BY VICTOR AKHIDENOR
I geti my money for my contiri; thirty kobo for marketi; thirty kobo for shopping; before I reach market nko o…
That’s my cousin, Angela Asuelimen’s (now Akhidenor) version of: I geti my money, plan my plan finish; starti to go for marketi; starti to go for shopping…in the track Overtake Don Overtake Overtake by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
She was barely five then so she could be forgiven if the song’s meaning morphed into something quite different from the original intent of the Abami Eda. Her creation of the ‘thirty kobo broke worker’ is actually a common phenomenon, with the curious name Mondegreen.
A Mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a song or poem with the listener being unable to clearly hear a lyric, then substitutes words that sound similar and make some kind of sense.
The term was coined by American writer, Sylvia Wright. In a 1954 essay in Harper’s Magazine, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the last line of the first stanza from the 17th-century ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray”. She wrote:
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favourite poems began, as I remember: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands; Oh, where have ye been? They have slain the Earl o’ Moray; And Lady Mondegreen.”
The correct fourth line is, “And laid him on the green”. Wright then explained the need for a new word.
“The point about what I shall hereafter call Mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”
The coined word was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, and in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. In 2008, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary added the word in its collection.
Wright is not alone.
Growing up in the 80s, my mates and I had a rare talent for mishearing lyrics. And, like ignorance, it was bliss!
We sang anything we heard as we heard it. Children playground tunes, nursery rhymes, Sunday school songs, the national anthem/pledge, and even the Lord’s Prayer were not spared.
Jingle over like a Motor came out as Jangi lova epo moto. We heard Sanda lili sanda lili and not Standard living, standard living.
Feliz Navidad became Felix no fit dance; Felix no fit dance; Felix no fit dance; Dem come say Felix fit dance.
The day is bright; is bright and fair; O happy day; a day of joy…Mama jollof rice! (Till date, I don’t even know the correct version of the last line.)
All those are born in January, stand up, stand up ariya riya going, God bless you…instead of All those that are born in January, stand up, stand up and dance around the apple tree, God bless you.
Arise o com pa shon; Nigeria skol obe…the neighbours of our hero’s path…
We cared less.
I pledge to Nigeria my country; To be faithful loyal and honest; To serve Nigeria is not by FORCE (another version is: To slap Nigeria with all my strength) …And oppose her honour and glory…
So, help us God!
We didn’t need God’s help when, at the top of our voices, we sang: O singo o singo, praise the Lord. The Lord knew we were innocent and that we wanted to tell Him: O sing my soul and praise the Lord. He must have chuckled when we prayed: Our Father, look at in heaven, Adaobi thy name…thy chingum come…
Then we didn’t know that hearing was a two-step process.
First, there is the auditory perception. Here, the physics of sound waves make their way through our ear and into the auditory cortex of our brain. And then there is the meaning-making part. Here, our brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance. What we do in this second part is entirely up to us.
So, Fela could have been angry with you if you changed the last words he uttered in Unknown Soldier, ‘Unfinished matter’ to ‘Unfinished mother’. But then, it was partly his fault too because throughout the song “dem kill my mama…dem kill my mama…dem throw my mama…78-year-old mama…” kept repeating itself. And since Fela said he had death in his pouch (Anikulapo) and we all are aware of the bond between mother and son therefore Unfinished son (Anikulapo) equals Unfinished mother.
We now know that Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way.
In Beast of No Nation, the sound comes out as: No be outside dem kill dem students; Soweto, Zaria, and Ife. But curiously you hear: …dem went to Zaria and Ife.
Also, in the same track, Prime Minister Botha comes out to be Prime Minister Brother even though his brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was only the Minister of Health in Nigeria. Well, a minister is a minister, your brain tells you.
In Coffin for Head of State, North and South dem get dem policies is interpreted as None friend’s house. Some people even call it Conference house. Haba!
The creation of Mondegreens may be driven in part by cognitive dissonance, as the listener finds it psychologically uncomfortable to listen to a song and not make out the words. It’s quite frustrating. So, all that’s left for the brain is to make constant attempts to make sense of the word by making assumptions to fill in the gaps when it cannot clearly determine what it is hearing.
This kind of frustration occurs in Give Me Shit, I Give You Shit, where you can’t blame anyone who hears: …the rest energy (to some ‘ten twenty’) wey dey inside my pocket. Whereas, the actual lyrics is: the rest NNG wey dey inside my pocket…
NNG (Nigerian Natural Grass aka marijuana or Igbo) is not an acronym most listeners are familiar with except those aware of Kalakuta Republic’s lingua franca.
Another cousin of mine, Bolaji Idowu, made this assumption too after hearing Unnecessary Begging. In this track, Fela uses different words with different meanings but similar sound in the two choruses.
The first has: Arrangementi o while the second is Na Africa we de o…Idowu, however, heard Na Africa we dey o in both cases. Blame him, not.
The issue of cognitive dissonance reminds me of a joke my aburo, Jumoke Verissimo, sent me during the early days of GSM in Nigeria. Fading memory can’t make me recall it verbatim but it was about two Italians who stopped going to church whenever they were in Nigeria.
They were dumbfounded that God has an email address and was in correspondence with a lady.
“He mailed, He mailed her, He mailed her, Jehovah mailed…,” they heard.
“What a sacrilege,” they said while marching out of the church.
Nobody noticed. The choir and congregation continued singing:
“Ime, Imela, imela, Jehovah mela…”
A 2010 survey in Britain found that the most commonly misheard lyric was “Call me when you try to wake her” in R.E.M.’s The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, which was misheard as “Calling Jamaica” or “Calling Cheryl Baker”.
A ‘survey’ on Fela’s music shows the greatest misheard lyric is in the track Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.
I can’t even beat my chest and say I am cock-sure because what I hear is: Teacher, teacher o, make you no teach me again o; na so you teach finish yesterday he don die e dey o…But I am very sure it’s not what people sing. It can’t be: Teacher, teacher o, make you no teach me again o; as soon teaching finish yes, da thing eee it gon die it dey o.
Well, I can’t blame the brain for trying to make sense out of the Abami Eda’s non-traditional accenting of words in this track. We all went back to the 80s and sang it as we heard it.
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