“Music, the International Language,” by my father Erwin A. Thompson. Stories from Botwana, Ghana, Brazil, and the South Sea Islands

Make sure to read Part 1 of Pop’s International Music stories!

This set of stories written by my father Erwin A. Thompson is part of the ongoing Riehlife series “Mondays with Pop.” At 95, he continues to be a masterful storyteller who loves history, music, and culture. He was a reluctant traveler compared to my mother (Ruth Thompson). But, once launched, he engaged with the people he met in other countries as if they were relatives. Which, I’d say, we are. –Janet Riehl


One of the most unusual experiences was in Maun, Botswana, Africa. Our daughter, Janet was teaching there in the local school. One of the things that Janet did was to try to absorb some of the native customs and also to teach them some of ours. One of her rather ambitious projects.

There was, of course, the language barrier, which would have been enough to deter most teachers. Also, the fact that we were dealing with a group of dancers that was all girls!

Ingenuity! No problem that can’t be solved with a little courage and imagination.

The all girl problem was solved by labeling every other girl with the large sign pinned onto them: “BOY”.

The language barrier was solved by the native teacher who, as a part of their instruction was teaching both the native and English version of the lesson. The blackboard had a line down the middle, with the English version of the lesson on one side and the native language version on the other. When I called the figure in English, nothing happened. The teacher would then follow with her translation of the movement.

IT WORKED! Darndest thing I have ever been part of. The real talent was the native teacher, adapting to something that she had possessed absolutely no experience with previously.

Did you ever hear hymns sung in two different languages at the same time? One would naturally expect confusion and discord, at best. But it didn’t come out that way.

Back in the late 1800’s missionaries came to Africa. They brought their hymns, translated into the native language. When Ruth and I were there, they sang their version of them and we sang ours. Of course the words were not distinguishable, but the melody was a beautiful blend of the voices.

The missionary influence was in evidence, a hundred years later. Not only in the music but in their clothes. The Herero tribe still was wearing the style of clothes worn by the missionaries of the century before. Their dresses were a display of ingenious patch work, with a patch of any color to cover up a worn spot. They would come and ask if the women might have a scrap of cloth to mend a worn place.


In Ghana they had wooden instruments, played by blowing into them. It took special talent. They encouraged me to try, but I did not get any music. It took the experts!

We also found the thumb piano. If you have never seen one I don’t know if I can describe it so that you can hear the music.

The base is a block of wood, about five inches in diameter. It is not necessary for it to be square, round, or even smooth. On this is built a miniature piano. They used pieces of metal, placed across a bar so that one end is free. This end is played by the performer by pressing on the end and releasing it quickly. It is remarkable the music that they can coax out of these.

Africans make stringed instruments by using empty gallon oil cans with part of the top cut out for a sound hole and a neck made of a piece of scrap wood. Strings are whatever scrap wire or like material that can be found.

People we met in the village were entranced by our tape recorder. Instant friendship, wanting to hear their own voice. They offered us a drink of their native brew, made out of millet, which seems to be their best crop. It takes three days for the brew to ferment, thus the three day spacing of the sales.

One of the unusual experiences: We were in Switzerland, in a restaurant. We heard a group of young people singing at a nearby table. We went over, introduced ourselves and asked if we could tape their music.

Their English was understandable, but not fluent. They told us that it might be dangerous for us to be associating with them. They were part of the underground, organized for the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. History has marked the success of their venture.


One of the most interesting Experiences was in Rio De Janiro, South America. A system of small cafes dotted the main street in the open air, for the weather is very cooperative most of the time.

Part of the custom the country is for small groups of musicians to travel from one of these little cafes to the next. To do this they use the public sidewalk.

So. Ruth and I were walking down the sidewalk, enjoying the local atmosphere. The cafes were one after the other, on our right. The street was on our left.

In our travels we met two of the musicians, one with a guitar and one with a mandolin. Without thinking the whole process through I reached out to the man carrying the mandolin and he smiled and gave it to me. Like the joke of the dog that caught the train, I wondered what I could do with it.

I happened to think of the piece that Bob Wills played back in the forties: “Spanish Two Step.” When I played it, the guitar player joined in as smoothly as if he had played it with me the day before.

A fine example of communication. We could not speak, as their language is Portuguese. But we could play music together and enjoy a few moments of friendship and pleasure.


A few years later, in the South Seas we had some good and interesting experiences.

In the restaurants it seemed to be the custom to have an electric guitar. It was amplified! I believe it was standard tuning. They had a “wash tub” base. I had seen them before, but they are not the general run.

The custom seemed to be that all of the waitresses would stop and beat out the base for a couple of numbers when they had time. It was a nice thing, leaving me with the general thought of the open society that music should be. When they were all busy for quite awhile I just went up and started playing it.

The funny thing, at least to me was their choice of music. Going back into my memory of musical history, I recall that back in the early twenties there was a big craze for playing “Hawaiian guitar.” The nut was raised and the strings tuned to a chord. They used a metal thing to slide up and down the fingerboard to achieve their chords. This, I believe, was the fore-runner of the present day steel guitar and the Dobro. At any rate, this is what I was expecting. Not so.

Their choice of music: Harbor Lights, Isle of Capri, Red Sails in the Sunset. As we got acquainted I offered to sing some of the choruses. They were glad for the help.

Ruth and I liked to walk, and talk with the children that we met. One afternoon we were so engaged, and met a group of youngsters gathering the fruits of the trees. Along with this pursuit they were carrying an old guitar.

Again, I wondered. I reached out in the direction of the guitar and they gave it to me. After a little preliminary experimenting I found that they were using the old Spanish tuning. That was what Dad used, and I understood the theory and the progressions. I picked out “Under the Double Eagle”. They were amazed and gratified. Another International incident.

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  1. I am sending this link to Vera, director of the string program at SIUE. I think she will enjoy reading this. She knows your great-granddaughters, of course, who were/have been in the program for many years.

  2. Thanks, Holly.

    My father’s greatest passion–after his family–is music. Without formal training, he went to the very heart of music and gave his heart to it.

    Janet Riehl

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