with a proud face, reminds us that she was ‘born again’ way before there were balls on her chest. It is our sister who has to remember this tale; for she now has mammary glands that force her blouse open and still won’t be ‘saved’. Then my brother, a failed stand-up comedian and a full-time small-talker and a liar, switches off the radio. He tells Mother that Jesus Christ is sick with Ebola and is lying in bed in the heavenly mansion He left to prepare a billion years ago. But Mother, having heard the story since the trouble in Liberia, ignores her ‘sick, sick’ son and switches on the radio again. The song has played and an advert is reminding us of a concert at the Divine Healing Ministries on Saturday evening. R150 a ticket at the gate, the bearer of holy news says.

It has not always been like this. There were times when we were going to grow up and wear shiny silver grey suits. The shirts would be yellow and stiff-collared. Our heroes were gospel music singers, in South Africa and in Swaziland. They wore silk pants that danced in the wind and the shoes were white and had sharp points. Some had teeth that shone with gold foil. And the greasy curls on their heads glistened at each catching of light. We saw them in daily newspapers and in magazines that somehow ended up in our pit latrines. It saddened us to have to wipe off the stinky filth with the pages they were on; and we would not have done it had our mothers known about 2-ply toilet paper.
 Our sisters spent their childhoods practising. In bad winter mornings they would gaily repeat the gospel songs popular in those days, and but for a moment forget the frost’s sting on their bare legs. Their role models wore pants that held them tight on the thighs and gave them freedom from the leg down. Hipsters those pants were called. Remnants of an American ’60s movement that never quite made it to the mountains of Swaziland. And their hair — these being an era past the Mandela years when afros ruled — was straightened and pushed backwards and let to hang and dance to the wind’s tune. 
 Adolescence crept in on us eventually, and with it brought new values and influences. Family fortunes changed, too. My brother became an inveterate liar, my sister chose to not get saved, while Mother’s last born became a vegetarian. I became a reader of The Times of Swaziland and a writer of letters to the editor. Then I became the class-clown and resident atheist. Then I began to wonder if God sometimes takes off his white robes and stand naked in front of the mirror; and if he found his naked figure funny. Mother and Father continue to listen to gospel music. Father’s case is rather strange because he was last in church in 1988. He says Mother should take care of the household’s religious obligations. Church attendance and the rest of it.
 Mother does not mind. She prays for us all. But she insists I rejected the God story because I wanted to be ‘a law unto thyself’. I contradict her and say that I rejected the whole business because of the music package it comes with. I also tell her that I am not too crazy about one of the Ten Commandments. Good gods would not outlaw coveting a neighbour’s wife.
 But when I have been away from home for too long, and a familiar gospel song in the radio comes in, I wiggle a toe, and remember long gone Saturday mornings. Mother kneeling and applying paraffin-and-wax polish on the cement floor. A Rebecca Malope song playing in the radio. Mother singing along.
 I figure that Swaziland’s noise is alright as it is. Gospel music everywhere. In taxes. In construction sites. In revivalists’ tents. In drinking spots. It is the Swaziland in my memory. The Swaziland responsible for the nostalgia and reminisces I enjoy.
 But I continue to tell my two cats, at the approach of every Sunday, to not concern themselves with what bearded clerics say on the telly. I show them pictures of church people in the best of Sunday dresses and say, “Don’t be like them and go to institutions once a week to compare clothing”. It is of course an unfair thing to say, and may be unfounded, but what is nuance to cats? I also own a mongrel male dog which I encourage to listen to all the gospel its ear can harvest. It can follow neighbours to church if it wants to. I am hoping that a little superstition will cure its shit-everywhere disease.

I tell people that my preferred noise is the sound of rain falling on a tin roof. And I discovered Frank Zappa in 2013 and feel at home listening to his ‘guitar notes that would irritate an executive kinda guy…’. And I thank the gods sometimes for Bob Dylan who wrote ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ before he jumped into evangelism and gospel music. And, for bicycle rides, I have a collection of the ‘old Kanye’ and a lot of Aesop Rock’s music whose lyrics I hardly understand.

Zappa & parents. Image: Frank Olson.