Women's Songs from West Africa

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Exploring the origins, organization, subject matter, and performance contexts of singers and singing, Women's Songs from West Africa expands our understanding of the world of women in West Africa and their complex and subtle roles as verbal artists. Covering Cte d'Ivoire, the Gambia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and beyond, the essays attest to the importance of women's contributions to the most widespread form of verbal art in Africa.

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1 - Wolof Women Break the Taboo of Sex through Songs

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Marame Gueye

One of the most important but often neglected subjects in the preparation of children for adulthood is sex education, a topic that seems to preoccupy parents in a variety of cultures around the world. In many African societies, sex education is more a collective activity than an individual parental duty, and the medium is song. The question is just how this ubiquitous genre can serve to inform youths about such a private topic. The example of Wolof society offers a variety of insights into how the community employs song for teaching about sex and sexuality.

In Wolof culture, sex education occurs during weddings, where one hears a variety of songs. One particular sub-ceremony within Wolof weddings is laabaan, reserved exclusively for women and conducted by them. The purpose is to celebrate the bride's virginity. Laabaan is the term both for the ceremony and for the genre of songs sung at this event.

For the researcher, however, even one who comes from Wolof society, the songs marking the laabaan ceremony are the most difficult not only to understand but also to record. In my case, although I began research on wedding songs in 1996, I did not record a single laabaan song or performance until 1998. My paternal aunts, who are performing guewel, the Wolof term for griots of both sexes, sang laabaan songs, but they refused to let me enter the space where these songs are sung because it is reserved exclusively for married or divorced women. The result was that I had to enlist the help of neenyo1 who were not family members and who were much younger than my aunts.

 

2 - Jola Kanyalen Songs from the Casamance, Senegal: From “Tradition” to Globalization

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FROM “TRADITION” TO GLOBALIZATION

Kirsten Langeveld

One of the distinctive features of many Sahelian peoples is the hierarchical nature of their society, a trait that is not gender-specific. But among women, there are particular forms of hierarchy that may result from conditions emerging when a woman reaches adulthood. This is a phenomenon that may occur across the region, as in the maani foori rituals based on a blend of traditions of the Hausa and the Songhoy-Zarma of Niger. As Sidikou explains, women involved in maani foori establish a power relationship between “fat” women and “thin” women in the larger context of what she describes as a woman-centered shadow system of government (Sidikou 2001, 58–79). This form of stratification is quite different, however, from the one described in this paper. The purpose here is not to undertake a regional study of this phenomenon, but to examine more closely the procedure by which a woman's status changes among the Jola people in the Casamance region of southern Senegal.1 The shift occurs through a ritual called kanyalen. Songs are a means for the woman who undergoes the kanyalen ritual to express her position in society.

 

3 - Azna Deities in the Songs of Taguimba Bouzou: A Window on the Visible and Invisible

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A WINDOW ON THE VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE

Boubé Namaïwa

Songs often provide a key to understanding the daily lives of women, but their world is not limited to the immediate concerns of child raising, meal preparation, and marriage. The system of belief that governs their society is very much a part of their worldview, and it takes shape not simply in the Islamic context, but also, at the same time, in complex networks of gods and goddesses who predate the arrival of Islam. If the contours of Islam in West Africa are familiar to scholars in African studies, the invisible world of a parallel system of belief often remains a mystery. But if, as Jewsiewicki (1987) argues, belief is social fact, the question, then, is what is the shape of that world and how does it influence daily life? The example of songs by a well-known woman from one Hausa-speaking people, the Azna of Niger, offers insights into the visible and the invisible in that world.

I propose to take up the challenge of understanding that metaphysical world by reversing the order of things, by drawing on the invisible to explain the visible. Followers of classical methods might argue that my approach is insane. They would claim that one can only explain the invisible by starting with the visible, a Cartesian approach that is no longer valid. I propose to carry out my analysis by drawing on evidence from songs sung by one of the most famous singers in Niger, Taguimba Bouzou. But before explaining just who this extraordinary woman is, it is important to frame the issue raised above in a larger context.

