I thought I had company (a Mawu dirge)

Women performing a funeral dirge in Akpafu-Mempeasem

Funeral dirges (sìnɔ in Siwu) are sung during the period of public mourning preceding a burial. The musical structures of these dirges, the performances, and their place in the larger context of the funeral have been described in some detail by Agawu (1988) and before him by the German missionary Friedrich Kruse (1911); however, the linguistic aspects of the genre have not received any attention so far.

I was recruited to record the funeral dirge below on August 17, 2007 in Akpafu-Mempeasem. I transcribed and translated it with the help of Reverend A.Y. Wurapa, in whose household I had the privilege to stay. The singers expressly wanted the song to be recorded and shared, as they were aware it was a genre in decline and they wanted “the youth” to hear it.

SiwuEnglish gloss
mɛ̀ sɔ màturi pia mɛ̀
      sêgbe kàku kaɖè
      sêgbe nnɔmɛ miɖè
      sêgbe ìsoma iɖè
      sêgbe àsekpe aɖè
I said, ‘people are with me’
      not knowing it meant mourning
      not knowing it meant tears
      not knowing it meant sadness
      not knowing it meant graves

The Siwu is beautifully economic in expression. It contains only two verbs: pia ‘be (with)’ and ɖe ‘be (existential)’. The that is translated as ‘said’ is actually a quotative complementizer. An English translation cannot do without marking tense, but in Siwu, the poem does not contain any tense or aspect markers, being set in an aorist-like default that can be interpreted as recent past or present.

Some of the poetic devices at work here are lost in translation. One is the focus construction which emphasizes the content words in the last four Siwu lines (‘mourning it is; tears it is; sadness it is; graves it is’). Another is the fact that these content words belong to four different grammatical genders in Siwu: the first is an noun in KA with locative connotation, the second a liquid/mass noun in MI, the third a singular noun in I, the fourth a plural noun in A. I’m not sure whether this pattern is as striking to native speakers as it is to me, but note that the gender is reinforced by the agreement morphology on the ‘be’-verb (ka-, mi-, i-, a-). One could think of it as a case of ‘subliminal verbal patterning in poetry’ (Jakobson 1980).

By fronting the content words and by presenting all four of them in the exact same frame, the dirge forces the reader to meditate on the inevitable consequences of being surrounded by mortality. We may think we’re lucky to have company, but in the end it turns out to be mourning, tears, sadness, graves. The enumeration of closely related tropes is a common technique in the funeral dirges of the Mawu.

A Dutch translation

It is difficult to approximate the beauty and subtlety of this piece of poetry in another language. Nevertheless I have tried my hand at composing a translation in Dutch, my native language, if only because I am intrigued by the subtle interplay of words and grammar in this poem. This translation, then, is a modest attempt to translate not just the words but the terse form-feel of the original. I realize it will be difficult for non-native speakers of both Siwu and Dutch to judge whether the attempt has been successful, but I do provide some explanatory notes below.

DutchEnglish gloss
Ik dacht dat ik mensen had
      het bleken tranen
      het bleek droefheid
      het bleken graven
      het bleek afscheid
I though I had company
      it turned out to be tears
      it turned out to be sadness
      it turned out to be graves
      it turned out to be parting

The first line stays quite close to the Siwu (“I said (to myself), ‘people are with me'”). A less literal translation would have been Ik was blij dat ik mensen had ‘I was glad I had people’, but in the original the expression of contentness remains only implicit, so I felt making this more explicit was not necessary. The inflected verb form dacht ‘thought’ (past) in the first sentence also establishes the temporal setting.

