The Language of African Music: Zarma-Songhai

The Language of African Music: Zarma-Songhai

The Zarma-Songhai language is spoken in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger

Oumarou Sambo

Oumarou Sambo

  • Ethnic Group: Songhai (Kurtey)
  • Language (dialect): Songhai (Kurtey)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: August 12, 2015
  • Recording location:
    Windi Beri neighborhood, Niamey, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 31:49
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Oumarou Sambo
Track names -- duration
  1. Incantation example – 4:56
  2. Sambo Amadou interview – 26:53

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

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

Group introduction:

Sambo’s ethnic group, the Kurtey, is known as a subgroup of the Songhai based in and around the Niger River. Their trademark plus sign, scarred into the ball of the cheek, easily identifies them. Sometimes living on islands in the river, a group of those that have mastered the mysteries of the water, known as Sorko, maintain magic spells and stories of a spirit world beneath the river, one they visit as much as they are visited. Confusingly, sorko is also the word used for a fisherman as well, although the differences between the two sorkos are quite clear.

Sambo is a particular type of sorko known as a Dow. Historically they are powerful individuals that have inherited rich traditions, often from various elders. Sambo himself travelled extensively, even far from the river, to learn from other spiritual leaders of various ethnic groups as well.

Recording context:

Incantations can be used for protection, casting spells, praising, possession and a rare recording of an incantation presents the mystery of power hidden within what can sound like jibberish, even to native-speakers. Sambo doesn’t seem to have any work per se but always seems so busy, walking back and forth within the bigger neighborhood and the river and beyond.

With a large, cheap cellphone which has a big speaker, Sambo walks around joking and laughing with the cellphone blasting three-sting mollo lute music while walking or relaxing. During his interview, Sambo speaks of his life, chuckles telling stories about the Niger River underworld, and shares some proverbs.

Notes on Language Use:

Many of the short phrases, the easiest to hear, seem like a recipe for some Niger River concoction involving hippos, manatees, and crocodiles. The hippo and the manatee are the largest mammals in the everyday life of Niger River dwelling families. Therefore hearing about crocodile eggs and hippo tusks is not foreign and strange but powerful and even mysterious. The lyrics serve as great triggers for individuals to recall life experiences. The crocodile and manatee are almost at extinction, but hippos are protected now and easy to find.

The riverain dialect and the super-positioning of a Niger River underworld, with markets and villages, spread the density of information found in these incantations to include zoology and spiritual mapping. Other unintelligible words are meant to have power in their sound or in their physical effect on the body of one praised by a skilled sorko practitioner. The power of words to change a person’s state of mind, spiritual understanding, everyday knowledge, and to heal, comes from a sorko’s private knowledge of sacred words, more powerful and dangerous than words understood by everyone.

To top

Djeliba Badje

Zarma Griot Djeliba Badje

  • Ethnic Group: Zarma
  • Language (dialect): Zarma (Zarma-Tarey)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: September 6, 2015
  • Recording location:
    Fada Lougbatou Gorou Kaaley Do, Niamey, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 1h 19:10
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Djeliba Badje – griot
  • Alou – mollo (three-string lute)
Track names -- duration
  1. Bouba Ardo Galo excerpt – 30:51
  2. Bawdi – 12:50
  3. medley of recollections (Dondu Garba Dicko, Bakari Dia, Gakoy, Tcham) – 15:05
  4. Djeliba Baje interview – 15:39
  5. Alou interview – 4:45

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

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

Group introduction:

Djeliba Badje, or officially, Djibo Badje, is the last of the great Zarma griots, even though a few in a newer generation strive to become master griots too. As Djeliba’s role was to inherit, his first apprenticeship was to his father, himself a master griot that had also learned from the rich Malian traditions on study trips. Djeliba in his turn also travelled to Mali and developed his own voice while accompanying himself on the mollo (tree-string lute).

After LP records brought recordings to Niger, cassette tapes were the first medium available for recording and the major means through which the music was shared from the late 80’s, to the 90’s, and up until 2010. Epic tales of heroes and war legends could be heard on long radio broadcasts of legends and longer 90-minute tapes that could usually hold the length of most of the legend.

