The Language of African Music: Fongbe

The Language of African Music: Fongbe

The Fongbe language is spoken in Benin.

Assonhe Degbegnon Barnabe

Assonhe Degbegnon Barnabe

  • Ethnic Group: Fon (Mahi)
  • Language (dialect): Fongbe (Mahigbe)
  • Country: Benin
  • Recording date: April 29, 2017
  • Recording location: Savalou; Benin
  • Total Recording time: 9:45
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Assonhe Degbegnon Barnabe – vocals and bell
Track names -- duration
  1. Gbeme Dji 1 – Bon Bon Ke – 00:43
  2. Gbeme Dji 2 –Keya Fimi Ke – (What could you do to me?) – 00:34
  3. Beyeku – 1:02
  4. Gbewoli 1 – 00:46
  5. Gbewoli 2 – 00:50
  6. Gbedi – 1:02
  7. Gbelosso – 00:53
  8. Gbe-Winlin – 1:03
  9. Gbe-Abla (or Bavala) – 00:57
  10. Gbe-Guda – 00:28
  11. Gbe-Sa – 00:50
  12. Gbe-Tumela – 00:37

Individual Tracks:

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Group introduction:

On a steep hill towards the king’s palace in Savalou, Benin, eighty-five year old Barnabe sits outside the door to his room, most days in front of a small, wood-plank table. It’s common for animist priests and diviners to advertise their homes, usually with long poles with a high hanging piece of cloth or a hand painted sign on wood or metal. The Fa divination table is digitally displayed on a wall only seen when going down the hill. Representing the 256 possible outcomes of the Fa, the ruler perfect painting was relatively expensive.

Now the oldest Fa specialist in town, for decades Barnabe travelled all over Benin as a United Nations Development Fund driver. Sadly, a serious illness forced him to return home after a life of work. After doctors could not heal the illness and basically sent him home to die, he claims to feel fortunate that a traditional medicine from a woman in Southern Benin was the only thing that has kept him alive. He continues to work as a diviner and healer, pushing through his Fatigue with an easy smile.

Fa spiritual readings, with roots in the IFa readings of the Yoruba tradition, use a binary system to produce a pattern that represents your destiny and answers the question one silently asks before the ritual begins. The binary patterns appear as the priest drops a set of two chains, two sets of four nutshells or medallions separated enough for them to land either up or down. They are swung and allowed to land with two vertical rows in front of the Fa priest.

Incredibly Familiar with the Fa at his elderly age, his divinations are better for locals Familiar with the metaphors as he casually references Fa symbolism. He councils as if those receiving a reading are a character in the parable of their own life. He often recites the full story associated with the pattern one receives after his initial reaction.

The oral tradition is strong in Fa and each of the 256 patterns includes a main parable, proverbs, and a short song. A large ledger book full of handwritten Fa literature served to document the tradition. It now also helps Barnabe to remember all of the details and associated proverbs and advice during readings, and for this recording of Fa song examples.

Recording context:

Under a long shade hangar with one cement wall and the other side, a complex of planks, braches, trees and other materials forming a shade hangar and sitting area with benches. After recovering from illness he spends most of the day greeting passersby as his concession is located next to the road with a wide, gate-size entrance to his sitting area. Passing through the shade hangar leads to a small passage that winds around and between houses into a matrix of extended Family concessions typical of the older neighborhoods behind the main roads of Savalou.

Recording even these few examples was laborious following a midday trip to the market to buy "ingredients" for an offering to the spirits. We took time to record a few examples from the first column of the Fa matrix. To assure himself that he was prepared, he brought his large ledger book full of the stories, proverbs and songs. For each song he would read the title of the Fa page, locate the songs lyrics towards the bottom, read them, recall the melody by singing to himself, and then start singing. The small bell would often pick up the syncopated beat as the lyrics and melody fit together and the full recall of the song had been established. After sparking his memory he could place down his book and sing from memory. Each song followed this same process.

Notes on Language Use:

The symbolic nature of the Fa’s responses demonstrates how the desired means of transmission is through poetic verses in stories with a message in fables, proverbs, and short song lyrics. A combination of the messages and individual events in the stories enlighten the listener. The capacity to understand the message may be guided by the Fa practitioner to help associate references from a story or lyric to real life, although the general message is usually very clear. This matrix-like system requires an almost miraculous coincidence if the moral of a parable forms a message responding to your particular situation or the question you secretly asked the Fa.

The richness of the Fa literature does not only hold the destiny of the clients but also a deep reservoir of socio-cultural, environmental and zoological wisdom from deeply rooted traditions. Part of understanding the message of the Fa relies on the clients knowledge of the animals, agriculture, hunting, herbal medicine, social situations, emotional references, and social traits relating to an associated animal behavior found in the stories. The prevalence of these cultural references proliferates from popular music, in bars, shops, market stalls, homes and the casual conversation and joking that goes on throughout the day as part of everyday life.

