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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.”

From → Cut-Out Bin

  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. shacker permalink

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

  4. Wow…I had no idea.

  5. 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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