The Language of African Music: Hausa

The Language of African Music: Hausa

The Hausa language is spoken in Niger, Nigeria, and Ghana

Halarou Alou

Halarou Alou

  • Ethnic Group: Hausa (Arewanci)
  • Language (dialect): Hausa (Arewanci)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: July 12, 2014
  • Recording location:
    Gountou Yena neighborhood, Niamey, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 15:52
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Halarou Alou – goge and vocals (spike-fiddle)
  • Anabi Sabi – goge and vocals (spike-fiddle)
  • Issaka Gongassa – kwarya and vocals (calabash)
  • Idi Boro – kwarya and vocals (calabash)
Track names -- duration
  1. songs 1 – 4:09
  2. Halarou Alou interview – 11:43

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

See all the videos and text at once or click below to see individual tracks with text.

Group introduction:

The Hausa animist tradition centers around an area known as Arewa surrounding the town of Dogondoutchi in Niger. Halarou’s grandmother is the chief of all animists in the region and his playing resounds with a deeply seated dedication to songs for spirits that possess mediums in ceremonies. Songs praise and conjure the spirits with alluring lyrics, and sacred incantations. Music pierces the ceremonial grounds with a physical impact on initiates’ bodies. This ensemble is typical to the Hausa arrangement of musicians with two goge players and at least two calabash players.

One of the best goge (monochord spike-fiddle) musicians in the country, Halarou’s recording features songs that opened the ceremonial gates to the spirits at the start of a possession ceremony in the capital city of Niamey. Although he now resides in Niamey, he frequents ceremonies throughout Western Hausa country and has lived in Filingué, the epicenter of the Hauka spirit movement.

Recording context:

Priests of the possession ceremonies tend to live on some sort of peripheral space, often the physical placement of their house on the outskirts of a town and most often on the economic periphery too. As many practitioners of animism and spirit worship need to head to the bush to perform sacrifices and rituals also, leaving them on the social periphery, between invisible and inter-influential social and spirit realms.

So the edge of town, in the poorest of settlements, is the ideal place for a priest, however sometimes pockets of a former periphery exist in between the new plots being carved throughout downtown Niamey. Here in the very center of town, between the large Seyni Kountché Stadium, a bus station, and a filthy running gully of water with unsanitary gardens and darkness at night, is the straw makeshift dwelling of a Hausa Sarkin Bori, or Spirit Priest.

The spirit shade hangar faces a space for dancing on a designated dance-floor with surrounding spectators both sitting on benches and chairs, and standing in any remaining gaps. However the long day of marathon-quality, intense playing starts with an empty space. The first sounds are often a squeal and smack following ritual sacrifice of an animal, or offering an object, like cracking an egg.

The moment that follows, the warming of the possession space, including interlaced formalities and playful greeting for a significant amount of time before a crowd forms and the ceremony begins. Here, the musicians light the arena with the first songs to begin a full day of ceremonial levels of intensity and dedication.

Lyrical and musical deliverance follows the energy that flows throughout the hours of the long day. This recording at the start of the ceremony shows how the musicians are already setting a high standard in the initial morning songs. One of the calabash players commented that they were so serious that they would not even crack a smile on the way to the ceremony. This he stated from the moment he was picked up.

The energy pushes the content with incantations, lyrics, and praising blasting out of the mouths of those perched at the edge of the spirit canopy facing the open space. A short example of mixed linguistic and musical performance fill this excerpt with a high degree of quality elements from ceremonial performance in its best form. This song is a perfect example of pre-crowd, action-packed warming-up of the possession grounds.

Notes on Language Use:

Halarou interlaces incantations and praises into the hours of music performed during a ceremony. The goge player decides what songs to play and when so that no ceremony is ever the same.

The decisions about which songs to play is a complicated negotiation between social and spirit worlds and can change in an instant as a medium enters the ceremonial grounds, or to target a particular spirit for possession, or to honor a spirit indirectly by praising a spirit’s family members in order to please them into possessing the medium.

