The song of the Tortoise

for Narrator, SATB choir, children's voices, recorders, school percussion, chamber orchestra
35 mins.

Programme note

The Song of the Tortoise was written between March and August 1992, when I was living in Ghana. The words are mine, but the story is based on a West African folk-tale. Like most folk-tales, it has a moral purpose – in this case, to illustrate the Akan proverb: “Trouble doesn’t look for man – it’s man who looks for trouble”. The simple meaning of which is that man’s strengths – his energy, intelligence and curiosity – are also his weaknesses, since they make him arrogant – or, as they say in Ghana, “too know”. Since it is these three qualities which now endanger our earth, the proverb seems rather apt.

But a Green lecture is not my aim: The Song of the Tortoiseis simply a musical cautionary tale. Logoligi is a boastful and slightly unsavoury character who lies, boozes and beats his wife. He has low self-esteem and a lower reputation. Fate unexpectedly presents him with a chance to make good, and he is so excited that he fails to notice that he is being tested, and is (inevitably) found wanting. At the same time, the authorities who condemn him to death do so unjustly, on the basis of prejudice and malice; they too are tested and found wanting. The only winner is the tortoise, which is unfortunately not quite how it would be in real-life; but this is a cautionary tale, not reality.

The Song of the Tortoise was commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. It was first performed by them in Swindon on 4th November 1992 under conductor Nicholas Cleobury. It lasts around 35 minutes, and is scored for narrator, choir, children’s voice, recorders, a small group of child percussion players, orchestra and (near the end) the audience, who join in with the words “This is the song the tortoise taught us . . .”

Giles Swayne 2009


words by Giles Swayne, after a West African folk-tale


CHOIR We are waiting, we are waiting . . .
CHILDREN . . . waiting, waiting . . .
ALL Tell us a story.
NARRATOR Once upon a time, in village at the heart of Darkest Africa, there was a man called Lógolígi.
CHOIR Ló go lí gi . . .
ALL Lógolígi
When he was born, his parents gave him an ordinary name like Montmorency, Zbigniew or Quackenbushel; but as he grew up he turned into such a shifty and unreliable character that people started calling him Lógolígi, which in their language means zig-zag . . . and the name stuck. By the time this story begins, he was well-known in the village as a liar, a drunkard, and a terrible show-off.
CHOIR Lógolígi, Lógolígi . . .
NARRATOR But what did he care? Most evenings he would go to the local bar and drink himself silly with his mates; then stagger home, give his wife a nice black eye, and tumble senseless into bed. All in all, it wasn’t such a bad life.
ALL Lógolígi, Lógolígi, – HIC – Lógolígi . . .
CHILDREN Lógolígi is our HIC hero.
NARRATOR Our hero kept body and soul together (in a hand-to-mouth sort of way) by hunting and trapping wild animals. He saw himself as a Mighty and Fearless Hunter, and boasted loudly and interminably (to anyone foolish enough to listen) about the Huge, Marvellous and Ferocious Beasts he had seen and/or slaughtered in the forest.
MALE VOICES Me heap big Mighty Hunter . . .
NARRATOR The sad truth, however, is that Lógolígi was a dead loss as a hunter – he was usually drunk or hung-over, for a start; he was a hopeless shot; and he was scared stiff of anything larger than a mouse.
NARRATOR One morning at daybreak, Lógolígi set off into the forest in search of game. All day long he searched . . . and searched . . . and searched. But his traps were empty, and he saw nothing worth shooting at . . . except a hungry leopard.
NARRATOR Quick as a flash, Lógolígi the Mighty Hunter hid behind a tree, thanking his lucky stars that he had seen the beast in time – before it saw him, and had him for lunch.

NARRATOR Towards evening Lógolígi, who was tired and hungry, and in urgent need of a drink, sat down under a treet to rest. All around him were the quiet sounds of the forest . . . the rustle of leaves, the twangle of birdsong, the buzzing and whirring of a million insects, and the whistle and chatter of monkeys in the trees above his head.
CHOIR Mmm . . .
CHILDREN (forest sounds . . . )
NARRATOR After a while, lulled by the murmuring forest and the delicious coolness of the shade, Lógolígi dozed off . . .

NARRATOR Lógolígi awoke with a start, to hear the sound of someone singing nearby . . .
ALL Hmm . . . hmm . . . Man, O man, ti tum ti tumble tum tum . . .
NARRATOR . . . and he looked around to see where it was coming from. To his amazement, a large tortoise was dancing slowly towards him, balanced elegantly on its hind legs, and singing as it came:
ALL Man O man, you’re looking for trouble;
Trouble’s not looking for you.
Man O man, you’re hunting for trouble;
Trouble will come and catch you.

Lógolígi paid no attention to the words of the song: he was too busy calculating the enormous profits he would make if he captured this marvellous creature and made it perform in public. He would be rich and famous, and no one would dare laugh at him or call him a drunken slob ever again. Quick as a flash, he ran and snatched up the tortoise .
CHILDREN Lógolígi snatched up the tortoise . . .
NARRATOR . . . he shouted in triumph.
CHOIR Ow! Ow! Ow!
NARRATOR The tortoise kicked and screamed and struggled; but Lógolígi was too strong for it. Ignoring its piteous cries for help, he shoved it roughly under his arm and set out for home.
CHOIR Oh! Help! Oh! Help!
NARRATOR After some time the tortoise stopped struggling and became quiet. But Lógolígi found it very heavy to carry, and his arm began to ache, so he stopped for a rest – putting the tortoise down on its back, to prevent it from escaping. Whereupon the creature fixed him with a beady eye (which looked even beadier upside-down), cleared its leathery old throat, and spoke as follows . . .
Please, Mister Hunter,
Prrrromise me one thing.
Don’t tell anybody I can dance,
Don’t tell anybody I can sing.
Don’t tell anybody, don’t tell anybody, anybody, anybody . . .
“Alright, alright, ALRIGHT!” said Lógolígi (crossing his fingers behind his back), “I promise I won’t tell anybody. Now shut up, will you?”
ALL ” . . . anybody, anybody . . . ”
“I said SHUT UP!” The tortoise looked at him mournfully from its upside-down position, and said nothing. Lógolígi picked it up, put it under his arm again, and walked on towards home, chuckling to himself at the thought of all the money he was going to make out of the tortoise, and of how impressed everyone in the village would be when they heard about it.
ALL Heh! Heh! Heh!