Traditionnal Iraqw songs

The Iraqw live in North Central Tanzania on a high plateau between Lake Manyara and Lake Eyasi. They number about half a million and speak a Cushitic language. Their neighbours speak completely different languages: the Mbugwe and Nyiramba speak Bantu languages, the Datooga a Nilotic language and the Hadza an unclassified click language. The area is also characterised with a great variety of economic lifestyles. The Iraqw are farmers and keep cattle, like the Mbugwe and Nyiramba, the Datooga and Maasai are nomadic cattle herders and the Hadza are traditional hunters and gatherers. For centuries these cultures have influenced each other while keeping their own qualities.

Songs in Society
Singing is part of Iraqw life in many situations. In bars one can often here singing. New songs are made to remember current and past situations. Songs are important instruments to store Iraqw history. Songs refer to events, common events as in song seven or historic events, big and small, as in the first song and song 10. But the songs do not tell the story explicitly. The unconnected lines only make reference to the events, as do the names. People are thereby reminded of those events, as long as they are still remembered. As a consequence, lines can be repeated or sung in different orders.

In the house you will hear singing by women, for example when they are grinding the maize or millet on the grinding stone. Work on the land is often supported by singing (songs 3 and 4), and also other communal hard jobs such as the transport of a heavy grinding stone to the house. After a communal job, people will party to celebrate the job done. During these occasions all kinds of cultural expression can be enjoyed. The famous impressive slufay poetry may be performed (Beck & Mous 2014). Or the poets will engage in an improvised girayda duel, after which the women sing ayla or sibeeli (song 9) that has a similar structure of improvised exchanges between alternating main singers and the audience joining in a refrain. At parties, and especially weddings (song 5), people dance on songs. Men with their sticks and women jump forward in rows, or form a circle. In the poetry, songs, and dances there are those that are typical for men and those for women but these divisions never exclude the other sex. 

Iraqw Music
During larger festivities there may be some drumming. It is the young girls who drum. They do so by sitting on their knees on a mortar that lays on the side on the ground. They stretch their leather skirt with their knees, and beat with improvised sticks using the mortar as sounding board. Traditionally there are no other instruments among the Iraqw. People use clapping and their bangles for rhythm. Obviously modern times have brought musical instruments which are often used in church. Popular singers use the seze to make their own Iraqw songs and Safari Ingi has produced a CD with these.

In addition to more or less fixed songs, there are genres of improvised singing. The text of the fixed songs is not strict in terms of the order of the lines. Every song has its chorus after every line which consists entirely or partly of vocables, nice sounding syllables which do not represent words in the language, for example, hiyohayohee. Interestingly, this is different for every song. So, by singing the chorus, people know which song is meant, its melody and rhythm. Hence songs can be characterised and identified after these chorus lines. There is no other traditional way of naming songs. The same structure applies to improvised exchanges. This structure is present as well in most verbal art of the Iraqw. Songs without a chorus do exist in stories, though. Many folk tales have one or more short songs, sometimes only consisting of two or three lines and often containing mesmerizing nonsense words. Children songs and lullabies lack a chorus too.
ima daangw pays 142
Iraqw houses in Kwemusl

CD tracks

  1. Saygilo  (recorded in Gehandu, 1987) 
    This song is very popular among the Iraqw and refers to Saygilo, a well-known diviner, healer, rainmaker and leader who lived in the second half of the 19th century. All groups in Northern Tanzania refer to him. He travelled among many different ethnic groups himself being of Datooga origin. The song talks about the competition between two strong spiritual leaders: Beea and Saygilo. They are both widely known as powerful rich men with very strong medicine; both are also famous rainmakers. Beea lives in the mountainous area where there is plenty of rain. Beea has drawn an imaginary line using his medicine, a boundary for the rain. This way, he wants to keep the rain to himself. Saygilo is not impressed and predicts that the maize in his area will grow on wind. And that is what happened. The harvest in Saygilo’s area was larger than ever, only the maize remained short, short enough for the chickens to harvest it. From German sources we learn that the first colonial powers had more to do with the sons of these two mighty men. Gidamowsa, Saygilo’s son was hung by the Germans when he refused to pay tax. The Germans chose him as an example to the others.

  2. Bumbunaysa  (Kwermusl, 2016)
    This is a very popular song to thank the girls who drew the water from the well or the pit to prepare the beer that is drunk at the party where the song is performed. 

