The Language of African Music: Hausa

The Language of African Music: Hausa

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

Bianu East and West

Bianu East and West

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Elh Duda

Elh Douda interview

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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:

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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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Makadan Sarkin Ayar

  • Ethnic Group: Hausa (Abzinawa)
  • Language (dialect): Hausa (Abzinanci)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: December 30, 2016
  • Recording location: Sultan’s Palace, Agadez, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 14:34
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Lawa Mohamed Sarkin Makada – ganga (double-headed, barrel drum)
  • Moussa Balla – ganga, praise-shouter for track with instruments
  • Adamou Djibo Ousmane – Algaita reed, praise-shouter for track without instruments
  • Aboubacar Hanna – Algaita
  • Mamma Mohamed – ganga
  • Mohamed Balla – ganga

Other court musicians not featured in this recording:

  • Gonda Aite – ganga
  • Saaley Moussa – ganga
  • Illia Tahirou – ganga
  • Bilali Niani – ganga
Track names -- duration
  1. Praises for the Sultans of Agadez – 7:42
  2. Praises for the Sultans of Agadez – without instruments – 1:51
  3. Interview with Adamou Djibo Ousmane – 2:32
  4. Interview with Aboubacar Hanna – 2:29

Praise for the Sultans

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Group introduction:

The griot is a well-known musician that also serves as a library and reference source, also consecrating events as official with their presence. For Sultan’s court musicians in Niger, they accompany the Sultan and provide fanfare for all events related to the Sultan or the Sultan’s palace. The musicians are casted with inheritance rites scrutinized keeping a tight-knit, carefully selected group of individuals from within the appropriate families. Too important to include apprenticeships at performance, court musicians are experienced and wizened by years of proximity to the palace and its affairs.

Extending these musicians immediate role in and around the palace or travelling with the Sultan, they also play at weddings associated with the Sultan’s extended family. They are loved citywide as a musical institution of great importance, representing a historical, central leadership, in some communities, more important than the national government. When featured at weddings, women participants at a wedding as well as onlookers become inspired to dance to the rhythms of the ganga barrel-drums. Here, the rhythm and melody motivate celebration with a regal, uplifting tone that resonates in the adobe labyrinth of the old town neighborhoods disorienting anyone trying to locate the party by following the music.

Recording context:

This recording took place days after the enthronement and the pride is apparent. In front of the newly plastered outside and renovated inside of the Sultan’s Palace, the musicians demonstrate the lineage recital that leads the Sultan’s procession. Important Sultans are named by shouting their names and attributes from this institution in the midst of many Tuareg confederates. The current Sultan now drives a 4×4 around, however his enthronement in December 2016 and the Palace’s renovations as part of restoration funds from its dedication as a UNESCO’s world heritage site, point to a strong tradition despite confronting the modern world. Special drums for the enthronement were staked into the ground while others were paraded on each side of three camels. Doorways in the palace were heightened for easier access, as originally they were low with cryptic passages to confuse possible invaders and force them to squat into a vulnerable position in order to enter into the interior areas of the palace as easy targets.

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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:

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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:

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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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Nassirou Laminou

Nassirou Laminou

  • Ethnic Group: Hausa (Damagarawa)
  • Language (dialect): Hausa (Damagaranci)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: December 16, 2016
  • Recording location: Agadez, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 18:20
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Nassirou Laminou – Gurmi (two-string, long-neck lute)
  • Issa Sani – Kalangu (talking-drum) and Koolo (knee-strap tension drum)
  • Amadou Issa Musik – Kalangu
Track names -- duration
  1. Allah Amari Ndunya, Hankuri Da Dangana – 6:34
  2. Allah Mai Bada Tuo Makaho – 6:17
  3. Nassirou Laminou interview – 5:29

Individual Tracks:

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Group introduction:

Nassirou represents the next generation of skilled professionals in the Hausa gurmi tradition. Not old enough to have gained significant status, his casual playing and direct vocals point to a specific style. His confident lyrics call through the strumming of the high-pitched strings that fade in-and-out like waves. From South of Zinder, the village of Dadin Sarki is on the road to Matameye, the major town on the Zinder road South towards Nigeria. The exceptional kalangu accompaniment also presents the group as hypnotically tight, allowing Nassirou the rhythmic structure to interject his lyrics and praises.

Recording context:

The gurmi genre has a wide spectrum. From local bars, that may feel like a hush-don’t-tell location, to praise-shouting important people in the community and even government, the focus is always on the lyrics. This recording sets Nassirou apart from the fixed-in-place bar minstrel, a regular at a drinking spot. In bars, an un-accompanied gurmi player often wanders among clusters of seats entertaining groups of friends and other drinkers, either at an inside bar or a spacious outside bar, one with tables and chairs comfortably spaced to provide the feeling of having ones own space. This recording is at the extreme end of the spectrum, the rare occasion of the Sultan of Agadez’s enthronement.

Nassirou, Issa and Amadou’s presence at this significant event represented the youngest independent group of musicians, travelling a full days drive to participate in the enthronement festivities and pay homage to Nigerien traditional and government leaders. Their journey followed those of many of the officials and VIPs throughout the country that gathered for this large, infrequent traditional enthronement. As a three-person ensemble with portable instruments, they easily weaved their way through the precession of leaders that filed in the eave of the ceremony. In expensive 4×4 vehicles and shiny white pick-up trucks, they each brought at least one cow to offer to the Sultan. As they step out of their cars musicians from all over mostly Hausa country, struggle to fit in the procession, following a cluster of VIPs into the welcoming house, and of course, back to their cars some even trailing them out of the palace grounds.

The location of this recording took place on the far-stretches of the Abbala neighborhood, a sort of outskirts squatting area for the extreme poor. The makeshift huts are not even suitable for life in the rough countryside; it’s dire urban poverty. The neighborhood is also as close as you can get to the hippodrome horse-racing area, and part of the festivities features horses that have also travelled far, many with prize winning histories up to $6,000 in the world’s poorest country. The horse featured in the second track, known as Trois N, has won the grand prize five times and was preparing to race in the next couple of hours.

In small huts, as seen in the picture, poorer residents of Agadez’s outskirts hosted some visitors and provided a logical place for the horses to stay with space and away from the stresses of the city. Nassirou puts on his best blue boubou, bonnet, sunglasses and gifted albaye, a sign of his presence in Agadez. This traditional albaye, a Tuareg man’s money-holder worn around the neck, is a cheap version reminiscent of Agadez’s 2000-2007 tourist hey-day from that encouraged both high quality and low-quality artisanal products to liquidate to anyone. As a praise shouter constantly defining himself in the present situation, Nassirou hangs the albaye as if pinpointing himself of a map, while referring to Agadez and Trois N while singing.

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