octozumba

This is a word from a childhood song.

Or maybe it’s not.

For one thing, I never knew what it meant. But when you’re young, you hear plenty of words that you don’t know the meanings of and you treat them as lexical units and assume they must mean something.

For another thing, it’s not so much a word as a magical entity that, as you pursue it, breaks into many, flaking off phantoms here and there, and you have to try to follow and find the word at the bottom – the one that, in reality flaked off all those phantoms as it headed towards you, and the word you started with was really one of the phantom endpoints. It is a one that contains a many, and it is one of many that lead to one. And what it leads to is not octozumba. Except in my version.

It’s also associated with a gesture. Or a set of gestures. Or nothing. Depending on who you’re asking. But always, always, always, it is associated with a song. How the song goes varies a little, mind you…

Let’s start where it started for me.

When I was in the early years of primary school, we lived in Exshaw, Alberta, a small town with a large cement plant set at the entrance to the Rockies and not too far west from the Morley Stoney Indian Reserve. My father worked on the reserve while my mother taught – at the time, at Exshaw School, but afterward at the reserve school. In Exshaw, my childhood experiences took place with playmates and friends and classmates and with my brother. My brother, Reggie, unlike me, belonged to Cub Scouts. Where he learned interesting things.

One of the things he learned was a song. Well, he learned more than one, but I’m talking about this one. I also remember a gesture, which actually goes with a different song about junior birdmen: you make goggles by making thumb-and-forefinger rings and then putting them over your eyes with your hands upside-down, palms against forehead. This had nothing to do with octozumba but I always remember it with octozumba. Somehow the gesture seems octozumba-ish, perhaps because ocular.

Octozumba came from a song that I remember quite clearly:

Octozumba zumba zumba, octozumba zumba zay
Octozumba zumba zumba, octozumba zumba zay
Hold ’em down, you mighty warriors,
Hold ’em down, you mighty chiefs
[repeat senselessly]

Clearly this song had something to do with Indians: warriors, chiefs, you know. The music sounded sort of like the music associated with Indians in western movies (you know, with cowboys). What was octozumba? I think I was too young to think “octo = 8,” but I recognized the octo, like in octopus. And zumba was maybe something like Montezuma or something.

Anyway, it had the air of the secret knowledge passed from one young boy to another. Reggie had learned this at Cub Scouts, and it was a new thing I was learning that seemed to have been passed down as special information. It was a thing. It meant a thing. It was a thing you did. Add it to the ever-growing list of Things.

Fast-forward four decades. I’m sitting in Toronto and I wonder whether someone has YouTubed this song or what. I start trying to find it.

To begin with, I find a site with some warm-ups for improv performers. It has the word(s) as ay kazimba. I also find a site with some Girl Scout songs. It has the word as akamazuma, and gives not “mighty warriors” but “Zulu warriors”…!

More digging follows. It’s a Boy Scouts song. It’s an army song. It’s a rugby song. It’s a drinking song. It was used during the Boer war. It supported the Zulus. No, it taunted them. It wasn’t Zulus, it was Swazis. The words are “Hold ’em down,” “Take them down,” “Haul ’em down,” “Get ’em down,” “See him dance,” “Hold him back,” “See him there”… The gestures are a complicated series of touching the leg and/or arm of the persons on either side; no, they’re a dance; no, it’s drinking; no, it’s hauling down your pants; no, it’s… what gestures?

And octozumba? It’s I kama zimba, I zicka zimba, Hi zig a zumba, Izika zumba, A kin a zimba, I kama simba, Ai-zika-zimba, I come a zeema, I giva zumba, I ziga zumba, Ah-chika zumba

In all this, and especially with the aid of a very replete discussion of it at The Mudcat Café, I come to find that the song is usually called “The Zulu Warrior” and was recorded by The Brothers Four. But not first. It was first recorded in 1946 by a South African named Josef Marais, who made a career collecting and singing folk songs, most of the time with his wife, Miranda. Here, give it a listen; the tune is just as I remember it:

Marais didn’t write it, though; he just wrote it down. It probably does date from the Boer War era, if not earlier. Among the people who fought in the Boer War (and lived in South Africa throughout that period, with contact with the Zulus) was Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts.

I will leave you to consider what the evolution of octozumba – I should say ai kama zimba – demonstrates about the nature and causes of change in languages and culture.

I’m still not sure what ai kama zimba zimba zayo means, though it does seem to mean something. One commenter at The Mudcat Café, Ewan McVicar, says a Swazi prince told him it means “a warrior should be brave.” It happens that kama simba means ‘like a lion’ in Swahili, which is a related language – not that closely related, though. Zulu for ‘lion’ is ibhubesi… not sure about Swazi; I haven’t a Swazi dictionary.

It is late now. I shall have to continue my hunt for the true meaning later… although I already know the meaning of octozumba. It’s all that I’ve just told you.

The nearest synonym is probably classiomatic.

One response to “octozumba

  1. Janet Chall Epstein

    I listened to that song many times on my mother’s 78 recording (as pictured on the song) I can only add that Joseph Marais and Meranda were also on the radio perhaps with their own show where they might have sang the song. I like the boer war link better. Janet Epstein

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