Telling stories, explaining names

By Lindajoy Fenley

The strong beat and harmonious melodies of South Africa enraptured World Fest audiences in Minnesota as they did in the Dakotas and Iowa. However, the stories Lorraine Klaasen and her instrumentalists share are perhaps what make their visit unforgettable to many Midwesterners.

Children in Minnesota dancing and listening to Lorraine Klaasen and her ensemble.

Lorraine opens each workshop singing the story of the Qongqothwane, “a tiny little beetle” that creeps under the skirt of an African woman harvesting food in the field. Her demonstration of how to shake off the pest while carrying a baby and three baskets invariably incites chuckles and wide-eyed expressions of surprise.

Lorraine sings about a tiny beetle.

When the singer introduces her musical director and the group’s guitarist, Mongezi Ntaka, he adds information about South Africa’s apartheid era that ended after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Mongezi says he’s been adding things since the day he was born as the sixth child of a South African family. After all, his name, Mongezi, means “something added.” His last name, Ntaka, is a word for a little bird.

Mongezi adds storytelling and history lessons to workshops.

Mongezi also spins a dramatic story of a young Zulu man who kills a lion that devoured one of his cows and then celebrates in song. Listeners look at each other and share smiles of delight as they realize they already know that song as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and just as that realization comes, Mongezi hits the strings of his electric guitar. Before long, everyone joins Lorraine in singing the Americanized words to Solomon Lindo’s song and then the original Zulu words to “Mbube” composed in the 1930s and first recorded in Johannesburg in 1939.

After a few more songs, it’s time for more introductions.

Bass player André, who hails originally from the Caribbean island of Grenada, normally jokes about his family name. “My name is André Whiteman,” he says. “But you can call me André White man, the Black man.” At the last Minnesota school workshop, however, he announced a new name from the continent of his ancestors stating, “My name is Ngwenya. That means crocodile, the fiercest animal in Africa.”

André announces a new name in Thief River Falls, MN.

The percussionist, Noel Mpiaza, frequently begins his introduction with the Zulu greeting that the group teaches at the beginning of school workshops, and he states that his name is also meaningful. He translates his first name from French to English. “Noel means Christmas,” he says. Sometimes he also explains that his Congolese last name, Mpiaza, is a sort of soil enricher because it is the charred vegetation left when Africans burn old crops to make way for new plantings.

The name Noel means this drummer gives gifts—but he says to send requests to the North Pole.

The week before the group arrived in Minnesota, a North Dakota high school senior asked Lorraine Klaasen if her name had a meaning too. Since then the singer has often told students her African name: Etumeleng. It means someone to be proud of, she says, adding that she hopes her mother, a legendary jazz singer, is also proud of her. Friends like to call her Tumi, a shortened version of Etumeleng.

Sarah, a high school senior in North Dakota, asks about Lorraine’s name.

Tumi is also a storyteller. When she tells students the story of young South Africans’ struggle to break the inhumane apartheid system—something she remembers personally—she asks the students to imagine what it would be like to be in the schoolyard with friends and see the swirling dust of Afrikaner tanks approaching. “They’re coming with tear gas and bullets… It’s an emergency,” she says to get them to add urgency to their voices when they sing. Some students are still chanting “Khawuleza” as they file out of gyms and auditoriums to go back to their safe classrooms. They now know more about South Africa than they did just an hour earlier.

Lorraine tells students to give it all they’ve got when they sing “Khawuleza.”

All the songs that the group performs have stories, Mongezi told students at an extended workshop for music students at Thief River Fall’s Lincoln High School. Some of the stories use just a few words. But all tell a story.

Students in Thief River Falls sing and dance to South African music.


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