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Indonesian Nursery Rhyme: A Child and the Moon

Updated on January 21, 2013
All illustrations by Robert B. Butler
All illustrations by Robert B. Butler | Source

Geographic and Typological Background

Parents worldwide sing or recite nursery rhymes and other traditional verse to their toddlers, although the age span may range from infancy into the early school years. This one originated on a remote island and culture in Indonesia (see map below), far removed from the birthplace of most traditional nursery rhymes.

This piece does not actually rhyme—even in the original language—but I can find no better label for it than nursery rhyme. It has semantic chaining, similar to a cumulative tale, but it does not actually accumulate. In common with the nursery rhyme genre, it has rhythm and a sing-song cadence or lilt that is not heard in everyday speech. In fact, it most resembles a Moluccan antiphonal music style where traditionally a man and woman call back and forth romantically.

In the first line, the moon takes on anthropomorphic characteristics when the child asks it to come down and play. From that point, the moon controls the exchanges, first asking about what the two of them will do, then inquiring about his mother and finally about his father. In actual practice, the song continues beyond this and may actually be endless. It has been many years since I transcribed this, but I believe I may have encouraged them to add the last line as a way to provide an ending when we reduced it to written form in a book for children.

The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes
The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes

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A length of bamboo, with sections pierced, is carried on the shoulder to transport water.A woman uses a woven basket to carry produce from the garden, which is usually about 1 km from the village.Rice is threshed on woven mats to crack the hulls, after which it will be left on the mats to dry in the sun.Rice is hulled by pounding in something similar to a large wooden mortar and pestle. Spread on nearly-flat woven baskets, it can be tossed in the air for the breeze to blow away the chaff.The humor in this punchline is that any child in Halmaheran culture knows neither yellowfin tuna nor bluefin tuna grow this big!
A length of bamboo, with sections pierced, is carried on the shoulder to transport water.
A length of bamboo, with sections pierced, is carried on the shoulder to transport water. | Source
A woman uses a woven basket to carry produce from the garden, which is usually about 1 km from the village.
A woman uses a woven basket to carry produce from the garden, which is usually about 1 km from the village. | Source
Rice is threshed on woven mats to crack the hulls, after which it will be left on the mats to dry in the sun.
Rice is threshed on woven mats to crack the hulls, after which it will be left on the mats to dry in the sun. | Source
Rice is hulled by pounding in something similar to a large wooden mortar and pestle. Spread on nearly-flat woven baskets, it can be tossed in the air for the breeze to blow away the chaff.
Rice is hulled by pounding in something similar to a large wooden mortar and pestle. Spread on nearly-flat woven baskets, it can be tossed in the air for the breeze to blow away the chaff. | Source
The humor in this punchline is that any child in Halmaheran culture knows neither yellowfin tuna nor bluefin tuna grow this big!
The humor in this punchline is that any child in Halmaheran culture knows neither yellowfin tuna nor bluefin tuna grow this big! | Source
The humor in this punchline is that any child in Halmaheran culture knows neither yellowfin tuna nor bluefin tuna grow this big!
The humor in this punchline is that any child in Halmaheran culture knows neither yellowfin tuna nor bluefin tuna grow this big! | Source

A Child and the Moon

Moon, come down and play.
With what will we play?

We’ll play with a knife.
What will we do with the knife?

We’ll cut bamboo.
What will we do with the bamboo?

We’ll use it to carry water.
Why will we carry water?

We’ll bathe a child with the water.
So, your mother, where did she go?

She went to the garden.
What is she doing in the garden?

She’s getting food.
What kind of food is she getting?

She’s threshing rice.
After it’s threshed, what will she do?

After threshing it, she’ll sun-dry it.
After it’s sun-dried, what will she do?

After it’s sun-dried, she’ll hull it.
After it’s hulled, what will she do?

After it’s hulled, she’ll cook it.
After it’s cooked, what will she do?

After it’s cooked, we’ll eat it.
So, your father, where did he go?

My father went fishing.
Who did he go fishing with?

He went fishing by himself.
What kind of fish is he fishing for?

He’s fishing for tuna fish.
Why is he fishing for tuna fish?

Tuna fish is what I like.
Why do you like it?

Because it’s big and fat!


The Origin of the Nursery Rhyme "A Child and the Moon"

A
Galela:
Maluku, Indonesia

get directions

Less than 100,000 people comprise the Galela ehthnolinguistic community in which this nursery rhyme originated.

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    • Greekgeek profile image

      Ellen 

      7 years ago from California

      Fascinating: so simple yet so complex.

      Back when I was working on a PhD dissertation on that ramified past my ability to write it, some of my background research was in the use of poetry as a carrier of preliterate culture. As I'm sure you know quite well, meter is a memory aid, widely used prior to the invention of writing. So poetry (not necessarily rhymed, but metrical) was the vehicle of transmission for axioms, farming knowledge, all the little bits and pieces of both ordinary culture and extraordinary mythology.

      The odd lilt you mention makes me think this nursery rhyme must be very old.

      The lessons it's teaching are elementary, yet it's giving children a schooling in basic chores and life skills.

    • profile image

      Teylina 

      7 years ago

      Hope so, Howard--I am really into cars and sunshine!

    • W.R. Shinn profile image

      W.R. Shinn 

      7 years ago

      Great stuff, "Dad".

      Thanks,

      W.

    • Howard S. profile imageAUTHOR

      Howard S. 

      7 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

      Thanks guys! You know, I should really get the rest of the sketches scanned and add them. I actually have a sketch for each verse. And Teylina, you didn't see my hubs about my convertible and twisty curves, did you! I'll post another one tomorrow or the next day about convertibles.

    • Teylina profile image

      Teylina 

      7 years ago

      Oh, Howard, how terrific to bring us together this way! I can almost hear it and will share w/my grandsons. They'll love it!

    • NaturalMomma profile image

      NaturalMomma 

      7 years ago from South Bend, IN

      this is great : )

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