The directorial nature of the goge player highlights not only the leading role as main designer, but also as one that channels of the socio-spiritual space. The goge player constructs a musical and lyrical accompaniment while also interacting with the social scene, and anticipating the progression of possession, with an endless cycle of songs based on spirit families and individual spirits.

Lyrics are believed to physically impact listeners. Shout-outs and praises interject emotional reactions into the unique soundtrack, improvised with linguistic creativity that follows a stream of consciousness, sometimes quite literally, to possess others.

Music here embellishes the lyrics as string and percussion rise to follow heartfelt singing that can only be graduated to a beyond-language musical release, in the form of a fill or solo, depending on the timing in the song.

The rising and falling of language used during possession ceremonies carries the truly artistic expression of applying language as a force driving some gathered in the crowd to spirit possession. The commanding nature of language would be the extreme form of expression used by a leader to invoke possession by a stubborn spirit or a difficult situation. In these cases the musicians’ tone could become demanding in asking that certain criteria for a deal or behavior from an individual spirit be met.

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Mai Gizo Bilan

Mai Gizo

  • Ethnic Group: Hausa
  • Language (dialect): Hausa (Dogaranci)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: March 28, 2016
  • Recording location:
    Toudou neighborhood, Agadez, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 35:51
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Mai Gizo Bilan – goge (spike-fiddle)
  • Oumarou Douka – kwarya (calabash)
  • Issa Boube – kwarya (calabash)
Track names -- duration

  1. Mai Gizo – fiddle solo (including Fatio Nya, Dan Mamma (Arne), Adama, Zakoma, Commandant Mugu and Zataw) – 11:22
  2. Mai Gizo interview – 3:21

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

See all the videos and text at once or click below to see individual tracks with text.

Group introduction:

In the ancient trans-Saharan caravan market town of Agadez, only two goge players remain in the Hausa tradition of Bori spirit possession. Mai Gizo Bilan, has a strong arm for the fiddle bow and doesn’t play to simply fool around.

Mai Gizo is not from Agadez, but from Malbaza. His first trip to the area was North of Agadez to the uranium mining Saharan town of Arlit for Sarkin Issa’a wedding. He spent three months there. After returning to Malbaza, he would go every Friday to Sarkin Dagara, the chief’s residence, to play the fiddle. I later moved from Malbaza to Agadez where he had found that one of the two remaining goge players had died. The second native player has also died now leaving Mai Gizo as the only goge player.

Recording context:

Under a spirit hangar in the middle of a peripheral neighborhood, this typical group shares songs during a day relaxing with no ceremonial context. Even at a real ceremony, passers-by and motorcycles continue on with their lives, moving around the group or crowd as seen in background here.

The calabash playing here is what is not typical to a large ceremony. To create a different sound for sharing the songs directly, the calabash players used their bare hands on the calabash. This removes one of the three sounds used when playing with sticks, the roll, and maintains the palm and the fingers, identical in design to the sticks that are wrapped in a finger-like manner [see Halarou Alou in the Hausa section on this page for a great example]. The quieter style of calabash as played with Mai Gizo for this recording is also used for more spontaneous, private, and indoor ceremonies.

Notes on Language Use:

For the solo goge, despite the seasonal cold, that seems to grip so many, Mai Gizo forces out words from a deeper, sicker place, adding to the quality and intensity of the vocals that interject the fiddle’s song. This crying out nature can move from pleading to demanding during a ceremony, and enjoyably comes with a deeply devoted effort to belting out to the fullest extent for whatever it may bring you.

The octave vocal jump with certain singers and ensembles, here with the older calabash singer, leads to a tonal intensity that assures a protrusion and shock value even without belting out the notes, although belting them out helps. It alters the mindset, demanding attentiveness, shrieking with possession symbolism.

