Thursday, April 10, 2008


At my group critique last monday I presented some research I had done on the word and song “Kumbaya” which means “come by me”.

I became interested in this because of a comment made about us when we were in New York. Someone said in response to our sitting in a circle on the floor that we were very “West Coast” and they wondered if we would start singing “Kumbaya”?

When I heard about this later my immediate response was, we should send them a video of us sitting in a circle singing kumbaya! The person making the comment was certainly not being complementary, however my initial response wasn't meant to be vindictive. Rather I think I thought it was funny and a way to open a dialogue, or at least cause some thought.

Some interesting things I learned about the song were first that it is credited to a Portlander see wikipedia entry (there is some dispute around this.) I also found a lot of recent editorials where the word kumbaya is being used as an adjective, and a slam. It is invoked to denote weakness generally and more specifically a weak grasp of serious realities. This reminds me of the (not so) old days when politicians would accuse each other of being communist and thus effectively hijack the trajectory of the conversation, as the accused then spent all his or her rhetorical skill denying the claim.

After looking at this research it seemed to me that I could happily accept the label of “kumbaya”, I would be interested to hear why it is a bad thing to exhibit a belief in possibility and unity. I say this even though I am not religious so “some ones crying my lord -come by me” might seem an odd sentiment for me to embrace, however I see it as a call for strength and wisdom generally. I guess that is why it is considered weak; it is admits that one doesn't have all the answers or that one lacks the total personal power necessary to effect change alone (unilaterally).

I also put together this collage of other people's utube videos of the song being sung. I think this video shows how diverse are the relationships that people have to this song. I personally don't think any of these clips are trying to be ironic. Some come from and understanding of the song as a spiritual prayer, some from growing up with it at camp, some simply as a song that everyone knows, and some almost documentary about pain in the world. As I assembled these clips I was struck by the cacophony created by layering so many performances of this one song, and also by the randomly occurring unity that emerged in some moments.
Listen carefully to the opening audio clip, it is Katherine Hepburn from "The Lion in Winter."

Kumbaya from sanone on Vimeo.

After my presentation and my request that we make a movie, there was a very lively discussion. What I had seen in the various utube videos was actually reflected in the opinions we all had. I mean by this that there was a huge range of interpretation. We did sing the song together, but I will not be submitting anything to anyone just yet. This is mainly for two reasons. First it was pointed out that unless we could send it to exactly the person who made the comment it would have no resonance what so ever, and in fact might seem so odd as to reinforce the stereotype of the west coast, and secondly it was suggested that it might be perceived by some as offensive or racist because the word kumbaya was imported/appropriated from Africa. Also, it now seems a project worth investigating with a lot more thought.

Thanks to everyone who participated for making this a really great and though provoking critique.
It was really fortunate that Storm Tharp was our visiting artist, he had a similar experience in Seattle, and the word kumbaya was used pejoratively then as well. I am really interested in questions around sincerity, hipness, and authenticity to mention a few, that this topic brought up. I never dreamed that kumbaya would be so contentious!

I am looking forward to further dialog about this, and it may end up that I do a project that is inspired by the overheard comment in New York, yet is not a direct response to it.

Type rest of the post here

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