Friday, February 20, 2015



takai dance
Takai is one of the oldest drum rhythms of the Dagomba, and the story tells of how they came to be so close to the Mossi tribe. There was a war going on between the Dagomba and Mossi, and a Dagomba woman got lost in the bush and was eventually found by a Mossi hunter. Years later, when there was once again conflict between the Dagomba and Mossi, the woman's history came to light, and because of this connection they halted the fighting. Combined, the drum language for all the parts says "chief says listen, stop the fight."



Tora is a game-like dance in which two dancers knock their buttocks together in time to the cadence moment in the drumming. Dancers form a line and take turns going out into the dance stage. Each dancer knocks twice. The dancer who is in the circle knocks with the next in line and then takes the place at the back of the line. Gradually, the dancer moves toward the front position and then goes out to have the next turn in the spotlight. Dancers sing songs in call-and-response format while they are on line.

The relationship between music and dance is very similar in Tora and Takai: dancers strike each other at a key time point in the recurring musical phrase. To get their timing, dancers especially listen to the gung-gong part. Drummers organize their play to dramatize the moment the dancers knock together.

Like Baamaaya, Tora and Takai have several sections that are performed in sequence like a medley or suite. Because it is exactly the same as in Takai, the music for Nyagboli is not presented here in the Tora section of the website. In contemporary performance contexts the slow-paced music of Ayiko accompanies the dancers' as they process to the performance area. Ayiko does not have a History Story because it did not originate in Dagbon.

Girls and young women usually perform Tora.



jera dance
Jera is a potent dance.  As with most dances in the North, the history of Jera is deep, obscure and mysterious.  Most sources trace the origin to one particular hunter called Nanja who, while in the bush, came across an ill omen: group of dwarfs.  Jera came to be performed as part of a religious rite when returning from hunting trips, and later after midnight at the funerals of elders and chiefs.  On these occasions, some believe the drums can sound without a drummer.  The embedded religious significance of Jera is now decontextualized, and it is performed at all times and on a variety of social events.
jera clothing
Still, performances are suggestive of Jera’s original significance. The magical amulets displayed on the bodies of the dancers, and the rootedness of the dance to the ground, is suggestive of the initial function of the dance and makes meaningful to contemporary participants their heritage.
With steady upper bodies, the dance emanates from the forward and backward movement of the hips, and the purposeful movements of the legs.  Around the waist a belt with strands of cowries called “yebisa” is worn, which rises and falls with the thrusting waist.  Dancers tilt together, moving counterclockwise to the sound of a sole bass gun-gong and a handful of lunga talking drummers.  The hold metal castanets called "feengas" which add another sonic dimension to the ominous environment, along with songs like:  “Borli ye borli borla bum bo?
Naan zan noo mal borli.” (What does the shrine want? I will give a fowl to the shrine.)

jera troopers

Watching the young boys at Bizung dance Jera is very precious.  They know the dance is serious, and their faces, while overly concentrated, inevitably lapse into a silly shyness.  They respond beautifully to the deep sounds of the bass, and through call and response, learn Jera’s history:  “Nanja ye zan jera kuli ye? Nanja ye zan jera kuli ye.” (Nanja brought the jera home? Nanja brought the jera home.)  When the children perfect the circular dance, and are fully costumed with cowrie belts for performance, the Bizung Jera will be something special!



