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Music As Language | Mimi Mwiya On Communicating Through Sound

I once texted one of my brothers complaining about how much schoolwork I had, and he texted back saying, “We know the only way to get you to learn anything, is to put it in a Kelly Clarkson song.”

I’ve said before that I learn by living, music is another way I learn. Once I’ve picked something up from a song, it never leaves my head. I will never forget that Vasco da Gama “discovered” the seaway to India, and I don’t think I’ll ever not recite the alphabet in song.

I must say, though, I think the biggest thing music serves as a teacher of, is language.

The first phrase I learnt in a foreign language that wasn’t English, was from a Swahili song. I was four or five years old and heard a song on the radio with the words mimi mimi nakupenda something something something wewe. I excitedly went to tell my mother my name was in a song on the radio.

Of course I wanted to know what was being said “about me” and I was disappointed it wasn’t my name at all, just someone saying ‘I love you’ to someone, but I have never forgotten that ‘nakupenda’ is I love you and that ‘mimi’ is me, decades later I still feel the disappointment of that little girl, but I’ve never forgotten that language lesson in song.

I think the one French phrase I can say most effortlessly, is je ne sais pas pourqoi, thanks to the Kylie Minogue song.

But by far, my two favourite music-language memories, are with Tina, my big brother’s former housekeeper in Angola. Tina speaks no English, only Portuguese, my command of Portuguese does not stretch very far beyond greetings, ‘I love you’ and a few food items.

So communication between Tina and I was quite a challenge. She used to come to the house three to four times a week and we kind of had an unspoken agreement that she cleans and I cook. I liked to listen to music as I cooked and one morning I was in the kitchen cooking, playing music, singing along in my off-key way, Tina was doing the dishes by the sink, R. Kelly’s The World’s Greatest’ came on and at some point, I realised that Tina was humming along to it. She didn’t know the words, but she knew the melody almost as well as I did the words.

I stopped singing out loud and just started humming along as well. In that moment, Tina and I spoke the same language: music. This was in 2015. Last year, on my last visit to Angola before my brother moved back home, I was in the kitchen cooking, a Portuguese song by my church’s youth choir played from my phone, Tina heard it, she ran into the kitchen, her face broke into a bright smile as she pointed to my phone saying, “Portugues!” I smiled back and said, “Sim Tina, Portugues.”

I don’t know what part of the house she’d come from or what she’d been doing there, but she came to join me in the kitchen and for the second time since we’d known each other, Tina and I spoke the same language. You’re probably waiting to read that this time around I was humming and Tina was singing out loud, but I’m not one to let small things like inability to speak a language keep me from singing in it. So that day, thanks to music, Tina and I both spoke Portuguese.

I could go on and on about all the ways in which music has taught me things, brought me closer to people, bridged gaps that might have otherwise been impossible to, but I believe my point has been made, music not only brings the world together, but teaches some of us things we would otherwise have a hard time remembering… like the ABC’s.



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Mimi Mwiya

Mimi Mwiya

Munukayumbwa (Mimi) Mwiya is a floater who sometimes sits still enough to write.

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Music As Language | Mimi Mwiya On Communicating Through Sound

by Mimi Mwiya time to read: 3 min