One afternoon, 1965, the three Louisianan sisters/cousins who gave you “Chapel of Love,” unaware that the studio’s tapes were still rolling, recorded for posterity two minutes of delightful historical intrigue that had been circulating in oral obscurity for generations unknowable. “Iko, Iko,” they called that tune. The English chunks of the record came from an all-too-obvious source—R&B singer “Sugar Boy” Crawford who claimed he never saw “just dues” from the top 40 hit—but the cryptic refrain of the Carnival standard is of a lost language, entirely mysterious: “Eh na, Iko, Iko-ahn-dé, jaco-mo-fi-na-né.” You know these words. “Sugar Boy” said he remembered them from the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of his salad days, while the girl group said they heard it from their grandma, Which is where the song begins: “My grandmaw and yo’ grandmaw….”
I was sitting by the shore in Ghana, watching an extravagant parade, when I heard a chant that rung my eardrums like a bell. “Iko, Iko!” To which the nation’s Ewe speakers would say “aayé!” It belongs to no particular language, Iko—and the Ashanti, Fante, Ewe spell it “ayekoo”—but that swallowed ‘I’ and soft, clucking ‘ko’ sound uncannily the same.
“It means well done or congratulations,” says Dr. Evershed Amuzu, a social linguistics lecturer at the University of Ghana, who proceeds to pull a phenomenal stunt. Having professed no prior knowledge of the song, he takes hold of the lyrics sheet and sings the chorus—flubbing the rhythm, but more or less nailing the melody.
“It’s definitely West African,” he concludes. “I can tell from the sound of each word what tone comes next.”
About West Africa’s languages: They are tonal, most following the same melodious patterns, and there are oodles of them. 500-plus share the coastline between Senegal and Nigeria. With so many dots to connect, it’s no surprise that historians have been able to trace Americanisms as quintessential as “okay” and the cola-in-coke back to West African words, with mixed convincingness—which is why a word of caution is due.
“I don’t know how much of a line to the Mardi Gras Indians we can draw from Ghana,” musicologist Ned Sublette writes. “I’d look in Haiti first. The Mardi Gras Indians bear so many of the marks of Haiti—like their almost invariant rhythms of what Haitians call kata and Cubans call cinquillo.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know what their esoteric language is,” he continues, “but on the other hand, they deciphered the hieroglyphics.”
Yet one woman claims to have already unlocked the code: Dr. Sybil Kein, a playwright-poet who in a 1991 lecture to New Orleans’ Social Science History Association, proposed the following translation from a sort of loose and flexible Yoruba-Creole mix.
Enòn, Enòn! Code Language!
Aiku, Aiku nde. God is watching.
Jacouman Fi na Jacouman causes it
ida-n-de We will be emancipated.
Jacouman Fi na dé Jacouman urges it; we will wait.
Of course, her interpretation begs immediate questions. For starters, who the heck is Jacouman? With his index finger on the lyrics page, West African translator servicer Daniel Alluah Anguah underlines the exotic syllables—Jah? Coo? Moe?—and mutters his discouraging verdict: “This must be a kind of name.”
“I have my own hobby horse about jackomo,” Sublette writes. “Jacmel, the southern port of St. Dominigue/Haiti where many people escaped from is a Frenchification of the Taíno name Yáquimo. There’s a town called Yáquimo in Eastern Cuba as well.”
And then, just when we had a consensus on capitalization, we find other historians ready to rob Jacouman of his nounhood.
“In Ga,” says Fancy Mensah, a dance teacher referencing Africa’s vexingly migratory, sea-faring people “when we want someone to dance, we say dza-ko-mo.”
Which, by Sugar Boy Crawford’s insistence, is all beside the point.
“If you listen to the song, I’m singing C-H-O-C-K as in Chockamo,” the singer told OffBeat in 2002.
And yet, none of this would remain a mystery if Dr. Kein, could retrace her steps—but she can’t. After “decades of research including examination of 56 language groups from Africa to the West Indies to South America,” she says she lost it all in Katrina—thousands of books, notes, transcripts. For now, it appears that the secrets of “Iko, Iko” are ocean litter, clinging to various oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
If there’s hope for Iko—hope that time hasn’t already skewed the words beyond recognition—then he or she is roughly four feet tall, doe-eyed and preliterate, not yet programmed to discriminate between English and gibberish. The willingness of youngsters to tolerate and artfully preserve nonsense in nursery rhymes is well-documented, and explains why, in their frequent live performances, the closed minds in the Grateful Dead insisting on normalizing “iko, iko an dey” to the glaringly incorrect “iko, iko all day.” (Evidence that all the hallucinogens you got can’t achieve the expansive mindedness of childhood.)
“You often find very archaic lyrics retained in children’s songs,” says Afro-musicologist John Collins. “They are like fossils.”
But until that afternoon when our children’s play songs end up on the right etymologist’s desk, we of contracting adult minds, versed only in the language of history’s victors, are left to appreciate this lingering riddle from a gone and cryptic past. And to relish the taunting conclusion that, as for now, what “ja-koo-moe-fee-na-nay” really means is “ja-koo-moe-fee-na-nay.”