Like Tora and Takai, Baamaaya has several sections, each with its own name, musical phrases, and dance movements. Because Baamaaya is not associated with the chiefs of Dagbon,
student practicing baamaya
In a village named Zheng within the chieftaincy area of Nanton there was a time of drought and hunger when one of the only foodstuffs that could be grown was a type of bean called tubaani (Bambara beans, similar to chick peas). Children, satisfied with full bellies after their evening meal, would caper about the compound with cornhusks stuffed in their waistbands saying, "Tubaan' kpele," meaning "bowl of tubaani beans." For several days the adults admired the children's play until one day an adult asked them, "What are you doing?" The children did not answer because the African etiquette of the era dictated that youngsters sometimes are not supposed to talk directly to adults. A clever elder who was old enough to be a grandfather established a joking relationship with the children and talked to them in private. The children explained that because their mothers had fed them nicely, their stomachs were full so they felt happy.
a baamaya dancer
Drummers were invited to play for the kids. This was the beginning of Mazhe whose gung-gong theme goes with the words tubaan' kpele (vocables: kaka kaki). The dance movement was adapted from a dance called Jera. Instead of Jera's belt of cowry shells, women used shells, beads and cotton to make flamboyant belts of pom-poms that drew attention to the dancers' shimmying midsections.
Later, when rain had fallen and crops were harvested, creative adults adapted the children's game into a full-fledged dance called Baamaaya. Among the lunga's phrases is one that, "Rain has fallen. The ground has become soft." [Locke: In the Dagbani language the word "baa" means a swampy area, for example, a field where rice is farmed.] Baamaaya expressed the farmers' happiness at a good harvest. The dance became popular among young men who enjoyed doing it on moonlight nights.
As year went by, dancers apparently began wearing increasingly outlandish costumes to amuse themselves and their audiences. Strikingly in the gender-specialized Afro-Islamic culture of the Dagomba, the Baamaaya costume suggests male cross-dressing. Some Dagombas teach that the Baamaaya costume stems from unethical conduct of men toward women. In this account, in order for the drought to end, men had to appease land gods by wearing women's clothes. Alhaji reports that his teachers never mentioned this story and that he did not hear it during his youth when he enjoyed dancing Baamaaya. He doubts its credibility. Other Dagomba teachers suggest that Baamaaya's frenetic motions derive from waving off mosquitoes by shaking hips and arms. This makes sense to me, given the story of origin, but Alhaji tends to downplay its significance.
baamaya dancers in a circle
In an arrangement taught by Alhaji, dancers come to the stage and form a circle in time to the relatively slow-paced music of Naa Daa. After moving through the more up-tempo sections, dancers go off stage with a return to the music of Baamaaya. In Baamaaya, Mazhe and Nyagboli dancers display their own creativity and style; they all utilize the same movement vocabulary but everyone is "doing their own thing," so to speak. Dakoli Kutoko is unique: dancers bump hips against their neighbors on the circle. This section pokes fun at unmarried males saying, "Bachelors cannot farm." The message is that a farmer needs the manual labor of a big family in order to produce enough food to run a household.

The instrumentation in Baamaaya is unique among these materials: there is no part for answer lunga. Nyagboli in Baamaaya is slightly different from the way it is played in Tora and Takai, so Alhaji's demonstration is included here.



Ya Naa Mahama III
: The selection of the Ya Naa, until the early 1950s, was the responsibility of the traditional selection committee consisting of Kuga Naa, Gushie Naa, Gomli, and Tugri Nam. Kuga Naa is the official Baga of the Ya Naa. The post of the Kuga Naa was created during the reign of Naa Sitobu and his brother Sibie was the first Kuga Naa. The selection committee consults the spirits of the departed Yananima and soothsayer to establish the most eligible candidate for the nam. The most eligible candidate is one whose reign as Ya Naa will bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom. In 1948 the traditional selection committee was replaced by the modern selection committee consisting of divisional chief and elders (this new committee is a subject of dispute in the kingdom).
When the Kuga Naa and his committee have decided on the next Ya Naa the meet the Gushie Naa at the outskirts of Yendi. It is, by custom, a taboo for the Gushie Naa to enter Yendi after the death of the Ya Naa. The Kuga Naa informs the Gushie Naa who the choice of the selection committee is. Gushie Naa then enters Yendi with his entourage amidst drumming and dancing and rides to the Ya Naa palace where he pulls a piece of thatch from the roof of “Zon titali”. Gushie Naa hands the piece of thatch to Kuga Naa who later in the day sends it to the Ya Naa elect. This signifies official election of the Ya Naa.



One of the major and most conspicuous features of Dagomba society is chieftaincy. There has been a line of paramount chiefs that stretches back to the days of Naa Nyagsi, the son of Sitobu. Their system of chieftancy is ver
y hierarchical, with the Yaa-Naa, or paramount chief, at its head and a tiered system of rulers below him. In Dagbon, chiefs traditionally sit on a stack of skins. For this reason, when a person assumes a chief position, they are said to have been "skinned," rather than enthroned. As an example, to say that so-and-so is "sitting on the Savelugu skin" means that the person is chief of the town called Savelugu.
Chieftaincies are generally associated with towns or villages and are categorized by who is eligible for them. Staniland outlines 5 levels of chieftaincy, the first four of which he labels "royal" chieftaincies. Royal chieftaincies are only available to those who can trace themselves through the male line back to Naa Nyagsi. If a man is not appointed to one of the royal chieftaincies, his descendants lose their royal status. The first group of chieftaincies is reserved for the sons of Yaa-Naas. The second group of chieftaincies is for grandsons of Yaa-Naas. The third group is reserved for daughters of Yaa-Naas. The fourth group is for sons of the sisters of Yaa-Naas. The fifth group, which are not considered "royal," are for court elders. These often have some specific responsibility attached to them. For example, the chief of Tolon is traditionally the head of the Dagbon's cavalry.

