Maasai - Music and Dance
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A slight digression...
Maasai dancing: photos
Song lyrics - A Dorobo teasing song
Song lyrics - Teasing song to taunt uncircumcised boys
Song lyrics - Love song by Mopoi
Song lyrics - Enkipolosa war song
Song lyrics - A blessing
Maasai music is incredible, especially so given that - with the exception of kudu horns which are blown on special occasions such as the Eunoto ceremony - there are no instruments at all. Everything comes from the voice. Although some tracks may sound a little monotonous to some ears, this is because you - as a listener - are not participating. In reality, everyone sings along, both the morani with their guttural polyrhythms, and the rest of the community, usually in a call-and-refrain pattern. The guttural sound of the warriors is mostly internalized, and is a play on vibrations - the vibrations work more on the singer and his immediate neighbours than on a static audience. Some calls sound little cattle; not, I think, coincidentally.
The resulting polyphonic, multi-part songs - especially those sung by men - have an arresting and immediate beauty, strangely, sinuously powerful and effortlessly hypnotizing.
The peak season for singing and dancing is during the rains, which is of course a propitious time to celebrate important passages of life such as circumcision and marriage.
The usual musical format is a group of men, usually morani warriors, standing either in a row or a circle. The song - which is deeply rhythmical - starts with low grunting from the chests and throats of several men, which almost immediately become disjointed. Each singer has his part, as well as some leeway for improvisation, which together with the parts of the other men, combines to form a wonderfully intricate bass rhythm. Actually, that's not quite right - what they really create is a blend of several rhythms - polyrhythms - over which, once it's got going, the leader will start to sing short phrases. The grunting - continuous, contiguous, and overlapping - provides a constant sonic base (or buzz, like the shawm and ghaita of North Africa), which, separated from the reality of silence, quickly becomes hypnotic. The singers also dance to the music, which invariably involves soloists jumping as high as they possibly can whilst the other singers sway their bodies back and forth. When the dancer is tired, usually after only one or two leaps, another takes his place.
The first time I heard this was at the otherwise unexceptional and touristic Keekorok Lodge in Maasai Mara, where they put on Maasai dancing for the guests every other night during dinner. Although the set-up was artificial, the costumes of the dancers freshly washed, and the dancing itself not exactly authentic or exciting or inspiring, their song was. About twenty minutes, perhaps more, more or less non-stop, with an underlying 'grunting' from the throat to one man's almost girlish leads, which eventually really did become hypnotic - I had been writing notes on my pad, and all of a sudden realised that I'd stopped writing and had been dreaming, my mind far away.
But the strange thing was that, even fifteen minutes after they had stopped singing, their music still had a strong after-effect, to the extent that even the hotel patio where they had performed, and across which American, Dutch and English tourists now sauntered, seemed to have acquired a semi-sacred aura. My feeling was that the ground on which they had sung and danced had been consecrated through the act of making music, and of dancing on it. With joy, I suddenly realised the truth of my feelings the following day on skimming through a book about the Maasai: the ground - the soil - is indeed sacred for the Maasai, for it creates grass, which in turn feeds their cattle, and the cattle - of course - are a gift from God.
What I also liked about Maasai music is its being laid-back, in that some dancers are just chatting or laughing as others chant, sing or dance. Some dance earnestly, others giggle, others force their breathing at the tops of their leaps and jerk their heads back, others only jump once before returning to the 'fold', and all young, lithe bodies. The warriors can keep going for hours on end, and all this - well, most of the time - was primarily done to impress young girls.
A slight digression, which I hope you'll forgive me:
Several months later, I took the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa. For a while, I stayed awake, watching the few people at the isolated stations we stopped at. At Embakasi, a few Maasai watched us pass. In the dim glow of one or two lightbulbs, I saw them in their red cloaks standing, one with a hand on the other's shoulder, others holding hands, always smiling.
I think it was those images that were in my mind when, almost asleep, I became enrapt by a symphony of sounds - the to-and fro rattle of train, the jingle of rails, air, hushing, rushing, the groaning of steel being pushed and pulled and somehow, I imagined over all this Maasai singing, floating at first indistinct through this symphony, then clearer, louder - an incredible illusion (it must have been an illusion, no? Otherwise, the singers were running with the train!), then the yell of a kid, or a conversation trackside, laughing, then voices whispering, children whispering - slower rhythms - da dah ... da dah ... da dah ... da dah, and a rolling, too, like water pipes being filled with hot water, creaking, heat, until finally the train came to a stop, rolled back once, and stopped again. Rushing wind escapes from the hydraulics, then silence, footsteps, hushed talks, and then real silence that left me rocking in the cradle of my mind. This was ecstasy. And then, far up front, a shrill whistle, and the symphony began again.