The ability to interpret the Fa as an individual then requires a vast knowledge that includes part of childhood development. Adults also deepen their understanding of the symbolism found in the various references found in stories and proverbs. The Fa practitioner can fill in the gaps in a clients understanding of these references and do what is referred to in many West African Languages as "opening" the saying, meaning, explaining an expression, unpacking all of the knowledge and reference condensed into a word or phrase. Therefore the practitioner has two levels of interpretation: the symbolic meaning of the poetic or proverbial messages and the association of the message to the client’s personal situation.

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Son Mageste Missano Dah

Missa

  • Ethnic Group: Fon
  • Language (dialect): Fongbe
  • Country: Benin
  • Recording date: April 10, 2016
  • Recording location: Ouidah, Benin
  • Total Recording time: 26:15
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Son Mageste Missano Dah – (gourd shaker)
Track names -- duration
  1. Missa various songs of worship 1 – 14:26
  2. Missa various songs of worship 2 – 9:13
  3. Missa song for possession 1 – 2:36

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

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Group introduction:

One of many major vodun shrines found all over Ouidah and its immediate vicinity, the Missa shrine is more enormous than it seems. One of the only ways to know about the shrine inside is the sign next to the door on the concrete wall that shows in picture form, with red x’s: no shoes, no shirts, no hats. The man who is in charge here is called “His Majesty.”

Regularly used altars, like thick tree branches, or stones, surround the small porch attached to the small shrine room. His majesty, family, and other devotees of the house sing songs to the spirits at the opening to the shrine room, a private room that houses the mask. The opening to the room is covered by layers of cloth gifted by practitioners, and clay pots, saucers, shells, gourds, calabashes, bottles and a divination tray with trinkets lie scattered along the bottom edge of the cloth in a perfect way.

Recording context:

Two near graduates of an 11-month apprenticeship are a blessed addition to the group. Both are just days from a multi-day ceremony, the first public outing as official mediums of their new spirits. These massive celebrations host guests from all over, including neighboring Togo in this case.

The man playing the loud gong sitting next to His Majesty, and the smaller girl that gets up to dance, are close to finishing a huge life achievement. Notice how the girl grabs her initiatory, black, hand-spun cotton, loom-woven cloth, to dance.

Also, the girl dancing with the infant facing her on the ground is an incredible moment especially as the baby jiggles to the music. It even makes his majesty laugh a couple of times. Look for when the baby gets scared of the camera getting too close, only to be jolted back into it with some directed gong in the face and a jest from the chest slapper.

These songs include those initiates need to learn for the spirits.

Notes on Language Use:

The initiatory rites for the Fon, and many other groups, include intensive oral literature memorization in the different forms, including songs, incantations, nick-names, descriptive poetry, associative references to a spirit’s family members as well as characteristics and likes and dislikes, like a character study.

Sometimes, short lyrics are considered distinct songs in the sense of using a phrase or two to capture a particular quality of the spirit or approach to worship, or homage to an ancestor. When explaining these songs’ names, a Fon might tell you the actual lyrical phrase as the name of a given song. It is as if the melody of the short lyrical phrases each has their own song quality, in the sense that they set a different mood.

The design of vodun society helps to establish a socio-linguistic network of individuals for a shared encyclopedia of knowledge, including vocabulary, sacred songs, genealogies, and, moral and spiritual advice. Vodunsi, the name for a vodun initiate, is initiated to houses with shrines, where members spend a lot of public, private, and even family-like time with each other.

Vodun Shrine Houses host both private and public ceremonies during which the literature of different spirits and even particular lineages dominate much of the important moments of worship. The importance of ceremonial life to language heritage preservation remains more important than when most of these traditions began, as there are more avenues of communication and more variety of influence on radios, tvs, and cellphones now.

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Songs of the Main Tron Shrine in Savalou

Singers

Songs for Papa Kounde

Chtehoueton Kofonon

  • Ethnic Group: Fon (Mahi)
  • Language (dialect): Fongbe (Mahigbe)
  • Country: Benin
  • Recording date: May 12, 2017
  • Recording location: Savalou, Benin
  • Total Recording time: 21:24
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Chtehoueton Konfonon
  • Tahinon Koffi
  • Ovekesi
  • Louise Capo-Chicai
  • Bignon Tanguinon Koffi
  • Mercelaine Aglassa
  • Francine Aglassa
Track names -- duration
  1. Songs for Papa Kounde (medley) – 21:24

Individual Tracks:

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Group introduction:

The women and girls singing here are the hearth of the Tron shrine including main priest’s wife and children and important practitioners. Chtehoueton leads the weekly ceremony in all but formalities, as her husband is the official leader although his wife carries out most of the rituals. At the entrance of the compound, hex diagrams in white powder provide protection and a site for offerings and blessings under female dominated session featuring mostly songs for Papa Kunde. Young men and boys provide the drum rhythms and accompany, completing the family and general diversity of those associated with this shrine.

