Yohmie, Dohmie, What’s What?
I wrote in my last post that I was going to tackle the word Yohmie, though I question the wisdom of such an enterprise even as I write, as definitions often do raise more questions than they can answer. So rather than aim at giving any narrow definition, I’ll opt for descriptions. That’s cheating, you’d say; but you’re wrong.
A Yohmie (or Yohmeh, depending on the Mende dialect you speak), as Dr Kenneth Little pointed out in his 1948 article and translation of the song in the anthropological journal Man, is a ballad. We run into problems (which can’t be discussed here) when he goes on to say that it’s like the European ballad, a composition forming part of the oral tradition and preserved as a musical (or literary) form.
While this may be true of the yohmie in general, it was slightly off the mark in the yohmie that he then went on to give a “free translation.” His view of the ballad as a communal production denies the individual composer’s role even where it’s patently evident. That may explain his ‘refusal’ to identify Salia as the “Mende accordionist in the employ of a Chief in Middle Mende country.”
So here we are. A yohmie is a narrative set to a song. It seeks to be lyrical at all times. It differs from the dohmie (or dohmeh, as our koh-Mende cousins would say) in that the latter is a spoken narrative, pure and simple. As exemplified in the Salia Koroma composition, the yohmie is distinguished, firstly, by its dramatic, narrative structure, in which its fast-paced nature leaves us filling in the gaps from the vivid flashes of character and place descriptions. Secondly, the Salia Koroma ballad is intensely personal, setting it apart from the ordinary Mende narrative song that tells the story from a third person point of view.
So the ballad as we understand it has nothing to do with the popular notion of it as a romantic or sentimental song. Now here’s hoping that I shan’t have to come back to the subject.