I fell asleep with a smile on my lips, and as I write - and am convinced that music is all around us, if only we cared to listen.
Well, that's quite enough of my own impressions - time to make your own mind up!
Click on the images to view larger versions
Junior warriors dancing
Morani dancers in tourist hotel
This dance tests the strength and endurance which helps to determine a warrior. No further information at present.
The following lyrics are from Naomi Kipury's excellent "Oral Literature of the Maasai" (1983: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., PO Box 45314 Nairobi, Kenya), and remain her copyright.
Kiti kiti (1)
Mother Kilelu, do not come leisurely
The pastoralists say we are not equal, yet we are
I plaster the wall as well as the outside attic
The song is composed by the Maasai to ridicule the Dorobo and their way of life.
1. An exclamation of sneering.
2. As opposed to the hunters (or Dorobo) who "rear" wild animals.
3. The later a heifer gives forth the thicker and smoother its milk gets.
4. The zebra.
Let us sing the song of the evening
The boys are one with the brown birds
But it is for the love of you that they come
Koyiombo whose legs peel
The knife has risen up to the Pleiades
When we tried to throw it down with a club
The pied wagtail has printed eyes
Koyiombo has plunged his foot into a hole
Boy whether you flinch or not
1. Uncircumcised boys.
2. Women who have had sexual relations with uncircumcised boys.
3. Refers to the uncircumcised.
4. The Kikuyu and the Dorobo (Hunters) are often employed to do all the menial duties such as circumcision; see this website's exhaustive section on the Kikuyu.
5. Reference is here made to the penis.
6. A mixture of curdled milk and blood that is drunk by initiates. Once a boy flinches during circumcision, the others boycott his osaroi.
7. Uninitiated boys often relieve their sexual desires by dealing with asses.
9. There are some especially beautiful birds' feathers that the boys who flinch during circumcision are not permitted to wear.
10. These are ritual branches that are planted beside the house of the initiate's mother.
When could thy praises be sung, Ololtibili?
I developed admiration for you
I dare not store this precious love of my love
He that detests my loving the warriors
This romantic love song was composed by a woman from Matapato section in praise of a man called Ololtibili whom she loved. She provokes her husband to do the impossible before she can end her relationship with this man.
Ole Siamito's colour is changing (1)
I call out loud at twilight as well as in the morn (4)
My answer is that I am not at all arrogant
I the warrior of the black cloak
Crow, crow who wears a white band
I call out at twilight as well as in the morn
I the warrior of the long thin spear
I the warrior of the black cloak
This is a common war song. This particular version was recorded in 1977 during Eunoto, a graduation ceremony from warriorhood to elderhood, for the Matapato section in Kajiado district. It is often sung very early in the morning, or at dusk, and it is meant to give the warriors the spirit and courage to enable them to fight and raid other sections. It is sung with a very high pitch by one main soloist; other warriors sing the chorus.
1. From bleeding.
3. Hurt from the raid.
4. Song sung at evening and morning.
Now that we are seated, O God, let us be seated - Let it be (1)
How about this child (4) who has come, make her not take flies from this land (5)
This is a typical blessing in its context. It was recorded live at Ole Polos, see footnote 4, at the close of a session where oral literature forms were relayed and discussed. Although blessings vary in different situations, the diction and presentation is always the same. One person utters the blessing, while others join in with 'let it be' or 'may God hear our prayers'.
1. Said by the audience after each utterance by the person who is conducting the blessing as a way of stressing his request. Could he rendered better as: "O God hear our prayer."
2. Literally, women bear on the beds that have hides on them. The "holes" are symbolic of infant mortality.
3. The ritual meat is Enaikuti, pl. Inaaikuti and it consists of the meat from the right-hand side of the ram, eaten by the women when a child is born.
4. Reference is here made to the author when she visited the village of Nkidong'i at Ole Polos near Bissil. Matuyia is conducting the blessing.
5. Symbolic of ailments.
6. Reference is here made to the Maasai way of greeting where the children (bending only the knees) bow down to the older members of society.
7. Symbolizes long life, strength and sturdiness. Its root is often used for many rituals.