 

4 - Initiation and Funeral Songs from the Guro of Côte d'Ivoire

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Ariane Deluz

Women's songs are too often viewed by outsiders simply as a medium for passing the time while the singers are engaged in a variety of household tasks. As a French researcher living in Guro society in Côte d'Ivoire for the first time in 1958, my goal was to learn more about women's songs performed during other activities because I believed that this form of verbal art is one of the keys to understanding a society. As a female I was especially welcomed by Guro women, who have their own women's secret society distinct from that of the men. The women's society includes ceremonies centered on masks, or women who appear in a form of dress that conveys an image of the spirit world. The women gave me access to the songs they sang as part of their society's rituals and in a variety of other contexts. But as I discovered one evening, there were limits to how far I could go down the path of learning the most intimate of these songs.

An excision ceremony, part of the larger set of initiation rites for girls that are marked by a variety of songs, was scheduled to be performed one evening. Although the leader of the women's society was housing me in a sacred hut and providing me to some extent with a privileged perspective on Guro culture, it was not clear whether I should attend the ceremony later that evening. Rather than simply tell me that I could not observe this intimate and highly important event in the lives of the initiates, my host slipped a drug into my evening meal. I dozed off early and slept unusually well that night. In retrospect, and for many reasons, I am happy that she employed this subtle method to keep me from attending the ceremony.

 

5 - Praise Performances by Jalimusolu in the Gambia

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Marloes Janson

For centuries griots have attracted the attention of scholars. However, their female colleagues, the griottes, have been largely neglected in the social sciences literature. This is true throughout the world of these performers, from Senegal eastward to Niger. The tendency to focus attention on men rather than women is all the more surprising in the Mande world because females are so conspicuous.1 Known as jalimusolu among the Mandinka, the focus of this study, and jelimusow farther east toward the center of the Mande world in northern Guinea and southwestern Mali (for example, among the Bamana),2 these women can be easily recognized by their flamboyant style of dressing as well as by their sharp voices, which are audible from a great distance. Their own definition of their way of singing as wuuri, “shouting,” is very revealing of their ability to “reach” their audiences in more than one sense of the word.

Aside from the matter of just why griottes (the regional term for these performers) have attracted so little attention by researchers, more basic questions are, what is the nature of these women's roles in society, and how is their situation changing in relationship to their male counterparts? In what follows, I will present two case studies that will offer preliminary answers to these questions and also suggest further areas of research.

 

6 - Saharan Music: About a Feminine Modernity

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ABOUT A FEMININE MODERNITY

Aline Tauzin

One of the major issues in gender relations in the Arab world today is the status of women. In Mauritania, a society governed by traditions that go back many centuries, women today are reversing some longstanding ways, especially in the areas of poetry and music. The purpose of this chapter is to document the nature and extent of those changes. Before turning to the specifics of these changes, it is essential to provide some background on a society that is not well known outside of Africa.

Mauritania is composed of two different populations: the light-skinned Moors and the dark-skinned Africans, whose roots are largely sub-Saharan. The Moors are the dominant population in Mauritania and can be defined very briefly as a nomadic group, at least until recently, living in the western part of the Sahara. They speak an Arabic dialect called Hassâniyya. They are Muslims and played an important role in the Islamization of West Africa.

 

7 - Songs by Wolof Women

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Luciana Penna-Diaw

One of the assumptions of the wider project to which this paper contributes is that there are common features among women's songs in the vast Sahel region, in spite of the fact that there remain local differences. But can we apply the same approach to songs produced by people who speak the same language within the same region? Research on songs by Wolof women in the Cayor, Saloum, and Walo regions of Senegal suggests that the same holds true at the local level. There are common features across these three areas, but also traits that distinguish one from the other. The evidence comes from a corpus of 250 songs collected in the three regions between 2000 and 2002.

