There’s this guy, Matt Harding. He describes himself as “a 31-year-old deadbeat from Connecticut who used to think that all he ever wanted to do in life was make and play videogames.” After Matt got sick of his job making videogames in Brisbane, Australia, he started an extended global walkabout. And as he travelled the world, he danced – badly – and had friends record him performing the same dance in front of some of the great sites of the world.
Matt is something of an internet celebrity – his videos have been watched millions of times, and the most recent one (above) is pretty damned charming. I watched it about half a dozen times yesterday, realizing that I liked it so much because the goofy smile on his face in the scenes where dozens of people rush on screen to dance with him is the best approximation of the way I felt at the recent Global Voices Summit. Trust me – there’s very little in life that feels better than talking, singing, dancing and drinking with people from around the world who are working with you on the same project, sharing many of the same values, goals and perspectives – dancing like an idiot on the streets of Lisbon or Sana’a is a pretty good approximation.
(I will also admit that I got a little choked up by Matt’s decision to edit, back to back, a clip of him dancing with a wild group of friends in Tel Aviv followed by a clip of him dancing in the streets of East Jerusalem in the West Bank with a small group of children. Rachel is in West Jerusalem right now, and was planning on travelling to the West Bank tomorrow, for an encounter program intended to let rabbinic students stay with Palestinian families to better understand the complexities of modern Israel and the personal dynamics of the ongoing conflict. Unfortunately, yesterday’s bulldozer attack means the trip was called off, and she’s now looking for other ways to connect with the local Palestinian population.)
Since I’m obviously having some trouble returning to my ordinary work life after the Summit, I spent a bit more time today looking at Matt’s videos, digging into his earlier dance videos. As I started watching his original video, shot in 2005, I winced involuntarily as I realized that the soundtrack was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby”, a piece of music I have strong feelings about.
“Sweet Lullaby” is a song based around a vocal sample misrepresented as a Pygmy song from Central Africa. Actually, the sample is from a lullaby, “Rorogwela”, sung in the Solomon Islands. The song is sung by a woman named Afunakwa, who was recorded in 1970 by the legendary ethnomusicologist, Dr. Hugo Zemp. The story of Deep Forest’s unauthorized use of the sample, their miscrediting of the sample’s origins and Zemp’s understandable anger has been brilliantly documented by Professor Steven Feld in an article called “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” in Public Culture. Suffice to say that the guys behind Deep Forest, who portray themselves as “sound reporters”, didn’t feel compelled to properly credit the person or culture the sample came from, or the ethnomusicologist who recorded it.
I used the story of Afunakwa as a way to discuss intellectual property in developing nations in a law class I co-taught, which I documented in a piece called “Tumeric, pygmies and privacy“, one of my favorite blogposts, though one that’s literally never gotten a blog comment or much reaction. (And the students, for the most part, seemed to think that my argument that developing nations might want to use copyright to protect indigenous knowledge was pretty contrary to everything they believed about free culture, remix and all that cool web2.0 stuff…)
So I was pretty blown away to discover a video on Matt’s page titled “Where the Hell is Afunakwa?” Matt evidently discovered the controversy over the song and went to the Solomon Islands – as he says in the opening of the video, “I figured it was time I learned what I can about the song and Afunakwa… and also see about paying back my debt.”
On the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, in the town of Auki, Matt met David Solo, a cousin of Afunakwa. Talking to David, he learns that Afunakwa has been dead for some years, and gets a partial translation of the lyrics of the song:
[Small brother or sister] keep quiet
I tell you, even though you cry, I try to stop you
Even though you cry, I still carry you
Solo and a friend agree that they’re not able to accurately translate, as the words used are no longer used by people of his generation – they offer to take him to meet with relatives of Afunakwa, older people who can offer a better translation. He wasn’t able to change his flight to have that meeting, but he has plans to visit Afunakwa’s family in Baegu village in a future trip.
I find it deeply moving that a man best known for his goofy dancing felt compelled to discover the real story behind Afunakwa, and I’m grateful for this next chapter in the story. If you’re a documentary filmmaker looking for a tale to tell, allow me to suggest flying Matt and Professor Feld off to the Solomons and tell a final chapter of this story.
By the way, Internet, have I told you lately how much I love you?