  3. Dooslee  (Mbulu, 1987)
    This working song for digging is sung by the brothers John and De’eema Qamlali from Gehandu. The song is typically sung by girls when they are sowing. The repeated chorus is
    o yaayoo dooslee “o yaayoo let us work on the land”. The song talks about the time of the dark moonless night (party time); the mother spider (symbol of fertility and of God); the children coming from the river where they swam and where the cattle drinks; about the last room in the house where the cat resides; about the sparrow bird jumping in the morning. 

  4. Gorimoko  (Mbulu, 1987) 
    The song is sung by the brothers Qamlali; it is a working song to help when plowing the fields with a hoe. It talks about a Gorwaa person, Gorimo, which is a neighbouring group closely related to the Iraqw. The song mentions a girl that is to be married.

  5. Daangw duuxo  (Kwermusl, 2023)
    Women love to sing together and this song is from the repertoire for traditional weddings. The song is about the bride to be, Laanta, and about the boys of the neighbourhood who tease her.

  6. Piindo  (Kwermusl, 2016) 
    Children sing this song when chasing out the people from the house
    (piindo means door) at the end of the event when the new-born receives a name. 

  7. Majuma  (Mbulu, 1987) 
    This song is sung by the two brothers John and De’eema Qamlali. The song is about Tatu and how a foolish woman can bear sons like lions; men who become important figures in society. The song was about Majuma doo Qwaray. Mockingly the song tells about him baptizing people and refers to his activities as a traditional doctor and the blessing that he gave. Then there is a line about how he turns at the head of a ram. The next line clarifies. It is about riding a
    pikipiki, a motorcycle. The steering wheel is compared to the horns of a ram. Next we hear about a woman; it is not completely clear if it refers to his wife or his daughter, but she is named Sale, and Sale was a bit crazy, mentally disturbed. But, and now comes the message of the song, she gave birth to lions. The singer refers to sons. A woman may be a bit crazy but that does take away the fact that she can still bear you children and sons to continue the family. Moreover, these children can be very capable as is evidenced by one of Sale’s sons who became the secretary of Endabesh village.

  8. Sanya  (Kwermusl, 2016)  
    Sanya was recorded at the same occasion as track two.

  9. Sibeeli  (Kwermusl, 2016) 
    This song is of the
    sibeeli genre. The repeated line is bumbanaysaya which is also used to refer to the song. The singers entice us to listen to the sound as of a growling lion that all singers make together and mentions the girls with long hair and the people going around together.

  10. Slaqwaruse  (Mbulu, 1987)
    The song, called
    slaqwarusee ‘soldiers’, is sung by John Qamlalay. It recounts the events of the second world war through the eyes of the Iraqw men who were conscribed and sent to Egypt, Ethiopia and Burma (current Myanmar) and how they mourn the ones that did not return. The song starts with Dodo. Dodo was then the chief of the Gorwa. The Gorwa are related to the Iraqw, much smaller in number and their southern neighbours. Dodo assisted the English in recruiting soldiers for the war. The song tells us how they ended up on a ship to arrive in Burma in the night, at the first crow of the cock. The soldiers return back home on the day of Maria, probably August 15, a day of drizzle and of the cattle market in Geendi. Dodo is cursed because so many men did not return. The song expresses sympathy with the well-known fathers such as Beea and Akonaay who lost sons in the war. But Bura returned. Bura was forced to become a soldier because he had not paid his taxes. The men staying behind were forced to work on the sunflower plantations of the Europeans. The song mentions one of them: Gopan. Thus, the song primarily mentions names: Dodo, Misri ‘Egypt’, Bama (Myanmar), and Beea, Akonaay, Bura, and finally Gopan.

  11. Mado  (Bashay, 1987) 
    The song starts with Mado, the daughter of Aamí, and mentions a ram to be collected from the West. They were preparing songs to perform at an upcoming national holiday,
    saba-saba, 7th of July. 

  12. Ama Irmí  (Kwermusl, 2022)
    This is one those songs that we encounter in folk-tales. Ama Irmí is arguably one of the most popular stories among the Iraqw. She is a kind of a monster who eats the whole population but is finally defeated when life can start again. It was sung by Josephina Maaqa, one of the best story tellers of Kwermusl.

  13. Kabay  (Kwermusl, 1987)
    This song (every line ends in
    kabay ‘it is said’) is sung by the traditional doctor and diviner Gajeet Naman from Muray. It recounts events in the local history of the villages in this area. He mentions the bulls of Bifa Tarmo with the pointing horns, and the bulls of the Mbugwe tribe. The song mentions many other historical figures such as Boo/oo Qamara Saxara, Daafáy Tarmo, Tlatlaa Daafáy Daqaro, and talks about the protecting mountain Guwang near the main town of Mbulu, and Mt. Kitoláy.