Before, radio was the only way it was possible to hear an uninterrupted version. Cassette tapes were the only means to own your own copy but it also results in cutting in order to change sides. Cassettes tapes and the radio became the major way most people were able to gain multiple listens of legends like these to fully learn and follow all the intricate linguistic elements found in the long tale. However, now, new media allows for lengthy uninterrupted recordings.

Recording context:

For this performance, Djeliba requested to go to his garden on the outskirts of town in Niamey. Performing a good portion of the epic for Bouba Ardo Gado, we get a clear example of the pace and stylistic storytelling skill master griots demonstrate. He followed another short example from the legend Bawdi, an interesting animal character, in a fable-like tale.

This performance, in his personal peaceful place, with the sounds of nature growing as the sky gets darker blue, Djeliba tells fragments, like reflections, on various different legends, to present the diversity of rhythms and styles. Djeliba shares his reflections with us as he interjects things like “holy cow!” when the lute playing excites him, or as he remembers traits of the hero in the story, as if remembering an old friend. Djeliba has no one that will inherit his epics.

Notes on Language Use:

Djeliba is known for his deep, slow voice that assures everyone hears every word and understands each of the phrases and descriptive embellishments that color his legends. The last of his generation of griots, Djeliba Badje spent decades learning epic legends of warriors and important historical individuals. Reciting these legends takes more than an hour from start to finish and a griot manages many legends in their mind, serving as true oral archives.

In one of the griot’s roles, that of oral historian, Djeliba’s ability to recite a multitude of ancestral lineages allowed him to serve in a wide range of chief enthronizations as well. Part of the ceremony is listening to the lineage’s predecessors. Many claim listening to ancestral recitation can have the impact of making a person physically tremble from the force of ancestral reputation and the emotional power of the griot’s performance.

Accompanying him on mollo is the legendary Alou Mollo who has played with the great griots of the past, including the other legendary Zarma griot, Diadou Sekou. It is interesting that Alou is a Hausa, yet known for his long history with Zarma griots.

To top

Ibou Zakara

Ibou Zakara

  • Ethnic Group: Zarma
  • Language (dialect): Zarma (Zarma-Tarey)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: March 26, 2016
  • Recording location:
    Toudou neighborhood, Agadez, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 25:42
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Ibou Zakara – Possession priest
Track names -- duration
  1. Ibou Zakara – Tooru incantation – 12:02
  2. Ibou Zakara interview – 13:40

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

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

Group introduction:

Ibou, he says, has found himself in his position, rather than seeking it out as his inheritance would lead to serving as the chief priest for the Agadez Sultan’s territory. It was his grandfather though who had settled here after solving a local curse that many others could not conquer.

As a Zarma in a mainly Hausa and Tuareg city, the mixing demonstrates the evolving urbanization, blending with traditional styles of internal migration associated with musical or spiritual learning. Coming from Baleyara to Agadez is quite a journey in itself, making the relation more unique.

As host to numerous private, neighborhood, and citywide ceremonies and provider of ceremonial functions, Ibou whips through an incantation for the nature spirits, the oldest and the most powerful for Ibou’s compound. His main spirit hangar is dedicated to one of the nature spirits.

Recording context:

High status does not always come with financial prosperity in the world of spirit priests. Most meetings, professional or leisurely, take place where one recites the incantation, in the thatch-mat (zanna mat), shade hangar, on one side of the compound. Sheets, curtains, and cloth help block wind, dust and rain, when each time comes.

The only way to recite the incantation is in its entirety, according to strict rules about use. Always attentive to each word, despite the speedy pace, Ibou is careful to perform directly to the spirits when engaging these words.

Notes on Language Use:

Two metal containers placed on the ground have trinkets of a spiritual nature, soaked with the aroma resulting from multiple drenchings of perfume and other offerings over a long period of time. They function as communication portals and sacred containers for the priest’s relationship with one or more spirits. They are taken out, opened, spoken into, closed, and put away.

