2.3  AFRICAN PRAISE SONGS: Traditional African Oral Arts
HUM 211 Course Pack - Winter 2010 Fall 2007
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SHORT CUTS on this web page: What's in an African Name? African Praise Songs | "Ambara, The Interpreter" |
More Dogon Tiges, or Praise Songs | Contemporary Praise Songs | HUM 211 Student Praise Songs | Works Cited

What’s in an African name? African Praise Songs

 African names carry stories of who you are, where you're coming from, and what you've been through, so that you and others can "know" you.  If you were born an African child, you might be taught to recite a special chant of self-naming that identifies your family, community, and regional affiliations; proclaims your clan and revered ancestors; announces your place in society, as well as other special circumstances and characteristics. In a lifetime, an African person may acquire many "praise names" - or epithets (= descriptive substitutes for a person's name) - which embody not only the virtues but also the vices of the person and/or the person's ancestors.  So important is such African naming that sophisticated oral art forms called "praise poetry" have developed in almost every African traditional society.  


“Two Shellini” is a traditional chant of ancestral names in the Zulu oral genre known as izibongo—here performed by Zulu ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, introduced by a traditional African character Fudugazi ["Tortoise"], dramatized by celebrated South African performer Gcina Mhlophe.  An individual’s naming song tells the story of who s/he is by recounting the lineage that s/he comes from—that is, chanting back through the praise names of illustrious living and dead ancestors of the individual’s family, clan, and people.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo popularized in the West a cappella choral singing based on traditional Zulu call-and-response group singing styles like iscathamiya. 
Gift of the Tortoise: A Musical Journey through Southern Africa, Music for Little People-Warner Brothers, 1994 (Track 12, time: 2:15).

African praise name(s) and epithets, as Gleason (xiii-xvii) explains, can describe:

bulletconditions of entry into the world (e.g., a boy after three girls, birth in the midst of a terrible draught, special joy in a child who lives after a series of infant mortalities);
bulletunusual features of the birth (e.g., born wrapped in a caul or feet first) that are believed to denote character or spiritual affiliation;
bulleta spiritual force known to have interceded in the child’s conception or an ancestor “come again” (reincarnated) in the child to form part of her/his complex soul, character, and exerting influence on her/his destiny;
bulletgenealogy or kinship group affiliations—of the individual’s people, clan, family, revered ancestors—that connect and identify the individual with the past and the community (past & present), and whose mythic and social history (key events, generalized character, special ancestors) may shape the individual’s future;
bulletgeographical affiliations of place and region, or elements of the natural environment (past and present) that identify and influence the individual and her/his community, kinship group;
bullettotem (e.g., animal, plant, natural object) epithet--usually determined by divination or special revelation (e.g. a dream or vision)—of the individual and/or clan influencing the individual’s character, values, and/or destiny;
bulletan important past experience or unusual incident (e.g. accomplishment, tragedy, special escapade, twist of fortune or fate) with which the person is identified (has gained the person either celebrity or notoriety), which has marked the person, and/or which reveals key character trait(s)
bulletthe (initiation) stage or social role in (spiritual and/or communal) life that the person has attained on her/his journey toward achieving full “humanness”
bulletspecial “age-mates” to whom the person is bonded by shared affinities, experiences, character traits, spiritual destiny, etc.


Genre Conventions of the African Praise Song:

bullet A series of Praise names or epithets (descriptive terms that substitute for the names of persons or things) comprise the poem's content;
bulletEach line of the praise poem is comprised of one praise name or descriptive epithet;
bulletNo connector words or transitional phrases are generally used to connect lines or explain relationships between lines (i.e. parataxis)

"[P]raise poems must be pronounced and heard in order to have their intended effect" (Gleason xv); therefore . . .

bulletRhythm and sound are carefully attended to, for a praise song is meant to be chanted to rhythmic beat or sung to music;
bulletIn communal performance, the lines of the praise poem would be called by the chanter, and audience-participants would be expected to respond as a chorus at regular, rhythmic intervals within the chanted praise song.
bullet Call-and-response forms, found everywhere in Africa, entail a caller or soloist who “raises the song”--as the Kpelle say--and the community chorus who respond, or “agree underneath the song" (Mutere, "African Oral Aesthetic"). Traditionally, formal and informal African storytelling is a communal interactive experience, and participation is an essential part of African social life. 