The significance of women as singers of songs and musicians in this area cannot be underestimated. The musical heritage of the Wolof is almost entirely represented by women. They sing, play instruments, and dance in several circumstances, both ritual and “profane.” Some of these events allow only other women to be present, while others permit the presence of men who may be playing instruments or simply attending as spectators. In general, men play a secondary role in musical activities. They do not normally dance or sing, with the exception of some Muslim ceremonies such as initiation. But before turning to comparative analyses of the songs, it is important to situate the Wolof in the local context in order to understand more clearly the status of women.

 

8 - A Heroic Performance by Siramori Diabaté in Mali

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Brahima Camara and Jan Jansen

Jelikèw (male griots) and jelimusow (female griots, or griottes) have many roles in the West African societies in which they practice their profession. There are some differences in what they do, however. For example, jelimusow do not normally play the same instruments as jelikèw. In the Mande world, jelikèw play stringed instruments while jelimusow sing songs and strike the karignan (or nege [Bambara] or neoo [Mandinka], which means “iron”), a notched narrow metal tube held in one hand while the other rhythmically scrapes it with a thin metal rod (see Charry 2000, 87). But one of the most widely studied functions of these performers is the narration of epics.

In the 1990s, Hale (1994) and Sidikou (2001) raised the question as to whether women are totally excluded from narrating epics. We feel that any answer to this important issue1 will be framed by four analytical dimensions:

 

9 - Women's Tattooing Songs from Kajoor, Senegal

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George Joseph

One of the most common vocal genres across the diverse cultures of the Sahel is the tattooing song, sung while a woman undergoes the painful experience of having her face, lips, or gums inscribed in various ways with a thorn or a needle. Wolof woyu njam, or tattooing songs, are meant to accompany the process of tattooing the mouth with bundles of thorns and a black dye made of burnt peanuts and clay. The result is a blackening not only of the lips but also surrounding areas, notably the chin. The gums are also dyed black in a way that sets off more strikingly the whiteness of the teeth.

One might assume that this form of body art, created in an intimate space, reflects exclusively feminine values. In fact, when asked, women do assert that the only purpose of tattooing is to heighten the beauty of an individual. But on closer examination, it appears that tattooing and the songs women sing to accompany the person undergoing the process are more deeply embedded in a wider range of social values that go far beyond the concern for beauty. What, then, are these values, how do the singers interpret them to listeners, and what is the wider significance of tattooing and the songs that mark what is becoming a tradition no longer practiced by many women? By analyzing here a corpus of songs that I have collected since 1973 in the area of what was once the Wolof kingdom of Kajoor, I will offer some preliminary answers to these questions.

 

10 - Drummed Poems by Songhay-Zarma Women of Niger

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Fatima Mounkaïla

In the preface to his book L'Essence du verbe (1988), a collection of sayings by Songhay-Zarma women, the late Boubou Hama, one of the most respected and knowledgeable analysts of African traditions in Niger, observed that the knot that always hangs at the end of the ribbon or belt around a woman's cotton wrapper was both the place of gestation and the site of maturation for the well-turned words that they often recited. But in a society that places high value on restraint and the concept of shame for anything related to the expression of intimate thoughts, one finds that oral art—for example, sayings, mottos, songs, and stories—offers the only medium for people, and especially women, to openly compose and express feelings. These may include love, admiration, disdain, or exasperation toward people in their entourage—sons, daughters, families, clans, co-wives, and other adversaries who are part of their world. Even when they are not the original composers of the words that they speak or sing, women transmit their views as part of the education that they provide for their children. The texts convey in polished form the values that these women contribute at the privileged sites of female expression. There, women compose and declaim poems called zamu as well as drummed mottos or sayings which convey in short, concentrated form the ideals of their society.

