The Swahili of Baba Yetu

The Swahili of Baba Yetu August 29, 2015

Gamers have been fascinated by the lyrics to Baba Yetu, Christopher Tin’s award-winning music for the video game Civilization IV, for more than a decade. When the song was first released, there were attempts to transcribe and translate the lyrics, with some comical results – such as where someone thought the lyrics at one point were “simama mwehu” or “stand up, you insane person”!

Now that the official lyrics and complete sheet music are available, the lyrics can be seen to stick quite closely to the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili – not in the wording of any one particular translation, but nonetheless in its meaning. And the music for the most part captures the rhythm of Bantu languages, with the accent on the penultimate syllable. I suspect that a few words ought to be syncopated slightly to fit with the normal accentuation – and so, for instance, “chakula” ought to be made to sound more like the Swahili word for “food” and less like the name of an American breakfast cereal.

But there are seem to be a few more significant oddities, like the repetitions of “yetu” meaning “our” in the first line of the chorus. And there are also some extraneous vowels at the start of a couple of words, such as litukuzwe and milele.

I really dislike singing words in a language in a manner that is inaccurate or inauthentic. And since we are considering learning this at church, I am eager to find ways of doing so while fixing any errors of language. I hope that Christopher Tin wouldn’t mind. I’m thinking that changing the “yetu yetu” to “Baba yetu” in the chorus would work – “Our our Father who art in heaven, our Father Amen” is better than “Our our Father who art in heaven our our Amen.” Or better still, we could change two of them to “Baba” and make it “Baba yetu, Baba uliye mbinguni, Baba yetu, amina” = “Our Father, Father who is in heaven, Our Father, Amen” which makes even better sense.

And unless the extra vowels in “(e)litukuzwe” and “(e)milele” can be confirmed as dialectical or regional variants in pronunciation, the extraneous vowels could be dropped without much problem, and if necessary the word itself or the word preceding it can be extended to keep the melody Tin wrote intact. Indeed, the phrase “jina lako litukuzwe” seems to be what is called for, rather than what is written in the sheet music (“mjina lako elitukuzwe”).

My knowledge of Swahili is minimal, and although I have been learning another Bantu language, Kinyarwanda, I don’t have any of the kind of expertise needed to properly evaluate the lyrics, their relationship to the melody as regards authentic accenting, and other such matters. And of course, singing involves making sounds which at times simply have to be different than the way we would normally speak them. But hopefully I can get some input from Swahili-speaking friends (you know who you are) and figure out what ought to be adjusted if one wants to sing Baba Yetu in a way that does not sound bizarre to a native speaker.


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I don’t know if Swahili works like this, but in Bahasa, the repetition of a word is used for plurals or emphasis. So, the word “jurus” is actually singular. If you have many, you have “jurus-jurus.”

    • I had heard that about Indonesian. Swahili doesn’t work the same way, at least as a general rule. But I am going to share some very useful feedback I got via Facebook, in a separate comment.

  • I received this helpful feedback on Facebook:

    How is the ‘simama mwehu’ phrase written in the sheet music?! Sounds more like ‘uokoe milele’ or even ‘uokoe milele, ee,’ again the stress here no longer penultimate in uokoe. In speech it would be u-o-KO-e but here it is on uOkoe except the syllables have been reduced, fitting the tune, so in reality it comes out more like WOKoe, at least that is how I hear it smile emoticon
    How is the ‘simama mwehu’ phrase written in the sheet music?! Sounds more like ‘uokoe milele’ or even ‘uokoe milele, ee,’ again the stress here no longer penultimate in uokoe. In speech it would be u-o-KO-e but here it is on uOkoe except the syllables have been reduced, fitting the tune, so in reality it comes out more like WOKoe, at least that is how I hear it smile emoticon

    How is the ‘simama mwehu’ phrase written in the sheet music?! Sounds more like ‘uokoe milele’ or even ‘uokoe milele, ee,’ again the stress here no longer penultimate in uokoe. In speech it would be u-o-KO-e but here it is on uOkoe except the syllables have been reduced, fitting the tune, so in reality it comes out more like WOKoe, at least that is how I hear it 🙂