There are many types (and occasions) of frustration when you are doing linguistic fieldwork in a remote community. I often recall a day-trip from Laska to a community in the North of the Basketo Special Woreda last December (let’s call the community “X”). I had prepared this trip as good as possible: I had sent a message that I would be coming, I had arranged a meeting with the administrative head of X, I had collected names of possible song experts who might be ready to be recorded and interviewed, I had arranged for a motorbike to take me (close) to X and I arrived in X quite early in the morning. The local administration provided me with a person to accompany me, we started to ask around for singers and other musicians, and visited their homes.
To make it short, the long and demanding trip was a failure!
- The first lyre player was ready to be recorded. But he was not ready to repeat his songs when I noticed that the first recording was spoilt. (The sound of his lyre completely covered his voice. As a linguist, I am, however, especially interested in the lyrics.)
- The next singer could not find other women to accompany her in the wedding and mourning songs. Her solo songs could not be recorded because she did not have a proper flute and her neighbour was not ready to borrow his to her.
- The next lyre player first practiced her songs. When she was ready to be recorded she only gave me the short versions (because I had heard them before, hadn’t I?). Eventually, she was interrupted by her husband.
- When her husband took over, the crowd of curious and chatting neighbours that had squeezed themselves into the little house (or were clogging the front yard) had already become so big that an undisturbed recording was no longer possible.
- As if that hadn’t been enough, the man appointed to accompany me was a devout Protestant and did not really approve of my interest in songs. He thus had little motivation to chase up other singers or to assist me during recordings.
What can you do on such a day? In fact, not much. You could rage or cry (which happens to me sometimes). But a better strategy is actually to ignore the problem and look out for other things (little things) that can be learned or detected on the way: a new word, a new phrase, a nice picture… So in community X it was this chicken that made my day:
When I had decided to abandon the recording task and packed up my equipment, I noticed an unusual object in the semi-darkness at the back of the house. When I approached I saw a chicken hatching its eggs on a stand made from a multiply forked branch of a tilma-tree. Here the stand can be seen “uninhabited”:
When I asked for the name of the stand, I noticed that I had actually recorded this word before and not properly understood my consultant’s explanation about its use. So what was one of the (tiny) results of my trip to X?
- I could finally grasp the meaning of one of the lexemes that I had recorded before: kobshiná (which contains, by the way, a consonant cluster that is quite infrequent in other Baskeet words).
- And a regional variant was pointed out to me: The stands are called kobshiná in some villages and kobác in others. (NB: So far, I am not aware of many other examples of regional variation in the Baskeet lexicon).
Going back home to Laska, I was happy with my lucky shot, because I would be able to use it for the kobác/kobshiná–entry of my illustrated Baskeet-English dictionary in the making. And, of course, I decided to use this picture for a blog post when I would be back home ;-)