A cultural revival?

Jedesmal, wenn ein Solo beendet hat, fällt der ganze Chor ein und singt einen Refrain, der aber nur aus den verschiedenen Vokalen besteht, die auf alle möglichen und unmöglichen Arten ausgesprochen werden, also eigentlich immer dasselbe. Interessant wäre es, einen solchen Gesang aufzunehmen. (Kruse, Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu, 1911, p. 192)

Everytime when a solo ends, the choir joins in and sings a refrain that just consists of a number of different voices which are uttered in all possible and impossible ways; so in a way it is always the same [words]. It would be interesting to record such a song.

The closing paragraphs of my previous post were cited in several places (e.g. Culture Making, Far Outliers) as evidence of a cultural revival. Although I feel it is really too soon to say whether this is the case, I’m glad to report that the dirges that we recorded in Akpafu-Todzi are in wide circulation now and are even being played during funerals, to great acclaim. Even people who I don’t know very well have told me how glad they are that these dirges are available now. I in turn should thank Timothy “T.T.” Akuamoah from Todzi for bringing up the idea of recording the dirges in March 2008. Were it not for his organizing talents, we would never have had so many wonderful singers around. There are plans for a follow-up project involving more recordings in the weeks around Easter.

I don’t think Friedrich Kruse, the German missionary whose description of a Siwu funeral dirge is quoted above, ever actually expected these dirges to be recorded. The Germans were quite adamant about their Ewe-only policy in schools and churches; in fact there is no evidence that any of the missionaries (who manned the Akpafu missionary station for a good thirty years altogether) ever learned to speak Siwu — to the contrary, Schosser (1907) records several cases of women who could not yet be baptised because of their limited understanding of Ewe, and the mission chronicles show a glaring ignorance of Mawu culture in general (Bürgi 1921). It speaks for the vigour of Mawu culture that Siwu is alive and well nowadays, and that the Mawu are taking an active interest in their own cultural heritage.


Allow me to present another wonderful example of the genre. Last summer I wrote about the ideophone kanana. Here is a funeral dirge in which that ideophone, evoking a tranquil silence, plays a central role. It would normally be sung during the wakekeeping, in the middle of the night.

The song, with call and response revolving around the realization that death strikes everyone —barren women just as well as nursing mothers—, begins and ends in silence. Be silent and stay in your houses. What more can one do in the face of a sad loss? Text, structure, and melody work together to create a compelling and most of all intensely sad dirge.

Siwu English gloss
mìlo kanana si mìsɛ i mi ayo
milo kananaaa
[repeat] ɔlɛmã ìwo, ɔtalɛpo ìwo, mìloo
ɔlɛmã sìse, ɔtalɛpo sìse,
mìlo kanana si mìsɛ i mi ayo
be still kanana and stay in your houses
be still kananaa
[repeat] see the barren woman’s grave, the nursing mother’s grave, and be still
see the barren woman’s grave-mound, the nursing mother’s grave-mound;
be still kanana and stay in your houses


The funeral dirges of the Mawu are full of parallelisms. The above dirge features parallelisms within and across lines. Within lines, the powerful contrast between ɔlɛmã ‘barren woman’ and ɔtalɛpo ‘nursing mother’ is used to silence all — one’s status in life is of no relevance whatsoever to death. Across lines, grave (ìwo, literally ‘pit’) and grave-mound (sìse, literally ‘clay heap’) are parallels that help establish a certain poetic balance. Some examples of semantically rhyming words that are commonly used in parallelisms are:

ɔnyiì/ɔtalɛpò/ɔ̀rɔ̃gó bielè
man/young man
mother/nursing woman/true woman
sit/be on/be in
owner of the house/important person
sweet/very sweet

The previous posting noted how the grammatical affordances of Siwu were used to achieve a tight and pithy expression. Here, we see in more detail the work being done by the selection and contrast of semantic units. First of all, ideophones —words that are perfectly suited to vividly express feelings and emotions— are used in the dirges to great effect. Secondly, we see that parallel units related by likeness or contrast are an essential device to enrich meaning and achieve poetic balance in this genre of verbal art. (See Fox 1974, Baronti 2001, for parallels from other languages.)


  1. Agawu, Kofi. 1990. Variation procedures in Northern Ewe song. Ethnomusicology 34, no. 2: 221-243.
  2. Baronti, David Scott. 2001. Sound symbolism use in affect verbs in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan. Dissertation, University of California, Davis.
  3. Bürgi, Ernst. 1921. Geschichte von Station Akpafu, 1897-1917. Lome. Signatur 7,1025 – 5/2; Film FB 3697. Staatsarchiv Bremen.
  4. Fox, James J. 1991. Our ancestors spoke in pairs. In Explorations in the ethnography of speaking, ed. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, 65-85. 2nd ed. Studies in the social and cultural foundations of language 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Kruse, F. W. 1911. Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu. Der Anscharbote, October 29.
  6. Schosser, Herman. 1907. Akpafu: ein Stück Kultur- und Missionsarbeit in Deutsch Togo. Bremer Missions-Schriften 21. Bremen: Verlag der Norddeutschen Missions-Gesellschaft.

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