Chiefs are generally chosen by the Yaa-Naa who is aided by a council  of elders situated in Yendi, or in the case of smaller town chieftaincies by the divisional chief above him. The Yaa-Naa is chosen by a set of elders and chiefs from around the kingdom, referred to as the kingmakers. Because a person's ability to become chief depends on the level achieved by their father, competitions for certain chieftaincies can become very fierce. Something else that contributes to the intensity of this competition Dagomba society is polygynous. As powerful men, chiefs tend to have many wives. As a result, a chief can die with a large number of surviving siblings, children, and nephews, all of whom have a vested interest in who ascends to that position. Once a man dies without having reached a certain position, his line becomes ineligible for that post and his descendants lose some of their status. This has the potential to generate immense conflict when it comes time to skin a new chief and often does.
Many of the history stories on this site deal with how specific men came to sit on their skins. The proverbs attached to these dance-drumming compositions are often warnings to would-be challengers of these chiefs. They have demonstrated their power by attaining their position, and to go up against them would be considered foolish for most men to attempt.



  Apart from drumming, there are many other types of music in Dagbon.  There are other types of drums played by young people for recreational purposes.  The Dagbamba musical repertoire also features several types of flutes, a musical bow that is similar to a Brazilian birimbao, several types of horns, and several different plucked lutes; however, apart from the hourglass drum ensemble, the instrument that has attained the most popularity and visibility is a one-stringed bowed lute called GOONJI.  Variants of the name GOONJI are widespread in related traditions:  for example, the fiddle is called goge among the Hausa, godji among the Songhay.

        Fiddles like the GOONJI are widespread in the sub-Saharan savanna cultures of Africa.  In fact, fiddles are so widespread that I sometimes wonder why so little attention has been paid to their possible contribution to the soundscape of the African-American Diaspora.  And indeed, as alien as the sound of GOONJI music may seem at first, the music is surprisingly easy to get with.  There is no documentation of the one-stringed fiddle’s origin in West Africa, but based on the various versions of the instruments’ basic structure and their distribution among Muslim societies, one-stringed fiddles are generally presumed to have been disseminated from Arabic Muslim societies of North Africa and the Middle East.  Trans-Saharan trade and cultural contact has been documented for more than a millenium, and the significant conversion of sub-Saharan Africans to Islam began in the tenth century.

        Like most fiddles in West Africa, the Dagbamba GOONJI is held horizontally, often hung over the shoulder with a scarf.  The resonator is made from half of a gourd calabash covered with the skin of a monitor lizard.  The bow is semi-circular.  The strings on the fiddle and the bow are made of hair from a horse’s tail.  The sound of the goonji may sound a bit scratchy at first to Westerners used to the sound of bowed instruments like the violin; nonetheless, the seemingly rough texture of the goonji’s sound is consistent with West African concepts of sound richness.  The qualities of the sound are enhanced by the accompanying play of rattles called zaabia.  The rattles are filled calabashes that are both shaken and also struck with the free hand.  The words goonji and zaabia can be used to refer the instrument itself or the musician who plays it.  The rattles are played by children of either gender or by women, and it is worth noting that the Hausa word zabiya refers to a female praise-singer.

        GOONJI music occupies a position that is secondary to drumming in the Dagbamba musical tradition, mainly because the GOONJI is a recent introduction, at least in relative terms given Dagbon’s lengthy existence.  According to the drummers, the GOONJI was introduced in the early nineteenth century during the reign of Naa (Chief) Ziblim Kulunku.  The ancestors of the Dagbamba GOONJI players originally came from the Guruma traditional area in southeastern Burkina Faso.  When some Gurumas moved from their original area to the south and west, Guruma GOONJI players settled in the Mamprusi traditional area to the north of Dagbon in northern Ghana.  They intermarried and brought forth Mamprusi children who were playing the GOONJI.  It was from the Mamprusi area that they went to Dagbon, where they also intermarried, and their descendants became Dagbamba.  According to drummers, the GOONJIplayers’ “starting was in Guruma and Mamprusi,” and they “entered” Dagbon, and so the GOONJI are “strangers in our midst.”  Today, despite the great popularity and ubiquitous presence of goonji music in Dagbon, some Dagbamba do not even consider the GOONJI to be a part of Dagbamba custom because the GOONJI was not there at the beginning of the chieftaincy tradition that Dagbamba consider the center of their culture.  Some GOONJIs claim that their introduction into Dagbon occurred during the reign of Naa Andani Sigli, in the early eighteenth century, that Naa Sigli brought the GOONJI from the extreme north of Ghana, and that they stayed with Naa Sigli’s son, Naa Saalana Ziblim, who was chief in the mid to late eighteenth century.  Drummers would respond that they know more about people than the people themselves know.  Whatever the case, it took many, many years for the roots of GOONJI playing to grow to the goonji’s recent flowering in the late twentieth century.