Speaking to, with, in the place of, or for spirits links communication as a strength of the priest, whereas non-verbal communication like dreams or images, priests explain, is the more direct form for a spirit to communicate a message. Priests have a major role as guardian of sacred language texts of significant length.

In thinking in a ceremonial context, the priest, the sorko, and the musicians are all present and each has their own discourse for the same spirits. There is a multi-faceted nature to the language styles used in the charged context of a possession ceremony. Each defines a different avenue for voices from the three sub-groups within the network of practitioners, all manipulating words differently, at different times. The incantation seen here would be performed before a ceremony, but a sorko may choose to do a similar one to incite possession during the ceremony itself.

To top

Zarma Wedding songs

Zarma Wedding Songs

  • Ethnic Group: Zarma
  • Language (dialect): Zarma (Zarma-Tarey)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: September 8, 2015
  • Recording location:
    Poudriere neighborhood, Niamey, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 39:56
  • Technician: Brian Nowak

Group members:
  • Gambi Abdou Baki – Lead vocals
  • Foudi Hotto Saley – back vocals
  • Kadi Tahirou – back vocals
  • Salamanou Amadou – back vocals
  • Zongo Gantou – back vocals
Track names -- duration
  1. Bisimillahi – 3:03
  2. Weynyaney – 4:51
  3. Eehiye Haye Iyo – 3:48
  4. Yahaye – 4:13
  5. Si Hen Nyale – 2:32
  6. Iri walla iri man ma – 4:48
  7. Baba Fo Izo and Dara Nya – 9:25
  8. group interview – 7:16

Individual Tracks, Transcriptions, and Translations:

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

Group introduction:

Things have changed a lot at Zarma weddings throughout Zarma country and this group represents the tradition of women’s groups singing songs throughout a wedding. The songs begin with a blessing and continue to advise the bride, and the bride’s family of their responsibilities and the importance of upholding a respectable reputation for one’s role in the families that have newly come together. In Niger, weddings often seem more for the two families than for the bride and groom.

Weddings now have been influenced either by new modern music with radios or a much quieter scene as more conservative new ideas about music being anti-Islam become more popular. This particular group now functions more as performers as a bride’s family may hire them to come to perform at a wedding. The women are often paid to perform but are also showered with money as happy family members publicly gift money during the performance when moved by the music enough to do so. The group has been known to make over $400 at a wedding in the capital of Niamey.

Recording context:

At a simple gathering at Gambi’s house in Niamey, a group of more or less experienced women come together to sing, like generations of married women coming together to sing at an actual wedding. The spontaneous nature of a typical Niamey wedding results, especially with a plastic bottle also used as a percussive device.

These plastic bottles are international and local soda bottles that get recycled for homemade juices, that are sold in neighborhoods and at social gatherings, including weddings. Found objects often find their way into more participatory, as opposed to performance-based, music genres in crude form. In more professional contexts, a found object, like a can, might be manipulated to become an integral part of an instrument, a crafted, finished product.

The sticks are also found in this more modern setting, which also points to an absence of millet or sorghum stalks that would be used in a rural setting in the days of these women’s grandmothers. The lack of agricultural fields does not affect the striking clack sounds that two women share, with different rhythms, over the same inverted calabash.

Notes on Language Use:

The beginning of a wedding ceremony and even performance or anything with an Islamic benediction is a standard practice which most Muslims recognize. Bisimillahi, is the benediction to clear the way in the name of Allah, including protection from djinn, or spirits. Its incorporation in the wedding songlist as a standard opener, points to the negotiation and incorporation of Islamic elements into many everyday, common examples.

Si Hen Nyaale is a wedding standard that can now be found in abundant diversity, and across ethnic lines into Fulani groups settled or camping in or near Zarma-Songhai villages. It can also be sung with friends simply clapping without any instruments. Some Fulani in the Makalondi area sing outside the new home that the bride has just been delivered to. The door is closed and it is as if the new bride has only the words she can hear from the other side to comfort her as she is starting a new life.

To top