Rendille - Music and Dance


Apologies for this one, but the problem is that I've found next to nothing about Rendille music anywhere. The two recordings currently online (in "sound clips" to the left of your screen) were part of a cassette I copied in Loiyangalani, on the east shore of Lake Turkana. The tape, which had been privately-recorded, also contained songs and dances from the neighbouring Turkana and Borana tribes. I presume that the recordings were made in the vicinity of Lake Turkana (which for the Rendille would reasonably be up to 80km distant), especially given that the Borana recordings on the same tape were made at Gas, 70km away. My informants were certain that the two tracks presented here were from the Rendille.
   The tracks feature a kind of guitar, which in sound is uncannily similar to that of other "Southern Cushitic" tribes, namely the Borana and Orma, and also the Samburu, whose guitar playing has undoubtedly been influenced by their neighbours. What's strange is that that Rendille, as a nomadic society, traditionally did not use instruments. However, if things have changed as much as they have for the Borana, there is a possibility that the guitar is "indigenous" to the Rendille. This idea is supported by the sophisticated culture of Rendille pottery, which typically involves cocooning finished pots and vessels in decoratively woven plant fibres to help insulate whatever's inside - milk, blood or water. The Rendille could easily, therefore, have made clay resonators for their own guitars. However, as Rendille society has disintegrated more rapidly than the Borana, the Rendille living in the new permanent settlements like Kargi, Korr and Loiyangalani are much more open to outside influences, and so the Borana may well have introduced the guitar to the Rendille.

Enough about the guitar. The following information about wedding dances comes first-hand from Wade Davis' account in the August 1999 issue of National Geographic, and there seems little doubt from his description that, certainly among the cattle-herding Ariaal, music and dance is very similar to that of the Samburu. I've rephrased his words slightly to preserve continuity:

Voices ring out across rain-washed hills as Ariaal women make their way to a wedding: Meirita ngai nkeera ang! - "God bless our children!", they sing.
   Warriors and beaded girls prepare for the wedding by applying a make-up of red ochre and sheep fat. Tall and thin, the warriors wear their long hair woven in tight braids dyed red with ochre and fat, and their bodies shine with decoration. In contrast to their festive mood, the newly circumcised bride spends much of the celebration in her mother's hut in the company of her best friend. The bride's mother receives the blessing of the elders: a drop of oil from the ox slaughtered for the event.
   The warriors are singing deep resonant chants that draw the young girls, equally beautiful in beads and ochre, into the clearing. As the warriors move forward, slapping the girls with their hair and dancing into the air, their spears flash in the moonlight. They leap as high, and as rhythmically, as they can. All carry weapons, swords sheathed in leather, wooden clubs, iron spears, and the odd assault rifle.
   The singing and dancing last well into the night. With the end of the rains, grass is abundant and milk plentiful. It is a time of great joy, a season of celebrations, and almost every day there is a wedding...
   Sunrise finds us in a cool mist, walking with Sekwa Lesuyai and his best man as they lead a bull and eight heifers along a trail that climbs toward the home of his bride, Nantalian Lenure. All night the two men have slept beside the animals, guarding the gifts that will secure the marriage. The bride's mother washes the men's feet with milk. The bull is slaughtered, its meat distributed with ritual precision. The elders brew tea and then slip away from the manyatta into the bush to roast and eat their share of the meat. The women stay by Nantalian. "God is big," they sing, "big as a mountain; the bride is beautiful, sweet as perfume." Only in the late afternoon do the warriors arrive, to resume their dancing with an intensity that drives several into a trance.


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