        In Dagbon’s traditional capital, Yendi, the GOONJIS have a chief, a titled family elder called YAMBA-NAA, but they do not have a relationship to the Dagbamba chieftaincy comparable to drummers, either as descendants or elders.  They are not inside the drum history, and they do not have titles or chieftaincy hierarchies in the other towns of Dagbon.  Drummers in Dagbon, along with several other occupational groups such as blacksmiths, butchers, barbers, and soothsayers, are “born” into their work.  In modern times, the situation has loosened up a bit for cash-based work like blacksmithing and butchering, but within Dagbamba custom, only a child born into such a family can practice the vocation.  According to custom, special symbolism is attached to the drum, the knife, the blade, the bellows, or the soothsayer’s bag:  each is an “old thing” that “follows” and “catches” people in the respective families.  Although there is obvious family continuity in the perpetuation of GOONJI playing, the GOONJIS do not face the same types of sanctions as these other groups.  The GOONJIS are nicknamed VULUNVUUNA, after a mud wasp.  After a mud wasp gets a place to build its nest, it goes outside, kills insects and puts them inside the nest and leaves them there.  I was told, “It shows that the ones it has brought have become its children.  How a goonji is, it is a goonji child who will shake the zaabia.  A goonji player will be there, and his child will not be from anywhere:  if he has no child, any child who wants to run and come and enter the playing of the zaabia, that child becomes his child and will grow up to play the goonji.  If a goonji marries any woman, he will show the woman how to shake the rattle.  And so a goonji player has no beginning; God can turn a child to become a goonji child.  As for the goonji, you can go and learn it without following a family door.  The goonji is like that.”

        The logic behind this standard of seniority is grounded in the Dagbamba’s sense of themselves as an ancient people.  At first glance, Dagbamba society appears to be separated into two groups:  nobility and commoners.  Yet in a manner parallel to the continuous integrity of the chieftaincy lineage, Dagbamba also conceive of themselves as a single family.  Not every son of a chief becomes a chief, and the descendants of those princes who do not attain chieftaincy are thus the people who become commoners.  Every Dagbamba traces his or her ancestry to some point on the chieftaincy line, and in that sense, the history of Dagbon is understood in terms of the gradual evolution of an elaborately segmented descent group.  The work of Dagbamba drummers involves keeping track of the genealogical relationships that operate within the political realm itself and also the genealogical relationships that link individuals to the chiefs.  Drummers are therefore recognized for their knowledge of history and of their local communities, and this knowledge is expressed through their music.

        At the center of the Dagbamba musical tradition is the history of the state.  Twice a year, drummers in major towns gather outside the house of the chief to sing selected parts of Dagbamba history, a performance that begins in the evening and lasts until dawn.  The chiefs have both their given names and also praise-names.  These praise-names are in the form of proverbs that refer to a chief’s deeds, to a chief’s ancestor, or to ideas a chief may have believed in strongly.  Commoners also have praise-names that either refer to their ancestors in the chieftaincy line or to their own lives and thoughts.  Dagbamba say that a person does not praise himself.  Public praising is the work of the musicians, and praise-names that fit a person are often bestowed by drummers, who have a broader knowledge of proverbs and of a person’s position in society.  The praise-names can be either sung or beaten on a drum.  In recent years, the rhythms of praise-names have become the basis for social dances that are done at community gatherings like weddings or funerals or the namings of newborn children.  At such events, dance circles are formed, and drummers move from one person to another, praising the person and then inviting him or her to a brief solo dance or two performed inside the circle.  The dancer’s friends and relatives in the dance circle respond to this public display by entering the circle and giving money to the dancer, who allows the money to fall to the ground where it is picked up by children of the musicians.

        The role of the goonji players at such gatherings duplicates that of the drummers.  At a large funeral, there may be a number of dance circles, of which one or two will feature goonji music.  But the extent of the goonjis’ knowledge of families and chieftaincy does not reach that of the drummers.  Although goonji songs have historical allusions, goonji players do not sing historical songs for the chiefs.  When a chief comes out of his house for any type of procession or gathering, goonji players join drummers in walking with the chief and playing their instruments, but when the chief sits down, the goonjis also sit down, and it is drummers who will play and praise the chief.  The goonjis pattern their singing after drummers, for their songs are generally a series of proverbs and praise-names, and such songs are what their Dagbamba audiences and patrons want to hear.  Nonetheless, the family of the drummers “started” from inside chieftaincy, but the goonji families did not, and the goonjis would defer authority to the drummers.

        The increasing popularity of goonji playing is quite recent, and I believe that the main reason for this development is simply that goonji music is so nice.  With modern changes in the economic life of the region, many commoners have become well-to-do, and there are many more occasions for musicians to perform.  All musicians in larger towns like Tamale have benefited.  Now, almost everywhere drummers are, goonjis are also there.  Goonjis also roam the markets playing and singing and collecting gifts of money.  People like goonji music.  Although one might think that drumming is the ideal music for dancing, to my mind, the popularity of goonji music is strongly rooted in its qualities for dancing...why not come and see for your self