Monday, April 29, 2013


Well, if you recognize the word, you must be really old.  It was part of the culture of our youth, almost entirely as rendered by Harry Belafonte an exemplar of the domesticated calypso that made him so distinctive.  As in:
"The woman piaba and the man piaba
and the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch.
Okay, so you thought you knew what "piaba" means, but are you sure?  Urban Dictionary for example--for which there is nothing too deeply immured in pond scum--Urban Dictionary (at least of this writing) offers  no help on the point.

Other sources, are beguiling, but baffling.  A Wiki dictionary says it's Spanish,a form of "piar," "to chirp" and just once in my life I would like to address somebody in the formal second person imperfect indicative,  "usted piaba,"  "you have chirped."

But wait folks, there's more: here's a Portuguese source which says (I think) tht it is a small fresh-water fish, not to be confused with a salt-water fish of the same name.  Also a river in Brazil.  Not sure whether it chirps.

All of which is entertaining, although it doesn't quite add up.    Chirp?  Fish?  River?  Piaba?  But wait, folks, it doesn't end there--turns out there's more again  A bit more Googling, built on patience and an excess of free time, and we get a whole new view of things.  We discover that it's not a verb, and not a fish.  It's a plant.  Here's a certain Chelsea Fung, self-identified as Guyanese but seconded to Toronto for a course in gender studies::
Woman-piaba (which is our vernacular name in Guyana), Hyptis pectinata (scientific name), is native to tropical America according to American sources, and native to West Africa according to African and Caribbean sources. Thus the origin of the plant is somewhat determined or claimed by the people who first ‘discovered’ its multiple medicinal and spiritual uses. Nevertheless, H pectinata is widely naturalized throughout the earth’s tropical zone. Woman-piaba belongs to the Lamiaceae family along with mint, lavender and basil.
Within the Caribbean, Brazil, tropical America and West Africa, woman-piaba is used for various medicinal and healing purposes. The Patamona Indians in Kamana, Guyana, boil the leaves and use the water for treating ‘bush yaws‘ or boil the whole plant and drink the water for tubercolosis. According to well-known Maroon herbalist in Jamaica, Ivelyn Harris, the Maroon cure for hot flashes is a piaba tea, which is used by many women in the Rio Grande Valley when they are going through menopause. In Mampong, Ghana, the leaf is ground to a paste and mixed with kaolin in water and taken three times daily for vomiting in pregnancy. These are amongst numerous other medicinal and healing uses, only few of which are disclosed. ...

The plant itself is gendered in the context of its uses and nomenclature used by Guyanese people, as the stalks that have the flowers and buds are used for varying symptoms or difficulties associated with menstruation, menopause and pregnancy, hence the reason for calling it ‘woman-piaba.‘ However, the stalks that have the broad, serrated leaves are used in decoctions such as aphrodisiacs for men, hence the name, ‘man-piaba‘. I initially thought that woman-piaba and man-piaba were two different plants. However, as Mr Tiwari, one of the elders I spoke with put it, they “are tubers of the same origin – man-piaba being ‘hard’ and woman-piaba being soft.
Well of course.  Stands to reason, wouldn't you say?  Now as to ton ton and grsndy scratch scratch...

Here's a Belafonte rendition,apparently from back when dinosaurs were young:

Needless to say, you can also get it as a telephone ringtone. Oh, and I guess I should have mentioned--it's also an acronym for Public Investors Arbitration Bsr Association.


The New York Crank said...

I prefer to think of this as a nonsense poem, similar to Jabberwocky, in which the sound and order and parts of speech and visual imagery of the words implies the story, and specific translation is provided only as an afterthought.

Example: "And as in offish thought he stood/the Jabberwock with eyes of flame/came wiffling through the tulgy wood/and burbled as it came."

In an explication (of only the first stanza of Jabberwocky, which set the scene):

Twas brilling and the slivey toves
Did gyre an gymbal in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe the explication of this scene-setting verse, Lewis Carroll explains that brillig is a portmanteau word (one word carrying another in its cloak; or in modern terms, two words squished together.) Brilling means broiling things, or in other words tea time, or in other words four a clock in the afternoon. Slivey is lithe and slimey. A tove is a cross between a toad and a dove. To gyre is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To gimbal is to drill holes like a gimlet. A wave is a plot of grass around a sun dial, so called because it goes a way before it, and a way behind it, and so on.

But I think this is invention after the fact of the verse on paper. The sound and order of the words are the story.

Ditto, the stuff about the man and woman piabia-ing together, This is clearly a lyric about sex, and, "the lilly root, gully root, belly root uhmm, and the famous grandy scratch scratch" is practically triple X-rated pornographic.

Which is why we all loved it as college kids. It was coded filth that our parents couldn't understand. Nor, evidently, some of us.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank

Buce said...

Inrtriguing, but I suspect we can push it a step further. Lewis Carroll was benign and playful. Whoever penned this gem had a streak of merry malice: he knew that we wouldn't know whether it made any sense or not, and that we would remain a tad wrong-footed for not figuring it out.'

Of course as you suggest, we could turn around and play the same trick on our parents. Powers of the weak. Probably all spelled out in Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth.

Julien Gordon said...

The piaba plant is real. My dad always had a bit soaking in white rum. That thing would stop any diarrhea. A very small quantity, much less than a teaspoon. Harry Belafone would know about it. He came from the country in Jamaica where folks still practice a good bit of herbal medicine.