The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Zulu, my guilty pleasure

Amazing how one thing leads to another. After finding a talk by Elder Jeffrey Holland for next week's Relief Society lesson, I started nosing around on the category, "What does Welsh sound like?" Sure enough, there were plenty of good examples on the Interwebs. And that just naturally led to Googling Welsh choral singing, which is always guaranteed to send shivers down the spine. Don't know what it is about  the Welsh, but they can SING. First I had to listen to "Suo Gan," that ineffably lovely Welsh lullaby, featured on Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. If there is a more beautiful melody, I don't know what it could be.

Well, "Suo Gan" morphed into "All Through the Night," (Ar hyd y nos) another gorgeous Welsh lullaby. Found that one, too, and sang along. And once there, it was only a matter of time until I found "Men of Harlech," which is especially stirring when sung by an entire audience of Welshmen at a rugby match. I don't know why the opposing team even bothered to come out on the pitch, after that bit of vocal intimidation.

And "Men of Harlech" always and forever leads to the 1964 movie, Zulu. After two days of terrible fighting, the little British Army contingent (140 strong) at Rorke's Drift in Natal is waiting for the final charge from some 4,000 Zulu warriors. It is January 23, 1879, at the end of the Zulu Wars. (If you ever want to read a good book on the Zulu and their wars, try The Washing of the Spears, by Donald R. Morris. It's the standard work.)

There's something about the Zulu. I had a friend at BYU years ago from South Africa, and we were talking about the various native groups in her homeland. I asked her what the Zulu are like. She just waved her hands in a gesture of complete inadequacy and said, "Well, they are just...just Zulu."  I think I know what she meant. When I think about the Lakota on the North Plains, that's about what I am reduced to.

So there are the British, waiting for the final stand. The Zulus are singing and banging their spears against their body-length, cowhide shields, when Colour Sergeant Bourne approaches one of his Welshmen in the South Wales Borderers, who were the lucky guys at Rorke's Drift. The sergeant asks in his unflappable British way what the Welshman thinks of the singing.

Equally thoughtful, the Welshman replies, "They have a good bass section, but no top tenors, that's for sure." The man - dirty and desperately weary - thinks a minute, then starts to hum. He has a beautiful tenor voice, and he sings the first verse of "Men of Harlech." Men of Harlech stop your dreaming/Can't you see their spear points gleaming/See their warrior pennons streaming/to this battlefield?

The other Welsh soldiers join in, and nearly drown out the Zulu. Men of Harlech, stand ye steady/ Let it not be ever said ye/ For this battle were unready/ Welshmen do not yield.

The Zulus charge, and are beaten back. The mission and supply depot at Rorke's Drift survived, and the legend of the thin red line gets another burnish. Good stuff. Of the 1,400 or so Victoria Crosses awarded so far, 11 were won at Rorke's Drift. All that is fact.

I don't know if that singing really happened at Rorke's Drift, but as we used to say in grad school, "It should have." I know for a fact that Western history reenactors love to watch Zulu. It's our guilty pleasure. Quote me a line from the movie, and I'll quote one back. (Private: "Why is it us? Why us?" Sergeant Bourne: "Because we're here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.")

Yep. Nobody else. Just us.


  1. Hi, Carla. I, too, love Welsh singing. So I bought the 5 CD collection "Land of My Fathers, 100 Great Welsh Choir Favorites." It is great! and I'm sure it contains all your favorites, too. I just noticed that on Disc 4 there is Senzenina (Traditional Zulu Chant.) But my favorites are My Wish For You and Waft Her Angels. The album is a mixture of religious and secular music. I highly recommend it. Got it through Amazon.

  2. Thanks, Diane. I'll look up that CD collection. I think the one I ordered was just 1 CD. Amazon rules, IMO. It's tailor-made for those of us living in the hinterlands.

  3. "I came up here to build a bridge."