EP 017: The Armadillo’s Song

EP 017: THE ARMADILLO’S SONG Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What would you sacrifice for Art? And, more importantly, what does a wizard give an Armadillo when he comes to tea? In this episode, we take our first foray into South American folklore, featuring an ancient hero, some puffed up bull frogs, and a few insects who really need to get a room.  

Bolivia has an absolutely fascinating history of storytelling, and one of the things that makes it so cool is that it’s so multi-ethnic. There are 36 officially recognized indigenous languages – and I’m South African, so I’m usually quite hard to impress on the official languages front!

Of course, these languages are all indicative of diverse cultural traditions, which means diverse oral history and folklore, as well as some really interesting points of intersection, where similar stories pop up across different cultures, cunningly disguised with different characters, wearing different hats. But Bolivia is has also got an incredibly varied terrain, which influences the diversity of the storytelling. Many of you may be far better versed in Geography than I am, so if that’s you – feel free to let your mind wander for a few minutes while I whizz through this. For those of you still paying attention, Bolivia is in Western-Central South America. It’s completely landlocked, with the Andes mountains in the West, and the Eastern lowlands in the Amazon basin. And you can quite often see this reflected in ancient tales. Which makes sense, of course. If we could go back in time – which we’d probably be able to do if Elon Musk stopped mucking around with the whole space thing – we’d hit a point in history where a great deal of mythology is directly related to the environment in which the community is immersed. Think of all the mythology around the regularity of the flooding Nile. So much folklore is a kind of precursor to Science, as people try to make sense of the intricacies of the natural world, and how it works, and also – probably more importantly – of how to pass this information down to future generations. And stories are, so often, the best way to do that. Which makes sense, because frankly most of us can’t remember what the weatherman said 2 hours ago, never mind for posterity. The only exceptions to this rule are couples planning outdoor weddings, and people who live near volcanoes.

But back to Bolivia. If you do even a cursory google search, you’ll notice that Bolivian folklore is often divided up by region, because the stories evolve naturally from the environment they’re set in. Today, we’re heading into the Andes. Don’t worry if you’ve still got lockdown legs – no climbing will be required – although dancing along to the many musical versions of this story is strongly encouraged. Also, disclaimer, no armadillos were harmed in the recording of this podcast.

Many ages ago, when the world was much newer than it is now, but old enough for men to have graduated from Hogwarts and achieved full wizard status, there lived an armadillo. In many ways, he was a very normal armadillo. He enjoyed his daily meal of ants and insects, after which he retreated to nice hole to think about life. In the event of loud noises, sudden movements, and brightly coloured, historically inaccurate Disney films, he’d curl himself up into a tight little ball, until the danger had passed, or the American accented Spanish cartoon characters had finished cheating at indigenous sports.

But what this armadillo loved more than anything in the world, was music. Soirees of the formal variety were few and far between, but he managed to find music all around his little home. Waking up, he stretched out in bed, listening to birds until his 4th alarm. At night, he listened with longing to the whirring orchestra of the insects saying goodnight and good luck and see you tomorrow. (Fortunately he didn’t speak insect, so he was spared the racier overtones of mating season). When it rained, he crept down to the edge of the pond, where he would sit for hours listening to the bass-y jazz of the bullfrogs. Occasionally a young frog fancied himself a rock n roller, and tried for something a bit off-kilter, but those ones tended to die young.

The armadillo loved every moment of these musical interludes, but underneath the joy, they brought him two great sorrows. The first was that Spotify had not yet been invented, and that air pods were too big for his little ears anyway. The second was that he himself could not sing. We don’t like to speak ill of our hero, but, no matter how he tried, his little voice couldn’t quite muster anything more than a squeak.

But armadillo’s – despite the rumours you may have heard – are hardy and adventurous little chaps. So eventually, when he could bear his silent suffering no longer, he took the only sensible course of action, and went to see a wizard. 

“Oh great Wizard” he said, remembering the manners his mother had taught him. “It is the greatest desire of my heart to be able to sing.” The wizard laughed, thinking our hero was trying the age-old trick of breaking the ice with a good joke. But the armadillo was quite serious. “I will give anything!” he said, “to be able to sing like the birds and the crickets and the bullfrogs.”

The wizard, realizing that he had been slow on the uptake, stopped laughing. He looked at the armadillo for a few moments, apparently deep in thought. (This may, of course, be a charitable reading, because wizards are notoriously vague, and he may simply have become distracted).

Now here the story diverges into two different directions. The happier version was no doubt encouraged by the sort of new age parenting manuals that like children to think that the world is full of rainbows and unicorns and candy coated goodness. Children, of course, are far too sensible for that sort of thing, and generally steal these books to experiment with early onset pyromania. But in the spirit of fair play, we’ll tell both stories.

The tragic – and probably original – goes like this:

The wizard offered the armadillo a cup of tea and a cigarette. “I could help you,” he said, “but the price would be too high. Go back to your comfy hole and enjoy the music you hear all around you.”

“No” cried the armadillo, spitting out his tea in desperation, and also because armadillos, like Americans, don’t care for tea. “No price is too high! I will pay anything you ask.”

The wizard explained, not unkindly, that the price would be his life. “I will give it immediately,” the armadillo said.

The wizard was reluctant to act too hastily, but after much discussion, and several more impolitely refused cups of tea, he realized that the armadillo’s mind was made up. He killed the armadillo, and turned his shell into a charango. He travelled far and wide with his beautiful stringed instrument, and everywhere he went the birds and the insects and the bull frogs would stop singing and listen in amazement. “Listen,” they said, “we were wrong! The armadillo has learnt to sing, at last!”

And they were quite right, because the charango made the most beautiful music anyone had ever heard. And the armadillo became the first of many musicians to sacrifice his life for art.

In the happier version of the story, the armadillo and the wizard sat in discussion for much longer. The wizard, perhaps slipping something of a mellowing nature into the pot of tea, managed to convince the armadillo to live out the rest of his days. “When you have seen all of life that you want to see, and heard all the songs you wish to hear, come back, and then I will help you to sing,” he promised.

“Can’t say fairer than that,” the armadillo said.

And at the end of his life, he returns to the wizard, who greets him as an old friend and eases his passing. And then he turns him into a charango, and travels the land, and all the birds and crickets and bull frogs are suitably amazed. Except the rock n rolling bullfrogs, who can’t hear much over their raucous parties.

The Charango, of course, is a real instrument, and it really was made out of armadillo shells. They are, of course, beautiful and important cultural instruments, but to the great relief of most armadillo’s and wizards alike, they can also be made out of wood.

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