Recommended Websource on African History & Culture:


Mutere, Malaika. [African Studies, Howard University.] "Introduction to African History and Cultural Life: An African Historical Framework" and "African Oral Aesthetic." African Odyssey Arts & Education Resources. The Kennedy Center African Odyssey Interactive. 11 August 2004 <http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/aoi/history/ao-guide.html>. 

Ambara, The Interpreter
Example of a Dogon Tige (Praise Song) to an individual

Ambara, The Interpreter

Abundant cloud
Pushed up through hollow bamboo
Banished brothers
Men of mud
Cutter of the road.

(Source: Solange de Ganay: Les Devises des Dogons, Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, 1941; p. 149; as cited by Gleason 11.)  

Here is an explication (line-by-line interpretation) of "Ambara, The Interpreter" (as explained by Gleason 25)

Line 1.  Ambara (names the person)

Line 2.  Abundant cloud (greeting given primal Dogon blacksmith when He arrived on Earth with the possibility of rain, reminds Ambara he is Dogon; the Dogon also associate this phrase with mystery and occult knowledge known only to high initiate in a Dogon secret society)

Line 3.  Pushed up through hollow bamboo (“hollow bamboo” is praise name of the Dyon branch & clan of the Dogon and recalls their arrival to the region of the Bandiagara cliffs)

Line 4.  Fatigue  (associated with the neighborhood of Sanga and clan history: Ambara’s ancestors wore themselves out carrying soil from the bottoms of evaporating ponds up onto the rocky terraces of Bandiagara—beginning agriculture in this inhospitable desert environment;  Also indicating the curse of the human condition)

Line 5.  Banished brothers (For a mythic seven years in the past, the Dyon clan was banished from the villages of Ogol for breaking a serious taboo)

Line 6.  Men of Mud.  (“mud” indicates a water source and identifies the quarter of Ogol villages where Ambara’s immediate family lives)

Line 7.  Cutter of the Road. (This final epithet characterizes Ambara’s personality type and social role—he has a facility of interpretation, which he has inherited from an ancestor whose life Ambara is reliving under different worldly circumstances.)

More Dogon Tiges, or Praise Songs
(Source: Solange de Ganay: Les Devises des Dogons, Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, 1941; p. 149; rpt. in Gleason 1- 4.)  

Arm and Hand
Arm, shoulder is big
Arm, separates at the elbow
Fist is small
Fingers lengthy
Palm is striated
Fingers, each with three phalanges.

Iron hoe says hu
All day; iron palm
Finger tip
Hole in the handle fits
Iron in: hafted like man and woman
Bent neck
Slenders to the grip
Poor man works with it
Rich man works with it
Who has a hoe hangs on
Even an orphan grows
By dint of:
Sun, fatigue, content.


Worn stirring stick.

Young Girl
Young girl sways
Eye of the dawn star
Gleaming neck
Breasts no bigger than
Ewe’s udder
Firm as a cake of indigo
Belly flatter than
Fulani’s sandal
Hips a hand could
Span the measure of.

Lebe (ancestor-snake)
Great Spirit froths space, clouding it
Great Spirit glides about
Inscrutable traces, morning and evening
Gliding everywhere, mist.



Acacia Bush
Bad bramble
Bush-spirit’s home
Leaves worse than useless
Touching, it touches you
Tearing clothes—
How sweet the root!

To Those Recently Dead
Bush! Bush!
Gratitude for yesterday, wizened worker
Gratitude for millet, for water
Gratitude for meat, hunter.

To the Mask of the Smith
Master of the forge, greetings
Come to the sound of the drums.
Gong is your iron song
Make it speak well
All ears are listening.

Morning darkness, evening darkness
           Always, always.

Millet Beer
Millet beer numbs, slumps
While its genius dances.

