In 1926 Jelly Roll Morton released a single called Black Bottom Stomp (he had originally called it Queen of Spades). It was a jazz dance and a hot record of its time, so popular that it was covered by other early Jazz legends in one form or another. When, a decade later, jazz had moved into the snazzy windy city clubs the dance was resurrected under the new title of Shakin' the African. The dance was synonymous with excitement, energy, and vitality.
I was reminded of these earlier dances by media coverage of this year's Umhlanga, the national Reed Dance, an event that many city dwellers now seem to regard as mainly for tourists. I'm sure that isn't so, although the ceremony's origins are so shrouded in the mists of time that there are many who see the annual ritual as an anachronism, an odd, out-of-place happening in this high-tech mobile-phone and computer age.
Yet the event's central metaphor is still striking. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian myth that people were fashioned from clay (cf the potter's wheel, 'dust-to-dust' and 'ashes-to-ashes'), Swazi cosmology has it that the first people were shaped from reeds.
This connection of people with reeds was once engagingly made by a preacher in a service I attended. He gave no impression that he knew of the Swazi creation story, but instead argued that 'reeds' was an accurate description of the unconverted, since reeds are hollow and are easily swayed by the wind. The image was an ideal one for the preacher, allowing him plenty of scope to elaborate on those whose lives are 'empty' and 'wavering', without purpose and direction. Never once during that longish sermon did my attention to it waver.
I have another view of those reeds however. I think if you look at a bed of reeds moving in the wind you can easily imagine them to be dancing, and I think that's an apt image for life itself. The reeds are animated, alive because they have movement. Death, after all, is supremely seen as a stillness. Life can be viewed as a kind of dance: a sometimes noisy, crazy, careering one, but still a dance.
This interpretation, I believe, enriches phrases like wena weluhlanga, and supports the Reed Dance's prominence on the national calendar.
It's another instance of discovering the constellations of meaning behind what we say and do. Often familiarity and repetition blur and obscure meanings. For example, many people believe that English names have no meanings, whereas Swazi names do. Everyone knows why an Ntombifuthi is so named, but what about a Kenneth? The truth is that English names do have meanings but they've been forgotten over the course of time and need someone to take the effort to find out what they mean. The same applies to annual events like uMhlanga. It is certainly a colourful event and, yes, it does attract visitors from other countries, but if we allow it--and other events like it--to become merely a vivid event, a spectacle, a showy entertainment for the media age, then everyone will ultimately be the loser. By watching the swaying, jostling, singing girls at the Reed Dance and imagining them as that amazing thing, a bed of living reeds, we can deepen our understanding of ourselves, and perhaps regain something of the wonder of life itself.
[* an earlier version of this article was previously published in the Times Sunday newspaper*]