Book Review: Songs In The Shade Of The Olive Tree

Songs In The Shade Of The Olive Tree: Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes From The Maghreb, collected by Hafida Favret & Magdelaine Lerasle, arranged by Paul Mindy, and illustrated by Nathalie Novi

It is very telling what sort of material one gets when one looks at folk songs and poetry and music devoted to children in various cultures [1].  The concerns that are expressed in such rhymes have, for a long time, frequently sought to provide a child-appropriate understanding of the dangers of the adult world that children need to learn to deal with so that they can be successful adults.  If our own day and age seems not to do particularly well at this task, looking at the nursery rhymes and lullabies of other cultures that have endured from the past gives us an idea that this is better done in other places.  This is the second book I have read as part of a series and if I find more of these volumes I will definitely take a look at them as they are well worth reading (and listening to).  If our day and age with Baby Shark and other silly songs convey the sort of peril that exists in the world to young ragamuffins, then it is worthwhile as well to see how other cultures do it.

This book is a short one, and includes a cd that plays an album worth of tracks that are discussed here.  Some of the songs provide a surprising take, being mournful where one might expect them to be upbeat and cheery.  The first part of this book consists of a list of the various tracks including a summary of their contents (very brief, only a couple of lines, usually) as well as where they come from.  This list is richly illustrated, so one can see that it includes tracks from Algeria, France, Tunisia, and Morocco.  The list focuses, as one might expect, on the francophone world, which is typical for this series.  The illustrations are gorgeous as well and often connect thematically with the songs they are picturing.  After the 30 songs are introduced and illustrated, the next section of the book contains lyrics and notes along with some explanation that points out puns as well as the overall word games that are reflected in the lyrics.  The lyrics point out that a lot of these lullabies are very dark, dealing with the death of animals, theft, struggling with being an orphan, jealousy in love, rape, and the fear of food shortages, as well as the desire to gain wisdom on what path to take from insects, and the hopes that parents have for the well-being of their children.

In looking at the lullabies and nursery rhymes included here, it is striking that so many of them deal with such dark thematic material as they do.  It is also very interesting to note that many of these songs spring from heathen times.  Even though the Maghreb has been Muslim for more than a thousand years, there is still a lot of pagan substratum related to various cultural traditions that has endured in a similar fashion to how it has endured in mainstream Christianity.  Humanity appears to be a particularly superstitious sort of being, and these songs relate that fact to show the superstitions taught to the young of Northern Africa.  And they are instructive, in that if we understand the fears and longings and concerns of people as a whole we can understand what sort of life they live.  The lullabies that people sing to their children are likely to be both more similar than we think and more different than we fear, and tell us what common and ordinary people think about how they serve to pun or make references to the raw material of their lives.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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