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Dan Na Maye

Dan Na Maye

  • Ethnic Group: Hausa
  • Language (dialect): Hausa (Katsinanci)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: August 8, 2015
  • Recording location:
    Route Filingué neighborhood, Niamey, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 23:09
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Dan Na Maye Maman Buda – vocals
  • Mahamadu Ibrahim – Kalangu (talking drum)
Track names -- duration
  1. Freestyle example – 11:18
  2. Dan Na Maye Maman Buda interview – 6:52
  3. Mahamadu Ibrahim interview – 4:59

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

See all the videos and text at once or click below to see individual tracks with text.

Group introduction:

Dan Na Maye, a nickname, best translated as “the witch hunter,” is a wandering griot with a large repertoire of praises and socio-cultural advice. Throughout his life he has performed both as a member of a larger group supporting famous musicians and as a lead singer. He has extensively travelled in Hausa country in Niger and Nigeria. Often performing at weddings, he uses a megaphone to project his voice with a single talking drum to accompany him. This duo is a smaller version of the more traditional ensembles of male vocals and talking drums.

Stocked with a variety of proverbs, verses and songs, one cannot ignore the high degree of improvisation that singers like Dan Na Maye use to weave the lyrical strands of their repertoire to create a composition whose unpredictable nature adds to the excitement of the performance. This is an example of a free-style composition recorded privately in Niamey following a wedding performance.

Recording context:

Dan Na Maye is exhausted after hours of performance at a wedding, wandering in and out of the concession, greeting, praising, and singing to the entire crowd. When pulled aside, Dan Na Maye sang a freestyle example with a well-oiled singing style, using the raspy voice through the distorted megaphone to alter the tone, adding an excitingly loud element to the performance.

The volume also allows the kalangu (talking drum) to play louder making it easier to hear the intricacies and steadiness of the only accompaniment, a tonal drum. This is inside a large cement room which naturally enhances the echo. The echo feature is also common during a wedding, although the megaphone is obviously more useful for projecting over a distance when outside with a large crowd. This recording however allows us to hear the combined effort of the individual musicians.

Notes on Language Use:

Hausa is a major regional language, which in terms of landmass and population, is greater in Nigeria than in Niger. Both countries host the same ethnic group despite having different former colonizers, the British [Nigeria] and the French [Niger]. The Hausa language’s dialects date back to the Hausa Bakwai, the Seven Hausa States that generally defined the limits of Hausa dialects, despite the newer political national and regional border system that does not usually follow or reflect social or cultural divisions.

The Hausa language is also used as a second language to many other ethnic groups neighboring the Hausa. Even in Northern Ghana, where the some of the infamous Hausa migrants have settled, it serves as a second language used in areas with a high level of language diversity and no obvious dominant language.

Mahamadu, the kalangu player, has Fulani roots, yet has absorbed into the greater Hausa musician market. Fulanis also play for weddings, but the market for the more numerous, and relatively more densely settled Hausa population does not compare. He only plays the drums; he does not sing. But his ethnic identity represents the drive of the Hausa culture and economy.

Playing for Hausa parties would mean speaking Hausa, and also defines a majority-minority aspect to this Hausa-Fulani relationship that goes unnoticed in a performance or casual setting, but is clear to most present. The drive into a Hausa language or culture area follows the rapid urbanization in Hausa dominant areas that also include other ethnic groups that use Hausa as a lingua franca to communicate.

Katsinanci is a major dialect spoken by the Katsinawa, or the people of Katsina. It is a widely spoken dialect centered around Katsina and northward into the Maradi region of Niger. Dan Na Maye’s history as a traveling musician has led him along the path of singing backup for a major professional, earning a lot of cash, and also learning from a master playing larger gatherings in larger towns and urban centers of Northern Nigeria. Now, later in life, he is singing lead in a slower gear with mastery earned from endless weddings, parties, holidays and other celebrations, now in Niamey, the capital of the Republic of Niger. Praise and poetic mastery still reflect and uphold high standards from a language thirsty crowd.

Although Hausa is a tonal language, the kalangu example here does not mimic the lyrics’ tones.

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