Our concert this season is premised on the idea that “it takes a village” to make something as extraordinarily amazing and collaborative as choral music. So, I thought I would briefly explain how the language of Swahili, used in our Kenyan piece Wana Baraka, also owes its origins to awesome community efforts. The coastal region of Africa was part of what historians call the Indian Ocean World Trade System. A world system is a sphere of influence, usually political or economic, that governs a region. These systems can overlap and create gigantic, intricate structures, which is what happened here. China, India, and the Arabian peninsula, all realized somewhat simultaneously that each of the other spheres had goods and commodities they wanted. So they started to intermingle, intermarry, and learn how to communicate with each other, using Arabic as the sort of lingua franca of the whole system.
Well, Arabic was the language of Islam, and it turns out that Islamic scholars traveled along the exact same routes laid out by merchants. Islam was an incredibly non-violent and inclusive religion, and over time, conversions just became the way of things. This created a peaceful system of trade, with a common language and ritual. Trade and Islam became mutually reinforcing, all the way from China to…Africa.
Islam worked its way down the coast of Africa from the Arabian peninsula by 1200 C.E., bringing merchants from all over the known world with it. But the coastal regions also remained dependent on the raw materials coming out to the coast from the interior, which were carted around by indigenous people. So rather than strictly adopting Arabic, these wildly cosmopolitan coastal populations needed a language that was both Islamic AND relatable to regional dialects.
Hence, the invention of Swahili, a language that owes its origins to both inclusivity and expansion. A language based on the combination of diverse and vibrant traditions. That’s a pretty powerful aspect of community, I think.