To Gazelle Mask
Greetings, goat of the bush,
Full of the beans you have eaten,
An able man shoots—
Blood flows on the ground.
All eyes upon you—
Hare stares
Turtledove watches.
Good bush, shake your legs
Good bush, shake your body.

To the Ancestors
Clearers of thornbush
        Receive our morning greetings,
You who graded clefts in the cliffs,
        Receive our morning greetings,
You who laid the cornerstone,

       Receive our morning greetings,
You who placed three hearthstones,
       Receive our morning greetings,
And you, women, who carried long-stemmed calabashes,
       Receive our morning greetings

Learn  about the Dogon: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Dogon.html 
& where they live: Mali:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Mali.html 
Burkina Faso: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Burkina_Faso.html 
Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html

Contemporary Praise Songs

“Holotelani” (ho’LO-te-lan’i) or “Daughter-in-Law,” performed by Nelcy Sedibe, a popular Zulu-Sotho singer, was recorded during the period 1981-84.  The song represents a  South African urban pop style Mbaqanga, of townships like Soweto.  Mbaqanga, in its many varieties, evolved out of traditional Sotho and Zulu oral arts call-and-response genres, imported African-American rhythm and blues, jazz, and blues; and shebeen-inspired marabi and township jazz.  Urban Mbaqanga is dominated by vital, thumping bass-and-kick drum, mixing jazz and western instrumentation, and, of course, hallmark African call-and-response vocals, complex harmonies, and staggered rhythms.  Thus, African oral arts traditions find their way into almost every form of contemporary African creative expression. 
“Holotelani” is a daughter-in-law’s praise song-story adapted to urban township pop musical styles of South Africa today: she sings of the cattle given in the kraal (her bride-price), the bridgegroom entering the compound, and the new bride must attend to her new in-laws
CD: The Indestructable Beat of Soweto, Shanachie Records Corp., 1987.
(Track 2, time: 3:50)

Learn about the Zulu: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Zulu.html 
and South Africa: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/South_Africa.html 
Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html


The train
Carries everybody
It carries the men
It carries the women
It carries me, too
A blind boy.
Wherever it carries me
Alas, I meet distress
And knock against it
With my knee.
It carries the men
It carries the women
It carries the blind boy
To his distress

(As cited by Ulli Beier, African Poetry, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1966, p. 35; qtd. in Gleason 236)

Some HUM 211 Student Praise Songs, with Explications
~Webposted with student permission ~ Thank you so much! ~ Cora

Animal medicine woman

[Call:] [Response:]
Jillian Animal medicine woman
Born in snow Animal medicine woman
Of Dane and Scot Animal medicine woman
With Wolf I walk Animal medicine woman
Helper of the animals Animal medicine woman

Student's Explication

Line 1.   Jillian (The individual's name )
Line 2.   Born in snow (I came into this world early, in a snow bank outside the hospital.)
Line 3.   Of Dane and Scot (I come from Danish and Scottish ancestry.)
Line 4.   With Wolf I walk (My companion and protector and in some ways my spiritual guide is my wolf-hybrid.)
Line 5.   Helper of animals (My social role in life when I have attained my full humanness on my life journey will be Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.) 

© 2000, Jillian Cook


[Call:] [Response:]
Cameron    Be still
One crooked nose  
Atomic illusion  
Cul-de-sacs and concrete  
Move now, be still Be still
Darkness, little girls so, so sad  
Knowing, needle through an eye Be still
Whole, with her, without  
Albatross, alone, but never alone.  Be still
  Be still
  Be still