 

11 - Space, Language, and Identity in the Palm Tree

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Aissata G. Sidikou

One of the common themes of African literature written in European languages is the emphasis on identity in works that appeared both before and during the national era. But too often one gets the impression that concerns about identity were solely the product of the contact between Africa and the West, especially during the last half-century. But listeners to the oral art of West Africa cannot miss the same issue, whether the performance is an epic about the creation of an empire or a song about raising children. What is distinctive about these performances, especially those by women, is the recurrence of the themes of space and language as contributors to the formation of identity. This observation prompts several questions: how do women portray these themes, what do they mean for both the artist and the audience, and how do their concerns relate to African literature in written form?

A short answer for the theme of space is that it can convey a sense of belonging to a specific community, a sentiment that appears in all forms of African literature, oral and written. But this site of unity can also serve as a source for a code of signs, verbal and non-verbal, that force women to comply with the dominant norms—again, no matter the medium. There is much more, however, to the complex roles of language and space in the creation of identity in women's songs. In the analysis below of an exemplary song, published in French by Couloubaly (1990) and in English in my book, Recreating Words, Reshaping Worlds: The Verbal Art of Women from Niger, Mali and Senegal (2001), I offer some preliminary answers to the questions raised above. Two factors contributed to the decision to choose this particular song: the economical and rather direct concern about identity, and the themes of space and language that one finds in the powerful lyrics.

 

12 - Bambara Women's Songs in Southern Mali

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Bah Diakité

In many cultures, songs are seen primarily as entertainment. The form appears more important than the message. But on closer examination, it is clear that one can learn as much about a people from songs as one can from any other source. But the question is, what kind of information is embedded in such ephemeral verbal forms? What, for example, can one learn about women who sing songs as they go about their daily tasks?

In Mali, the songs from Bambara women in the south enable one to learn about their hopes, their wounds, their anger, their fear, and their needs—not only in the present but also in the context of the past—in other words, their lived experiences in the larger context of their society. The purpose here is to discover the range of those feelings and how they are expressed in song.

The region that is the focus of this study is the frontier zone in southern Mali near the border with Côte d’Ivoire, and in particular the prefecture of Kolondiéba. It is a fairly large region, covering about 9,000 square kilometers, divided into 12 rural communes that include 203 villages and hamlets. In Kolondiéba live groups of Bambara who are, to some extent, so bound to their own traditions that local economic development has suffered. It is a situation marked by cultural and linguistic withdrawal from the larger Malian society, which is evolving rapidly as the result of Western influence. Such intrusions from the outside world as do occur come largely from Côte d’Ivoire to the south.

 

13 - Patriarchy in Songs and Poetry by Zarma Women

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Aissata Niandou

Those unfamiliar with women's songs from the Sahel may be surprised at first by the subversive nature of the lyrics, as evidenced in songs recorded by many other researchers. Zarma society is not an exception to that trend, with women functioning within their own subculture. In their songs, as well as in other forms, they raise their voices against what they see as the unfair constraints of patriarchy that dominate Zarma society. But their songs raise a basic question: can they, in their verbal art, divest themselves of the patriarchal values that permeate not only their society, but also their own language and the deeper values that it conveys?

In this study, I will examine examples from a corpus of twenty-five poem-songs sung by Zarma women that are, on the surface, quite subversive of patriarchal values. But a close study of the poem-songs will offer evidence for a more nuanced view of the subversion conveyed by these poem-songs, and may suggest the need for new analyses of women's songs from other peoples in the Sahel.

 

14 - Muslim Hausa Women's Songs

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Beverly B. Mack

The study of songs by Hausa women in northern Nigeria raises a major question for Western scholars. Since these performers both sing and compose poetry in writing, where is the line between the two genres, vocal and written? For Hausa listeners, there is no line between them as the two forms exist in a porous continuum of performance and communication. This study offers perspectives on the wide-ranging platform of Hausa performance communication through analysis of Hausa women's song and poetry,1 both of which are marked by the Islamic influence that is integral to all aspects of Hausa culture.