Contributing to the terse style, the Dutch verb blijken ‘turn out (to be)’ nicely packages the Siwu sêgbe ‘not knowing’ together with the be-verb. Dutch verbs inflect not just for tense but also for number; hence the bleken/bleek alternation in the last four lines. To put this fact of grammar to poetic use, I have exchanged ‘crying’ for another word: afscheid. This makes it possible to couple the singular/plural alternation with two different rhyme patterns: Droefheid and afscheid are end rhymes, while tranen and graven are linked by assonant rhyme. The effect is an aesthetically pleasing ABAB structure in which the members of each pair agree in rhyme type and number. In the original, àsekpe ‘graves’ is the final word, but in the Dutch version it isn’t; it somehow doesn’t sound quite right to end with the plural graven; besides, afscheid (parting) is a very appropriate word to end the poem.

The future of dirges in Kawu

Speaking of parting, it is only rarely that dirges are heard in Kawu nowadays. Two factors are contributing to their decline: firstly the fact that many churches discourage their use, preferring edifying hymns instead. The reason behind this, I am told, is that the dirges reflect a pre-Christian worldview and as such are to be eschewed by true Christians. A second factor has been the coming of electricity to the villages halfway the nineties, which has led to loud music taking the place of the dirges during the wakekeepings. Elsewhere I wrote that “culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself”, yet at the same time I can’t help but lament the imminent loss of such a rich vein of Mawu culture.

However, during my last fieldtrip there were some signs of a renewed interest in the genre. For example, one pastor told me that he had been reconsidering the rash dismissal of the dirges by his church. Realizing how important the dirges had been in containing, orienting, and canalizing the feelings of loss and pathos surrounding death, he felt that the Christian hymns did not always offer an appropriate replacement. Another hopeful event was that I was approached with the request to help record a great number of dirges in Akpafu-Todzi in August 2008. This was not just to record them for posterity (although this was part of the motivation), but also very practically so that they could be played at wakekeepings. I gladly complied with this wish of course. The result is a beautiful collection of 42 dirges, sung by eight ladies between 57 and 87 years of age. The first time the dirges were played at a funeral they sparked a wave of interest.

Next in this series: a discussion of parallelisms in Siwu funeral dirges.


  1. Agawu, Kofi. 1988. Music in the funeral traditions of the Akpafu. Ethnomusicology 32, no. 1: 75-105.
  2. 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.
  3. Jakobson, Roman. 1980. Subliminal Verbal Pattering in Poetry. Poetics Today 2, no. 1a, Roman Jakobson: Language and Poetry (Autumn): 127-136.
  4. Kruse, F. W. 1911. Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu. Der Anscharbote, October 29.

9 thoughts on “I thought I had company (a Mawu dirge)”

  1. […] cultural fall and rise of the traditional funeral dirges performed in the Volta region of northern Ghana: brought low by Christianity and recording technology, brought back by the same. […]

  2. What a wonderfully appropriate post to cap off the two plenary talks I attended today at the 1st International Conference on Language Documentation & Conservation.

    You might be interested in the following book review (available on JSTOR, if you have access):
    Bradshaw, Joel. Review of Mission and music: Jabêm traditional music and the development of Lutheran hymnody, by Heinrich Zahn, trans. by Philip W. Holzknecht, ed. by Don Niles. 36:420–424 (1997).

  3. Thanks Joel, most interesting! It’s a pity the Kawu mission post wasn’t manned by such industrious German missionaries as Zahn. The only trace I have found of the original music so far is a scathing description of the ‘awful harmonies’ of the native music by Herman Schosser, and an offhand remark by Friedrich Kruse (1911) that it would be ‘quite interesting to record these dirges’.

    The use of traditional music in church contexts is much more recent in West-Africa (and still very limited); see for example the work of Paul Neeley.

  4. Hello Mark.
    I’ll like to send you a personal e-mail on that have to do with my current research on ethnographic performance genres in Siwu. Get in touch with me via (kwamearikor@gmail.com) if you are interested in meaningful academic conversation on Siwu Oral Literature(SOL)
    Meanwhile, let me congratulate you on your Ph D thesis on Siwu Idiophones left at the University of Ghana libraries. It is a groundbreaking intellectual work. Receive my heartfelt congratulations-Kufor karabra. Looking forward to a more fruitful academic relationship

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