I first stumbled upon Aaron Bady’s blog, zunguzungu, when searching some keywords along the nationalism / imperialism axis. And though lots of his posts have provoked my imagination, from incisive readings of The Wire and The Office to shock’n’awe as modern-day lynching, it was his blog’s title — for obv reasons, if you’re familiar with my Zunguzung meme-tracking — that grabbed my attention.

I still haven’t been able to answer droid’s question (in the first comment here), which I’ve myself long wondered, about where, if anywhere, Yellowman got that phrase / melody from. (I know, I should probably just ask him. Who’s got a link to King Yellow?) [Update: Actually, mystery solved! Someone else has asked him, I’m happy to report.] So I’m always on the lookout for clues. And though it seemed implausible that Yellowman would have encountered and employed an East African term for a white/mobile/dizzy person (see below), I had to inquire with Mr.Bady to see whether he might know something I don’t. So I wrote him and asked

do you have any sense of how far “zunguzungu” travels? i ask b/c one of the main threads of my dissertation (in ethnomusicology) revolves around a melody associated with yellowman’s “zunguzunguguzunguzeng.” i always assumed king yellow was just playing around with nonsense syllables (especially since much of the actual words in the song are pretty nonsensical), but now i wonder. i’d be surprised to learn that the term made its way to jamaica, especially since i’ve never heard it in any other context there, but i’m curious.

to which, Aaron replied

… wow. I had no idea that “zunguzungu” had such an interesting genealogy, and as you might imagine, I’m really interested to know more; I’ll read your post more closely after I teach today. I took the pseudonym because of its strictly linguistic connotations in swahili; “mzungu” means white person, sort of, but its at least partially derived from the word for spinning, or going around, and the question of why that became the root for “European” potentially has fascinating answers. One of these days, I’ll dig up more on it (though I think, as with much african historiography, the guesswork outweighs what is concrete in ways that make it more symptomatic than analytic), but what caught my eye was the ways that “mzungu” doesn’t actually mean white (it is possible for westernized Africans to be called mzungu) but actually references other ways of understanding identity that reference mobility outside of power structures, or something like that. Very speculative, and I don’t have the resources, but it’s an interesting question anyway (and I just started the blog with that name becasue it needed a name). That said,I recently learned that there’s a popular zong, in Tanzania I believe, about how the singer’s lover makes him dizzy, and he sings “zunguzungu.” I’ll see if I can track that song down.

Well, I’m happy to report that Aaron has tracked down — via Keguru in the comments here — not one but two songs that employ zunguzungu in the title/chorus (actually, kizunguzungu about which, more below):

Saida Karoli’s “Mapenzi Kizunguzungu”:

“Kizunguzungu” by Carter:

Re: ki, I had to ask

Quick, swahili-ignant question: what does adding “ki” to “zunguzungu” as these songs do, do?

To which, Aaron replies

Regarding “ki”, that question is (like your comment on the post!) exactly the right one to ask, but one I don’t have a real answer to (yet). Partly it’s because my practical swahili isn’t good enough to say for sure. I can give you a limited grammatical answer (and I’m going to spend some time listening to these songs and trying to figure it out from context) but advanced swahili is (for me at least) really easy at the beginning and gets more and more incomprehensible the better I get. I can get by on the street, but actually analyzing swahili writing is still incredibly difficult for me, and the more I understand it, the more I perceive weird nuances which are not only uninterpretable by me but might be more intrinsically uninterpretable in linguistic terms full stop.

My first thoughts (I’m actually going to blog on this once I’ve spoken to some better swahili speakers about it):

“Ki” could be an adjectival prefix (and that seems to be the assumption of the wikipedia page translation), but it belongs to a different noun class than “mapenzi” (love), so if it were simply “spinning love ” I would think it should be “Mapenzi Mazungu.” Ki can also be an “adverb of manner” so love were a verb one could speak of “love spinningly” but Mapenzi is firmly the noun form. This seems like the best bet for what it literally means though. I’m interested in the question, though, because while the prefix “ki-” is also the prefix used for languages (swahili is properly “kiswahili” and English is “kiingereza”) but that meaning includes without being limited to languages, meaning something like “the way of” in the sense that to speak English is to speak the way of the English. And since “wazungu” means “white people” but also maybe means (in a more literal sense) people who go around (and the etymological narrative I find most attractive is that “whiteness” is defined not by skin color but by mobility, something that seems to accord with how I’ve seen the term used (Africans can be wazungu too, if they’ve become Westernized, though it’s hard to gauge how much irony that always implies)), I’m charmed by the notion that love that spins one around might also be love that links one to mobility and has something to do with larger issues of global identity (since mzungu is by far the most commonly used variant of the “zungu” root form). But I’m still trying to figure out if that’s plausible, or if I just want it to be true. Also, doubling a word (zunguzungu instead of zungu) adds emphasis.

Those are Aaron’s not-fully-baked thoughts via email. As promised, he’s now blogged about it, collecting his thoughts and questions while connecting them to his dissertation research on Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame).

Any Swahili speakers out there want to chime in?