“Yellow bird, up high in the banana tree…”

As a child, my Dad tried his best to teach me to play the piano, and since I was stubborn and lazy, I cheated and taught myself to play by ear. I never did get the hang of reading notation and using proper technique when playing. I can barely pick out a tune on a keyboard. But I did get a lifelong habit of noodling around on the piano, and I have a head-full of songs and tunes from long ago: my parents loved classical music and old-time hits from the 1930s and 1940s.

One of the songs that my Dad taught me was Yellow Bird, a Haitian folk song from 1893. It’s a simple little thing, with a sweet melody and sentimental lyrics. It has been recorded, covered, reinterpreted and reworked more often than I can list here. This little song got stuck in my head.

When I play it I think of my Dad, and in that moment he is there with me, leaning on the piano, tapping out the rhythm with his pipe.

(Above) My Dad, Jan van der Vyver le Roux; librarian, teacher, academic, linguist, mathematician, tech innovator, musician – long since passed away.

The Yellow Bird backstory

When I started producing music, I wanted to do something with Yellow Bird in an effort to finally get it out of my head. It was impossible to incorporate any recordings of the song from the 1950s. You can hear that the tuning and tempo are ever so slightly off on all the historical recordings. Those are people performing the song, not computers.

Yet, computers, the DAW on which I work and the digital instruments I use, have made it possible to turn something old and a bit mediocre, into something better, with more depth, impact, and expression.

I came to the conclusion, as I explained in an earlier post, that fidelity is overrated.

Reverse-engineering didn’t work

Simply put – I could not reverse-engineer the song. I could only create a completely new Yellow Bird. The result: a song with a deep, throbbing bass, a hard dubstep beat and a droning bridge, featuring instruments that sound like birds: the sheng (Chinese: 笙), a Chinese mouth-blown polyphonic reed instrument, and the xun (simplified Chinese: 埙) a globe-shaped vessel flute.

I picked those instruments because the composition was no longer a sentimental folk song about a yellow bird, a romantic island setting, and a jilted lover who just wants to go away over the sea, like the bird.

The song turned into something darker, more modern. It used to be Folk, now it’s Tropical Trance. It used to be in C major, now it’s in F♭, B♭and E♭. It once had only two verses and a chorus. Now it has three different verses, two different choruses, a bridge and a breakdown. Once it was crooned by the Talbot Brothers of Bermuda in swanky big-city ballrooms, where couples danced sedate foxtrots to it. Now it has no lyrics, just vocalizing.

In fact, there is now, after two years’ worth of rewrites, nothing left of the original Yellow Bird song. If you know the original and you listen vary carefully to the opening notes of Yellow Bird Redux, you might think it sounds the tiniest bit familiar, or a fragment of melody might make you feel some déjà vu.

Music Video – Tattoos and brooding types

Originally the lyrics could have referred to the tattooed, guitar-plucking sailors who had fallen for the local girls while on shore leave in Haiti, and got their hearts broken.

I wondered how I could retell and update the story told in the song’s lyrics, without having any lyrics.

The solution was to focus on the images of a yellow island bird and a sailor who was probably tattooed. When it comes to tattoos of those eras – the 1880s and 1890s – the most beautiful ones could be found in Japan, as you can see in the image below. American sailors may have had tattoos of mermaids, hearts and anchors, but Japanese ones had tattoos of gods and deities.

The video shows footage of brooding Japanese men with colourful tattoos – at least one of which is real. I got very lucky with the footage of dancers that I got from Artgrid.io – both dancers are fantastically limber and quick-footed and their moves fit the song perfectly, coordinated with every beat and trumpet-blast.

Above, left: “Japanese Tattoo”, a hand-coloured albumen print, dimensions height: 26 cm (10.2 in); width: 20 cm (7.8 in), produced either by Kusakabe Kimbei (1841–1934) or Baron Raimund von Stillfried (1839–1911). Photo from MyModernMet; originally on Wikimedia.

About the artwork

The picture on the right, above, is the same historical photographic print as on the left, but with my edits to give the man a yellow bird as part of his traditional irezumi (back tattoo) – Japanese: 入れ墨, lit. ‘inserting ink’.

Irezumi and other types of full-body tattoos might be associated with the Japanese underworld, but well into the 19th century ordinary men and women had this type of tattoo, though it was a private matter and these individuals were rarely photographed with their tattoos on show. The designs of the full-back or full-body tattoos had religious significance, depending on the beliefs of the individual.

Irezumi designs contain traditional, symbolic and religious images or icons, sometimes copied, at least in style, from ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The bird that I have given this man is a cuckoo, by famed Japanese ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). This particular artwork by Hokusai is called “Cuckoo and Azaleas”, and is dated 1828, so it is suitable for the time period of the original albumen print.

(Above) Hokusai’s woodblock print, with the stylized cuckoo that I redrew and recoloured to get the yellow bird. The bird referred to in the original song was probably a tropical parrot.

Not many birds are part of the canon of irezumi images, but you do sometimes find a cuckoo – like this one – a raven, a Japanese hawk, or an egret, usually shown as part of a design with flowers. Sometimes the designs contained a mystical Buddhist bird, a karyōbinga, or a wing-like or feather-like abstract pattern.

Haiti, that disaster-struck country, lies between the North and South American continents, in the Caribbean Sea. It is separated from Japan, to the West, by the Continental Americas landmass, including Panama, and the North Pacific Ocean. The two countries are worlds apart in every way possible. It is unlikely that any Japanese ship with tattooed sailors ever landed at a port in Haiti, even after 1853 when Japan opened its borders, or in Puerto Rico, the other half of the island.

So, while the story behind my song is purely imaginary, it’s what I depict in the music video.

Music VIDEO: “Yellow Bird redux”

Yellow Bird HD Music Video – credits in the video

Original yellow bird lyrics


Yellow bird, up high in banana tree.
Yellow bird, you sit all alone like me.

Did your lady friend leave the nest again?
That is very sad, makes me feel so bad.
You can fly away, in the sky away.
You’re more lucky than me.


I also had a pretty girl, she’s not with me today.
They’re all the same those pretty girls.
Take tenderness, then they fly away.
Yellow bird, yellow bird.


Did your lady friend leave the nest again?
That is very sad, makes me feel so bad.
You can fly away, in the sky away.
You’re more lucky than me.


Wish that I were a yellow bird, I’d fly away with you.
But I am not a yellow bird, so here I sit
Nothing I can do.
Yellow bird, yellow bird.

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