Remembering national history through tunes

editorial image

“ONE thing we find a lot is that many of the tunes are international, particularly with children’s songs. The refrain of our Afghan children’s song about a little dog, Chini Gak, goes to a tune I recognised as Knees Up Mother Brown,” says Ella Sprung.

“Collecting the songs, we learn little bits about lives all around the world, from home-production of olive oil in Portugal to Mexican birthday celebrations, and student protests in Bangladesh in the 1970s to Maltese spring festival traditions.”

Ella is one of the leading lights of Sheffield Babel Songs, which collects and shares songs from people who live in Sheffield with roots in other countries.

“We collect songs either by interviewing individuals or running workshops. We ask people to tell us about a song, or songs, that are important to them, also their memories associated with the song, what it means to them.”

The idea for Sheffield Babel Songs came about in 2008 from Sheffield musicians, Bay Whitaker and Peter Rophone – Babel refers to the Towel of Babel in Genesis where the languages of earth were created.

Bay recalls: “I used to go to international song workshops when I lived in London and Cambridge and thought it would be easy to run something similar in Sheffield.

“As a folk musician, I had been much influenced by songbook collections of Cecil Sharpe and Maud Karpeles. In some of them, there was a little bit of information about where a song was collected, who from, and perhaps a few words about the person.

“I found that very poignant and that’s what gave me the idea to try a song collection from Sheffield’s international population, as a way to create our own local-global archive of material.

“We began with a visit to El-Nisah, an organisation in Pitsmoor that provides support to Arabic women. 

“As a non-Arabic speaker with no experience of the musical styles of Yemen and Arabic nations, it proved very difficult to transcribe and learn the songs they suggested, but they gave us some great material.

“In our first year of collecting we made contacts with some great characters and community groups who we still work with today, in particular the Bengali Women’s Support Group and the Club OK Russian School, as well as our friend and advisor in matters Chinese, local erhu player David Chang.”

Four years later, about 60 songs from 21 countries have been transcribed, with roughly another 60 waiting to be worked through.

Ella Sprung describes the process of collecting the songs, including researching lyrics and different versions, creating a transcript of the words and finding a translation, as complicated.

“We have to put it into musical notation, which can be difficult when there are lots of versions of a song and when the vocal styles of the country of origin may seem quite unfamiliar to British musicians.

“Babel Songs is a grassroots project: none of us are experts, and we have a principle of ‘good enough’, rather than ‘definitive’ in our approach to transcriptions!”

The end purpose is to share the songs with as many people as possible by means of an ‘in-house’ performing group, workshops and teaching the songs to local choirs and school groups.” And now, with the intention of producing a songbook for use in local schools and by music groups, Sheffield Babel Songs became a formally constituted group in July so that it could apply for Heritage Lottery Funding to help produce it.

“The songs cover many themes: love songs, songs about dancing and having fun, lullabies, funny songs, sad songs – we even have one about how wonderful water is!” says Ella.

“The same ideas, such as love, loss or celebration, appear in songs from all countries and languages.

“We also find that recent national history is often remembered by people through songs; for example, the Second World War, or songs about the founding of different states, like Bangladesh and Taiwan.”

“The song from Turkey, Yuksek Yuksek, which is on our website, is a perfect example of a song that does what we want to do,” adds Bay Whitaker.

“The woman we collected it from gave us a personal story. Through it we learn about pre-wedding celebrations in Turkey.”

The next performances by the Sheffield Babel Songs performing group are on September 15 at the rescheduled Ruskin Park Festival at Walkley and a concert at Walkley Community Centre on October 29 when tickets will cost £5 (available,

“Usually we make no charge, or just enough to cover costs, for any shows or workshops we put on, but we need to raise funds in case the Lottery bid is not successful,” says Ella.

“We really want to produce a songbook, even if it’s only a few copies, for posterity,” chimes in Bay.