Abiyoyo Story Arts

Abiyoyo in America

Pete meets Abiyoyo in a song book from South Africa.

Visualizing Abiyoyo...

South African voices call out around the world.

In 1948 white Afrikaner immigrants to South Africa enforced a strict system of racial segregation and social hierarchy. Soon Americans were hearing news coverage of street protests in South Africa and violent police crackdowns against Black South African protestors. In mass street rallies, thousands of people sang together, their voices unified as one. South African protest songs amplified news of their struggle to end a racist system all across the world.

Learning songs from Africa
Pete's group, The Weavers, performed and recorded the Zulu South African song Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight). Pete sings the high notes! This song has become world famous from the sound track of Disney's film, The Lion King. Even though the Weavers had been the first to bring Wimoweh to an American audience, they did not claim copyright.

Discovering Abiyoyo in a South African songbook
A simple little tune, Abiyoyo was originally performed in the South African Xhosa language. You pronounce the "Xh" with a clicking sound. Pete found the lyrics and musical notes of the Abiyoyo song transcribed in a South African song book. The song's lyric, just a single word, uses a melody of only five notes. Pete taught himself to sing Abiyoyo.

Pete's sings the Abiyoyo lullaby for his kids.
One evening, trying to get his kids to fall asleep, Pete sang the Abiyoyo lullaby.

The kids bargained for more. "No! No! We want a story!"

Pete makes up his own Abiyoyo tale.
Pete had found a short footnote at the bottom of the page in his South African song book: "This lullaby is part of an ancient tale about a monster who eats people. The parents get it dancing, and when it falls down in a fit, it is dispatched by the parents."

Pete had always enjoyed the wonderful stories his dad had made up for him when he was a little kid. Pete made up his own Abiyoyo story based on this footnote. With every retelling he and his kids added more new details. He turned the story's dad into a magician with a magic wand. He gave his favorite childhood musical instrument–a ukulele–to the boy in his Abiyoyo story.

Pete Seeger performs Abiyoyo

Storysong Abiyoyo becomes a stage performance.
Soon Pete tried performing Abiyoyo on stage in front of larger audiences of kids. Eventually Abiyoyo became one of his popular "storysong" performances. In 1956 Pete recorded his story and the Abiyoyo song on his album Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs for Kids. Pete began to regularly include his re-telling of Abiyoyo in his live concerts.

Confronting a giant called the Red Scare.
Pete put his Abiyoyo story together during the 1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committe were getting people fired for their political beliefs. Many blacklisted performers and actors became unable to find work–their employers were afraid they too would be labeled Un-American. For many years Pete was not able to perform at concert halls or appear on radio and TV programs. During his blacklisted years Pete performed Abiyoyo at his children's summer camp gigs. In Pete's imagination the scary giant Abiyoyo began to represent the Red Scare itself.

Eventually, the political mood in America shifted, Senator Joe McCarthy resigned in disgrace, Pete was able to perform again. But the story of Abiyoyo began to take on new meanings for Pete. Every decade we confront new threatening giants. By the early 1980s Pete thought Abiyoyo might represent the "technological establishment".

A lesson in copyright law
A big music corpporation recorded a version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, added a verse and claimed copyright. This taught Pete an important lesson in copyright law to claim copyright for his version of Abiyoyo.

Pete hosted a TV show called Rainbow Quest on which you can see a very early performance of Abiyoyo.

An early performance of Abiyoyo of Pete Seeger's TV show Rainbow Quest
You'll need to click through to YouTube to view this video.

Michael sees Abiyoyo performed live!
Abiyoyo artist Michael Hays experienced Pete's Abiyoyo performance for the first time when he attended a Seeger concert at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh circa 1970.

Visualizing Abiyoyo...

Abiyoyo Story Arts