Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots
In high school Latin Ms. Kris Schwickrath instilled the power of this onomatopoeia in me through our translation of the Aeneid. From ululare, it means “they wail” or “they cry out.” The reason it burrowed deep into my consciousness was her urging us to keep adding lu-lu-lu-lu-lu and imagining the actual sound being made.
As a high schooler in Shelbyville, IN, I could imagine something but could never actually grasp what this might sound like. In the States it seems that many communities have lost the practice of ululating. I say “lost” because etymological research shows that several of the root languages from around the world have a similar form (Greek—ololyzein, Sanskrit—ululih, Lithuanian—uluti, and Gaelic—uileliugh). Given that the word was there in our ancestral history, I am sure the practice it evokes was also there. Indeed, I think it names something that was there in the very beginning for shared ritual expression.
Let me tell you, because of my time in Zambia I no longer have to imagine anything. Ululations have become a striking part of everyday life. Celebrations, times of mourning, expressions of appreciation, and cheering are all marked by a chorus of lingual and glottal howls. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, now pretty much a full year back. Since a proper church service can take a community through all of the above celebrating, mourning, appreciating, and cheering, churches are the echo chambers of ululations across Zambia. So, it was when I first walked into Mindolo UCZ—of squeak yodel fame—that I was hit with this undulating wall of raw, human sound. I was honestly in awe.
I still stand in awe of the communal ululation and all that it communicates. There is nothing quite like rising as one and expressing something vocally without having to use words. This is especially powerful when it comes to community-wide lamentation. It is all too often the case that words get in the way of what really needs to be expressed.
I am saddened that in my own context we have lost the ululation. We certainly have communal expressions, like clapping and shouting, but we don’t have anything that reaches the depths of the elemental choruses here in Zambia. Even after a full year I am not very good at it. It’s difficult for me to let go and let it all out. I get concerned that I am not doing it right or that I am an imposter or that I sound ridiculous—all worries and rationalizations related to my privileged social location that fundamentally contradict that spirit and purpose of the ululation.
And I NEED the ululation. I am to the point here that I need to express something deep down that words simply cannot convey. I need to let out this great big mess of grief, joy, gratitude, guilt, hope, anxiety, and love that is growing in my gut as my time here comes to an end. And I need to do so communally with my friends and neighbors, loved ones and family members who have impacted me and whom I have impacted.
Will you join me?
Come on, do it.