Part of the problem for the researcher is Hausa terminology for the two genres. Waa (pl. waoi,) is the Hausa term for a broad range of works from poetry to declamation, all of which is normally sung or chanted. The term is not readily translated, but comprises a range of meanings in English from song to written verse. To the Hausa, however, it is all “song.” Thus the plural term waoi is used here to refer collectively to both orally composed and written songs. The songs themselves are as varied in style and theme as the circumstances in which they are performed, and their content is gauged to the situation in which they are delivered. They are sung at naming ceremonies, at wedding celebrations, in praise of important people, as commentary on social behavior, as announcements of changes in social practices, as work songs, and as mnemonic teaching aids. That they occur in such a wide range of social situations is testimony to the genre's pervasive role in Hausa culture. The works analyzed here are popular pieces by contemporary Hausa women who use waoi as entertainment that is alternately didactic, informative, ritual-oriented, paced to domestic tasks, and celebratory.

 

15 - Lamentation and Politics in a Sahelian Song

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Thomas A. Hale

Researchers in a variety of disciplines who have recorded songs by women from West Africa are now providing evidence for this most widespread but also most ephemeral form of expression by women. The research leads to several questions. Is there any way of documenting the existence and the roles of women singers in the pre-independence era? Did they have a public voice? If so, what were women doing and saying with their songs?

In the introduction to the collection of songs published in Women's Voices from West Africa (2011), Aissata G. Sidikou and I included a history of the genre that began with the lyrics of an Egyptian love song dating to 1300 BCE. Since that period, it is difficult to find references to women singers, let along lyrics, although in the Sahel one finds mention of them in the fourteenth century. The North African traveler Ibn Battuta described singers at the court of Mansa Suleyman, ruler of the Mali empire, in 1352–1353 (Hamdun and King 1975). But in the history that followed, though there are numerous references to singers, one encounters no lyrics until 1918. Below is a summary of sources described in more detail in the introduction to Women's Voices from West Africa.

 

16 - Transformations in Tuareg Tende Singing: Women's Voices and Local Feminisms

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WOMEN'S VOICES AND LOCAL FEMINISMS

Susan J. Rasmussen

Recently, feminist anthropologists have grappled with representing “other modernities” and “other feminisms” (Mohanty 1991; Collins 1993; Brenner 1998; Rofel 1999; Abu-Lughod 2002). One approach has been to analyze the role of affective and expressive culture—for example, women's songs—in resistance and accommodation to these processes (Abu-Lughod 1986; Trawick 1988). The present essay contributes to these studies by exploring changing meanings of women's song performance in relation to gendered experience of social upheavals among the semi-nomadic, Muslim, and traditionally stratified Tuareg of Niger and Mali.1 The focus is upon a genre called tende, a body of songs performed by women in a variety of performance contexts, accompanied by a drum called by that name. Most tende performances traditionally occur at weddings, namedays, spirit possession rituals, and festivals. They are also organized, along with men's camel races, to greet important visitors. Sometimes, they are spontaneously performed, organized at the spur of the moment in late afternoon or evening for young people's gatherings featuring dancing and courtship, or in less structured situations, just for fun. Nowadays, some performances take place at political rallies and on national holidays.

 

17 - Income Strategies of a Jelimuso in Mali and France

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Nienke Muurling

Remittances are a major source of income in Mali. It is estimated that the yearly amount of money sent by Malian emigrants exceeds 100 million euros, of which at least 50 million euros are sent by Malians who reside in France.1 One indicator of the importance of these France-Mali remittances is the fact that France provides approximately 60 million euros a year in aid to Mali (Gubert 2003). The “French money” sent by relatives is used for the purchase agricultural equipment. The funds are also invested in social relationships. Although these transfers of funds may appear at first to operate outside the framework of traditional customs because they are initiated in France rather than in Mali, other participants, in particular professional female singers known as jelimusow,2 also participate. The question is how these women, involved locally in activities that involve money (rewards for performances and other services), participate in the larger financial network linking France and Mali.

 

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