Friday, February 20, 2015



  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

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