Student's Explication

Line 1.   Cameron   (My name)
Line 2.   One crooked nose  (The traditional Scottish definition of the name “Cameron”)
Line 3.   Atomic illusion  (Born into the traditional myths of the “nuclear family”)
Line 4.   Cul-de-sacs and concrete  (Raised in suburbia--Bellevue, Washington in the 60’s/70’s/80’s where parks and trees gave way to housing-tracks and corporate empires, and the neighborhoods were clean and friendly, unless you saw inside the homes)
Line 5.   Move now, be still  (Growing up with the chronic presence of the “double bind”)
Line 6.   Darkness, little girls so, so sad  (“Saving the world,” only to be crushed by it…working as a school counselor with sexually abused children, kissing the lips of evil)
Line 7.   Knowing, needle through an eye  (Having the intuitive power to see beyond the veneer of someone’s facade, deep, deep into their soul—to truly know them, in a way that they may not know themselves—learning that this is both a blessing and a curse)
Line 8.   Light  (The celebration of a long-lost union!)
Line 9.   Whole, with her, without  (The union’s legacy, post “Saturn Return” is the stillness of knowing that love is poised to make us whole)
Line 10. Albatross, alone, but never alone.  (I was born in the sign of water (in the Puget Sound), and it’s there that I feel my best… the Albatross represents a paradox of both total freedom and utter paralysis. The flight of love—to experience euphoria, to soar like a bird, is to risk pain and deep, belly-felt sorrow)

© 2002, Cameron Clark

A Praise Song

High desert dweller
Rooted in peace
Calls upon the monkey and the lion spirit
Soars with the dragonfly
Guides the pen
Moon drawn

Student's Explication

Line 1.   Gracie (my name)
Line 2.   High desert dweller (I was born and raised here in Bend, OR, which is a high desert.)
Line 3.   Rooted in peace (My ancestor Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe was known for his peaceful nature.)
Line 4.   Calls upon the monkey and the lion spirit (My totem animals are a monkey and a lion. In the monkey shows my playful/childlike nature and in the lion shows strength, loyalty and ferocity.)
Line 5.   Soars with the dragonfly (The dragonfly symbolizes my imagination, love for fantasy, and also dreamland.)
Line 6.   Guides the pen (I love to draw and that is my passion.)
Line 7.   Moon drawn (At night is when I find comfort, the stars give me hope and the moon is who I can trust with my problems.)

© 2002, E. Gracie Huntington

Daniel Sowerby
Daniel is from New Zealand, wrote his African-style praise song in Maori, his native language;
and delighted us by performing his song in class on 28 Sept. 2004.  Bless you, Daniel!  ~ Cora.

Raniera, Ngatoko [Trans. Daniel, The Poles of Which We Circle]

[Maori Call:] [English Translation:]
Raniera, Ngatoko Daniel, the poles of which we circle
Whanau ô nga ma koru Born of the white ferns
Nô Aotearoa from the Land of the Long White Cloud
Ki runga o te mauriora upon the breath
ô nga Hau e whâ, Te Wairua of the Four Winds' spirits
Ki raro i nga ringaringa Passed down to the hands
o Tané Mahuta, Te Atua of the guardian of the forests, Tané
      [Refrain:]       [Refrain:]
     E kitenga moenga       To dream
      Ki raro te Taurangamoana        under the sleeping waters
     E kitenga moenga       To dream
      Ki raro te Taurangamoana        under the sleeping waters
Hoki matakitakitia e te ao
Watched by the silent
Kei roto i te paraikete ô nga whetu in the blanket of the stars,
nga roimata the tears . . .
     [Refrain:]        [Refrain:]
    O Ranginui-i-te-po  . . . of the great Sky-Father
    O Ranginui-i-te-po  . . . of the great Sky-Father
     [Refrain:]        [Refrain:]
    E kitenga moenga        To dream
     Ki raro te Taurangamoana        under the sleeping waters

© 2004, Daniel Sowerby

Read more HUM 211 Student Praise Songs Online:
 HUM 211 Student Praise Songs - Fall 2000 & Winter 2003:
HUM 211 Student Praise Songs - Fall 2004:

Works Cited

Art and Life in Africa Project.  School of Art & Art History, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City, IO.  Rev. 1999.  1 Jan 2003.  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html

Gift of the Tortoise: A Musical Journey through Southern Africa. Music for Little People-Warner Brothers, 1994.

Gleason, Judith, ed. Leaf and Bone: African Praise-Poems. New York: Penguin, 1994.  

Mutere, Malaika. [African Studies, Howard University.] "Introduction to African History and Cultural Life: An African Historical Framework" and "African Oral Aesthetic." African Odyssey Arts & Education Resources. The Kennedy Center African Odyssey Interactive. 11 August 2004 <http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/aoi/history/ao-guide.html>. 

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