Maasai - Music and Dance

In this page:
A slight digression...
Maasai dancing: photos
Adumu dance
Song lyrics
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.

No comment...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...

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!

Maasai dancing: photos

Click on the images to view larger versions

Junior warriors dancing

War dance

Welcoming dance

Morani dancers in tourist hotel

Welcoming dance

Morani dancing

Buffalo dance

Adumu dance

This dance tests the strength and endurance which helps to determine a warrior. No further information at present.

Song lyrics

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.

Song lyrics: Dorobo teasing song

Kiti kiti (1)
The girls of the pastoralists that rear cattle (2)
They that handle the colostrum of the heifer with hands
Especially that of a heifer that is late giving forth (3)

Mother Kilelu, do not come leisurely
Shut the gateway but leave a little opening
Through which Ole Nkaikoni may come alter the kill
Having killed an eland and a pregnant antelope

The pastoralists say we are not equal, yet we are
When the ox lows, the buffalo echoes on the hill
The donkey brays, so does the striped-bottomed! (4)
Tall is the ox, it touches the sky, giraffe!
The goats are many and have white tails, gazelles!
The sheep are numerous and live in holes, warthogs!

I plaster the wall as well as the outside attic
So that our shapely bow could be hung
The one on which we depend!

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.

Teasing Song to Taunt Uncircumcised Boys

Let us sing the song of the evening
And praise the covered ones (1)
They have passed through the thicket (2)
That has taken all the covered ones

   What on earth makes Koyiombo (3) arrogant
   If he has feared the Kikuyu (4)
   Koyiombo you are neither a human being
   Nor are you a cow
   You are only a dirty puppy
   That is given milk off the hearth

The boys are one with the brown birds
They both have roiled-up tails (5)
The flincher is one with boy
I share osaroi (6) with neither
You councillor boy
May your counselling fail
There comes the glowing morning
That brings the hordes

But it is for the love of you that they come
They come to observe the toes
As well as the eye-lids
And rumour spreads far that
The boy has flinched

Koyiombo whose legs peel
Like a dry tree bark
Koyiombo who leaves at the evening time
And goes hunting for the asses (7)

The knife has risen up to the Pleiades
Before Koyiombo is circumcised
When we tried to hook it down
The hooks got broken

When we tried to throw it down with a club
Its head broke off
When we tried to splash it down with milk
God splashed down blood

The pied wagtail has printed eyes
And superb starling is the colour of the birth fluid
As well as that of the heifers milk (8)
None will I let the flinchers wear (9)

Koyiombo has plunged his foot into a hole
Where snakes and cobras reside
We heard his leg being chewed
And we said "May the ritual trees (10) die
Those of the house of Koyiombo's mother

Boy whether you flinch or not
We like it either way
No, no, we will not drink the smelly osaroi
Of the home where the boy has flinched

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.
8. Yellow.
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.

Song lyrics: Love song by Mopoi

When could thy praises be sung, Ololtibili?
For this scorching summer heat prevent it
They cannot be sung at midday
For then, the sun weakens the cattle
They cannot be sung at sunset
For the sun will set with the praises
Oh, when the sun gets to that point [pointing to the position of the sun about 9am]
Praises of he with the scarlet one will be sung

I developed admiration for you
Not at the drinking hall
I have stored the love of my love
Since I was just a little girl
I have stored it at the gall bladder
To nurture it day by day

I dare not store this precious love of my love
At the head, for the mind abounds with changes
It has edged between the fingers and the palm
As well as the spleen and the liver
The love of my love has gone down
To where the infants lie
I store it where the infants are carried
To keep it growing day by day.

He that detests my loving the warriors
Find one tough thing to do
Scrape the road with your buttocks
Until you have reached Nairobi
Put a hyena at the sheep pen
As well as the slim beast (cheetah)
If by the morning the sheep are safe
I will give up the brother of Talash
Then you can bleed the white-nosed one (donkey)
To purge me from the long-haired one

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.

Song lyrics: Enkipolosa war song (Ilmatapato, 1977)

Ole Siamito's colour is changing (1)
As he fails to lift the tough hides from the ground (2)
The shields of our large manyatta situated between ridges
Do struggle on my beloved
With thine arm strapped against thy side (4)
For thou art with the winning party

I call out loud at twilight as well as in the morn (4)
I the warrior with the black cloak
So that neither the heavens nor the earth can say
I am arrogant, for not calling out loud enough like the others

My answer is that I am not at all arrogant
But a humble being whose neck is weighed down by poverty
Poverty of a herd that barely numbers fifty
A herd that is despised by the girl who milks
As well as by the boy who herds
A herd that does not finish a mere foot of a tree
When it is lush with vegetation

I the warrior of the black cloak
Now require those of the weak owner
From foreign lands to boost my herd

Crow, crow who wears a white band
On the place where women wear coils
You have not just worn this band in our country
You wear a black cloak
But not just in our country
Tell me where those of the Siria are
Whose humps are like anthills
For we of the thin spears are dying for them

I call out at twilight as well as in the morn
I the warrior of the long thin spear
So that neither the heavens nor the earth should say
I am arrogant for not calling out loud enough like the others

I the warrior of the long thin spear
Am not at all arrogant
But a humble being whose neck is weighed down by poverty
Poverty of a herd that falls below fifty
A herd that is despised by the girl who milks
As well as by the boy who herds
A herd that does not finish a mere foot of a tree
when it is lush with vegetation

I the warrior of the black cloak
Now require those of the weak owner
From foreign lands to boost my herd

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.
2. Shields.
3. Hurt from the raid.
4. Song sung at evening and morning.

Song lyrics: A blessing

Now that we are seated, O God, let us be seated - Let it be (1)
When we eat food, those who ate and those who smelled, may it nurture us
May beer nurture the elders
Those who drank and those who smelled it
May it nurture them all
May it nurture the ladies
Make us bear on hides without holes (2)
God, make us elders
May the calves fin the pens
May the cattle fill the homesteads
May the children play at the hearth
Tell the fire to stay burning
Let it eat the ritual meats (3)

How about this child (4) who has come, make her not take flies from this land (5)
May the children greet her knees (6)
May she grow to be lucky
Be oreteti (7) tree with the spread out roots
May God bring you back
May you be one that people talk about
One that the Maasai talk of
One that other peoples talk of
May God hear the prayer of him who was the first man
Make us bear for each other
Make us produce in time of plenty
Make us produce in time of famine.

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.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography