I want to share a story that I’ve heard many times in many contexts over the years in my work as a musician and music therapist. I heard this story first during one of my classes with the Music for Healing and Transition Program. I’ve heard it from other sound healers and even in a German film from Gaia entitled We Are Sound.
It’s a touching story that resonates deeply with me every time I hear it. It’s quite popular. You may have heard some version of it somewhere. The fable touches into the power of forgiveness, finding our true purpose, finding our tribe, and the healing power of communal song.
I will say that the telling of this story is often framed in the problematic opening of “There’s a tribe in Africa” and then tells the story of this tribe in Africa. The problem is, of course, there is no tribe in Africa, at least that I could find in my research, where this tale comes from. As this rather critical take on the story points out, the opening of “there’s a tribe in Africa” is simply a White fetishizing of a communal unnamed indigenous tribe in Africa as supportive and typical of this story’s values of forgiveness and communal song.
I feel it probably came from a good place: as a way to say to White audiences (the film I saw on Gaia was a German film), this practice of naming children has values that we in the Western world have forgotten. The values of forgiveness and celebration of someone’s life are something we used to hold dear but somehow have forgotten.
I will retell this story as I’ve heard it, omitting the reference to the unnamed “tribe in Africa.”
Simply think of it as a mythical story from the ancestors with a deeper truth that I hope resonates for you.
A Child’s Song
There was a tribe of people where a baby’s birthday is not counted from the day he or she is born but from the day he or she was a thought in the mind of the mother. When the mother feels the time is right, she goes off by herself and sits under a tree, listening to the ancient silence of the land for a melody in ceremony.
She imagines holding her newborn baby in her arms and staring into the baby’s eyes for the first time, all while listening to the wind, the tree above her, and the land.
In time, the mother will hear a melody arise from the silence in her mind’s ear.
This is the song of her unborn, yet-to-be-conceived baby.
She begins to hum and sing the song softly to herself, rolling the unique melody around in her mind and heart and bringing it to her throat, mouth and lips, singing it aloud.
She then comes back to the community and sings the songs to the others, announcing to her community with the song, that she is ready to have a child.
She and her partner learn the song and sing it while conceiving their child, and support each other with the song while she carries the baby.
When the baby is born, the entire tribe, now well acquainted with the melody, sings the song to the newborn baby, welcoming him or her to the tribe with a musical celebration.
Throughout the child’s young life, the tribe sings the song to the child when he or she cries or is distraught, when he or she laughs and plays, when he or she goes to sleep, and on any special occasion in the young child’s life.
And if this person, as a child or an adult, ever commits a transgression against his or her family or the tribe, the people of the tribe gather in a circle around the person, and instead of casting admonishment or judgment, they simply sing the song back to this (inner) child, reminding him or her of their true song.
And all through this person’s life, the song is with them. At their own wedding, they hear their song and the song of their partner sung together by the tribe.
And one day, on the person’s deathbed, the friends and family of the village gather to sing him or her their song one last time as they drift off to their final sleep.
Would you know your song if you heard it?