I Zimbra

Hugo Ball Marie Remember ingesting the Talking Heads’ 1979 Fear of Music for the first time? You may have come away with your brain drenched in a hybrid African / New Wave alchemical sweat. Not quite as aromatic as the sweat that oozed from Remain in Light, nor quite as pungent as the sweat that squirted from the somewhat more ragged 77. Fear of Music-generated sweat had a darker scent: More earthy, with an undercarriage of oak and peat moss. Beneath all that deep African funk was something very American – iconic portrait/bursts on simple themes: Drugs, Paper, Heaven, Animals, Cities. And underneath it all, something strange and wonderful and unlike anything you had heard before. But on the first track — I Zimbra — the African stuff did something sneaky to your brain: It set you up for deception. If you’re like most people (not saying that you are, but if you are), you may have assumed that the lyrics were a lifted tribal chant, cribbed from somewhere deep in the bowels of the Serengeti. The rhythms told you to assume that.

As for Marie Osmond… we’ll get to that.


At some point, you realized that the strange-but-beautiful lyrics were not in fact African at all, but the words to a poem by turn-of-last-century European Dada poet Hugo Ball. This discovery may have made you giddy. And in your giddiness, you may have gone out and started a local Dada sub-committee and cut tin-man outfits from refrigerator cardboard and started doing readings from the Dada Manifesto at your local Vet’s hall. If you’re like most people. Not saying that you are, but if you are. And who could blame you? It was so beautiful:


Dada 3gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori
gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini
gadji beri bin blassa glassala laula lonni cadorsu sassala bim
gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligla wowolimai bin beri ban
o katalominai rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo
gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen
bluku terullala blaulala loooozimzim urullala zimzim urullala zimzim zanzibar zimzalla zam
elifantolim brussala bulomen brussala bulomen tromtata
velo da bang band affalo purzamai affalo purzamai lengado tor
gadjama bimbalo glandridi glassala zingtata pimpalo ögrögöööö
viola laxato viola zimbrabim viola uli paluji malooo

tuffm im zimbrabim negramai bumbalo negramai bumbalo tuffm i zim
gadjama bimbala oo beri gadjama gaga di gadjama affalo pinx
gaga di bumbalo bumbalo gadjamen
gaga di bling blong
gaga blung

Ubuweb, on Ball performing this and other poems at the Cabaret Voltaire:

FlightHere, one evening, Hugo Ball read his “Verses without words”, based on the equilibrium of vowels, regulated and distributed exclusively in relation to the phonic value of the initial line. Clothed in azure, scarlet and golden cardboard, with a cylindrical shaman’s hat on his head … “I do not know what this music inspired in me, but I began to sing my sequences of vowels in recitative liturgical manner. The electric light was turned off as arranged and I was carried away covered in perspiration like a a magical bishop who disappears into the abyss.”

David Byrne, on the choice to use Ball’s poem on Fear of Music:

I remember hearing an old recording of Kurt Schwitter’s Ur Sonata when I was in school. It struck me as very musical, very rhythmic … (almost funky) … very funny and very entertaining. It was one of the first times I had heard the musicality of ‘language’ made so explicit. It didn’t matter that it was a made up language. … Using Hugo Ball’s text for I Zimbra was Brian Eno’s suggestion. I felt it was the perfect solution to the quandary we had gotten ourselves into: how do we have a ‘chant-like’ vocal that doesn’t place undue emphasis on the lyric content.

Coconuts But Byrne/Eno weren’t the only ones not placing undue emphasis on lyric content. A universe away (but at almost exactly the same point in the time-space continuum), Donny and Marie were pouring their hearts into Goin’ Coconuts – a shlocky jewel-heist movie sporting the throw-away tagline “It’s so funny it’s a crime,” but which sunk like a stone and was hated by viewers and critics alike.

Perhaps to redeem herself from the embarrassment of that movie, perhaps to open up an untapped neural circuit, perhaps on a bar bet, Marie Osmond decided to take on no smaller challenge than Dada itself — by performing Hugo Ball’s poem “Karawane” for an international audience. And she nailed it.

Again with the Ubuweb:

Taken from a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not segment on sound poetry from the mid-80s. According to producer Jed Rasula, “Marie Osmond became co-host with Jack Palance. In the format of the show, little topic clusters (like “weird language”) were introduced by one of the hosts. In this case, the frame was Cabaret Voltaire. Marie was required to read Hugo Ball’s sound poem “Karawane” and a few script lines. Much to everybody’s astonishment, when they started filming she abruptly looked away from the cue cards directly into the camera and recited, by memory, “Karawane.” It blew everybody away, and I think they only needed that one take. A year or so after it was broadcast, Greil Marcus approached me, wanting to use Marie Osmond’s rendition of Hugo Ball for a CD produced in England as sonic companion to his book Lipstick Traces; so I was delighted to be able to arrange that.”

Marie nails it:

jolifanto bambla o falli bambla
großiga m’pfa habla horem
egiga goramen
higo bloiko russula huju
hollaka hollala
anlogo bung
blago bung blago bung
bosso fataka
ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa olobo
hej tatta gorem
eschige zunbada
wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu
tumba ba-umf
kusa gauma
ba – umf

Nothing is as it seems. Dada, Byrne/Eno, Marie Osmond. It all fits so perfectly. As Tristan Tzara noted so poignantly, “Cubism constructs a cathedral of artistic liver paste.”

About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at last.fm

5 thoughts on “I Zimbra

  1. I got the “Talking Heads Brick” for my birthday.. It’s all the Talking Heads studio albums remastered on 5.1 DualDisc. They sound great in stereo, and after I move in a few months I will have my surround sound setup back.. I can’t wait to hear them.. I’m especially excited to hear “Fear of Music”

  2. I seem to recall that the lyrics for “Artists Only” were not written by the band either. However, those lyrics were contemporary (I think a friend of the band wrote them).

    So if Marie is a little bit Dada, and Donny is a little bit Broadway… (Still remember the Donny and Marie episode where they switched places, and MARIE did rock & roll. Explosions onstage and everything.)

  3. I’m pretty sure Donny’s dada moment was his role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

  4. Actually, that role was very consistent with the non-Dada side of his personality. Having performed in “Joseph” myself, and having heard the young Donny’s recording of “Let My People Go,” I can state that Osmond’s performances are perfectly consistent with his LDS theology.

    I still have to find the lyrics for the Osmond Brothers’ “Crazy Horses,” however. That song might inhabit multiple worlds…

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