Benjamin George Coles

The Singing Tribe

My grandfather was from Guyana. He was in the British colonial army there as a young man. In the late 50s, when he was 27, I think, he migrated to England, working first as a private security guard, then a bus conductor. He met my grandmother here, married, had a daughter – my mother.

When I was a little girl, he would tell me stories about this small tribe that lived deep in the Guyanese rainforest. This tribe that communicated only by singing. I was a little fascinated by the idea even then. Not just chanting, he insisted. Real singing, in all its diversity. Anything we would say, they would sing. Their actual name I couldn’t tell you. The singing tribe is what he always called them.

Extremely isolated, he said they were. Parts of Guyana are like that even today, mind. Totally cut off from the rest of the world. Living deep in the forest, and yet scared of the forest, scared of it and in awe of it. The forest was like outer space to them, I remember him saying. They lived in this clearing, you see, this kind of valley or basin where the vegetation was a lot less dense, and they had pretty much everything they wanted there. A little world. A little world full of song. Just think of it! And as for the world beyond the forest… I guess they had no notion of that.

He said their word for person also meant singer. He said they believed – in fact, thought it completely obvious – that all creatures can speak in their own languages. Even trees and plants can do that. Nothing special. Only people can sing though, really sing, or so they believed.

‘Of the forest’ – that was the literal translation of their gravest expression. I went through a phase as a child of lying and stealing a lot. I stopped, I think, because of what my grandfather said. Keep that behaviour up, he said, and the singing tribe would send you out into the forest. And you would not come back, most likely. Don’t be of-the-forest, my dear.

Another time I remember I was furious with mum and dad. They’d grounded me for some minor offense, not getting homework done or something like that, and I’d missed my friend’s birthday party, which I’d been looking forward to for weeks. I was in a rage, seriously thinking of running away. I confided in my grandfather, and I am sure he said many things in response, but what I mostly remember him saying is: there are some songs you will never be able to sing with anyone else, not like you can with your parents. And they need you, my dear, they need you to keep their songs alive, renew them, pass them on.

It’s funny, all this talk of singing. I have no memory of him singing. He used to love it when I sang. He would attend all of the concerts we gave at school and lavish me with praise afterwards. On occasions when he heard me singing to myself, he seemed to like it even more. He beamed, this huge, lovely smile. He told me: you are a wonderful singer, and you will grow to be an even more wonderful singer. No one else ever made a fuss of my singing. That confused me a little. Sometimes we’d sing things together as a family, just casually, you know – happy birthdays, or singing along with the theme tune of some TV series. He never joined in, just quietly enjoyed others singing around him. When I asked him why, he seemed sad, told me he was a terrible singer. At the time, I just accepted that answer. I took him to mean that he didn’t have a nice voice, couldn’t hit the high notes, or whatever. These days, I don’t know how to take that answer. I’ve heard those raspy Blues singers, and the kinds of singers who make screaming or mumbling or growling sound great. I get that singing can be broken down into a variety of more specific abilities, and that joy, sincerity, conviction, feeling count for at least as much as perfect pitch. What’s more, I don’t believe my grandfather didn’t understand that.

My grandfather died when I was 12. I know I asked him at least once what became of the singing tribe, and he told me that he did not know. I didn’t believe him. I think I felt that all he could do was turn away from the question. The other question, of course, is how he came to know of them. As an adult, I’ve done some research, and found no record of any such tribe in the Guyanese rainforests, or anywhere in the Amazon. The most obvious conclusion then is that he invented them. Or somebody else invented them and told him about them. I can’t quite accept that though. It doesn’t explain how difficult the question about their fate seemed to be for him. It doesn’t explain how often he spoke of them, how central they clearly were to his thinking as he grew older. I think also of that sadness when he told me he was a terrible singer.

A few years after he died, I referred to the singing tribe in passing in a conversation with my mother, who was his only child, and she was confused – he’d never mentioned them to her, she said. That totally threw me.

I sometimes imagine the moment when they first encountered other people – people who didn’t sing all the time; in fact, hardly sang at all. The profundity of the pity they must have felt.

Or I wonder which outsiders it was that they met on that first occasion, and what things those outsiders brought with them. And did the singing tribe think: ah, so this is what you have put yourselves into instead?

And what about the first member of their tribe to stop singing? He or she got close to those outsiders, I suppose, spent a while with them, started learning their language. And at some point in that process they made the decision, consciously or not, to speak – unequivocally speak – rather than sing some words. What a moment that must have been.

Finally, I often ask myself: am I a good singer? I certainly don’t mean: is my voice melodic, or do I have a wide vocal range, or anything like that. Nor do I mean: am I responsive or individual enough in my singing? That would follow, I think. I mean something closer to: am I a good person? Am I sincere and devout to those things in my life that I ought to be?

Benjamin George Coles has previously published a short story in Erotic Review and essays in Film International and Bright Lights Film Journal. He won the 2022 Crème Fraîche screenwriting competition at the Luxembourg City Film Festival – as a result of which his short film A Place to Be was recently made, with Nadia Masri directing and co-writing. He’s also a member of the pan-European artist collective Antropical and writes art criticism for their blog. He earned his BA in English from Cambridge University, and his MA in Philosophy from University College London.

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