Recording context:

A shrine room too small to gather includes candles and fenced in alters with a passage to get around the clusters of objects that form the shrine. The large open waiting and general-purpose area features wall paintings of the major spirits and important symbols like the owl. Benches stemming from the wall are casual and yet also allow for a substantial number of guests for larger ceremonies. Songs to Papa Kunde dominate this medley and representing a spirit intolerant of transgressions to moral order and combatant against sorcery and ill-intentioned spirits. Tron spirits are of wellness, abundance, and healing.

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Cervaux Gbaguidi

Songs for Kofi Ganbada

  • Ethnic Group: Fon (Mahi)
  • Language (dialect): Fongbe (Mahigbe)
  • Country: Benin
  • Recording date: May 12, 2017
  • Recording location: Savalou, Benin
  • Total Recording time: 22:54
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Cervaux Gbaguidi – Adodo Gan (large talking drum)
  • Florent Gbaguidi – Adodo Mile (small talking drum)
  • Prince Gbaguidi – Gon (gong)
  • Azui Euloge – Gon (gong)
  • Tossou Wilfred – Sangoue (gourd-net shaker)
  • Gaston Gbaguidi – Sangoue (gourd-net shaker)
Track names -- duration
  1. Songs for Kofi Ganbada (medley) – 22:54

Individual Tracks:

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Group introduction:

This group of young men is the heart of the energy offered to the Tron shrine through songs of worship. In particular, the powerful spirit of Kofi highlights the courageous power needed for combatting evil. The Tron family of spirits arrived later into the Mahi Fon pantheon, brought from Hausa migrants from Ghana, a migration over several generations as Hausa families left Nigeria and Niger to settle in Ghana, some later returning towards the West to settle. Papa Kunde, the head of the Tron family is a Muslim, compassionate and peace-loving spirit that is more mediator than warrior. This Muslim spirit clearly identifies the spirit family’s origins from beyond the Mahi Fon Vodun tradition referring to its Muslim Hausa origins, clearly with plenty of room left for animist ritual.

The leader of the group is the son of the main Tron priest, and his younger brother joins him with other initiates for weekly ceremonies that take place outside the entrance to the shrine and then inside the small room filled with alters. Two of the young men are not even from the area. They came from Cotonou and Porto Novo to work in Savalou. Coming from big cities, the social network and bonds formed by spirit worship have formed as small, tight-knit core that can lead and sustain songs as part of their own weekly offering of time and energy to demonstrate their devotion.

Recording context:

From inside the room of alters, the atmosphere alone represents a sacred space with the symbols, ritual objects and all the sights and smells that separate a significant shrine of sacrifice from the everyday. The close quarters contain the energy following weekly ceremony, with this group singing in the dark room. Songs flow organically and individuals alternate with the older boys taking turns as lead singer. Being in the shrine is a unique experience rarely witnessed first-hand even by locals. The intimate portrayal documented here is as close as one can get to being there, quite literally as the camera was closer than any person would when inside the room.

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Songs from the Royal Court of Savalou

Songs from the Royal Court of Savalou

  • Ethnic Group: Fon
  • Language (dialect): Fongbe (Mahigbe)
  • Country: Benin
  • Recording date: April 28, 2017
  • Recording location: Savalou, Benin
  • Total Recording time: 11:02
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Ayabanom – lead vocals (second from the right)
  • Chorus – Assibanom, Tine, Sossi, Dekoukoue, Desse (left to right, skipping 2nd woman-the lead singer)
  • Group Organizer — Gbettolossi Maw Gbodo
Track names -- duration
  1. Alouasio – 2:14
  2. Makanmakan – 2:08
  3. Mioudie – 1:40
  4. Hilebabawa – 3:00
  5. Interview with Togbui Komi Dognran III – 2:00

Individual Tracks:

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Group introduction:

Royal Courts for Fon chiefs typically feature a women’s chorus. The Savalou king, like all in the greater region, is believed to have power mandating his leadership. Alters reinforcing the lineage of previous kings are housed in a shrine room with the staffs displayed in succession. Tradition in modern cement statues painted with bright oil paint, a reminder of Mouammar Kadhafi’s political reach in his vision of a United States of Africa through allying with political leaders in West Africa in particular. The chorus however represents a traditional character with rhythms that have become popularized and prevalent. Including even simple English by counting one to five comically expands their reach beyond their francophone education system.

Recording context:

The King’s Palace in Savalou is at the top of an overpass on the South end of one slope along the chain of hills that run predominantly North-South along the paved road from Djougou to Dassa-Zoume. The entrance is next to a road heading West in to the countryside. The gate and the wall flaunt brightly painted animals and objects, symbolic on multiple levels in the Mahi, and greater Fon culture. Some of the symbols represent an individual king whose reign has been consolidated into one or several symbols, or representative of an event or characteristic associated with a certain king’s. An elevated porch in front of a large, open pave (cement cobble-stone) courtyard overlooks the walls and beyond the main entrance to the road and offers sufficient space for a large ceremony. The women sit in front of one of the vodun shrines on the palace grounds.

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