Exploring the origins, organization, subject matter, and performance contexts of singers and singing, Women's Songs from West Africa expands our understanding of the world of women in West Africa and their complex and subtle roles as verbal artists. Covering Côte d'Ivoire, the Gambia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and beyond, the essays attest to the importance of women’s contributions to the most widespread form of verbal art in Africa.
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About the Author
Thomas A. Hale is Liberal Arts Professor of African, French, and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of Griots and Griottes (IUP, 2007) and editor (with Aissata G. Sidikou) of Women's Voices from West Africa: An Anthology of Songs from the Sahel (IUP, 2012).
Aissata G. Sidikou is Assistant Professor of French at the United States Naval Academy. She is author of Recreating Words, Reshaping Worlds: The Verbal Art of Women from Niger, Mali, and Senegal.
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Women's Songs from West Africa
By Thomas A. Hale, Aissata G. Sidikou
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2014 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Wolof Women Break the Taboo of Sex through Songs
One of the most important but often neglected subjects in the preparation of children for adulthood is sex education, a topic that seems to preoccupy parents in a variety of cultures around the world. In many African societies, sex education is more a collective activity than an individual parental duty, and the medium is song. The question is just how this ubiquitous genre can serve to inform youths about such a private topic. The example of Wolof society offers a variety of insights into how the community employs song for teaching about sex and sexuality.
In Wolof culture, sex education occurs during weddings, where one hears a variety of songs. One particular sub-ceremony within Wolof weddings is laabaan, reserved exclusively for women and conducted by them. The purpose is to celebrate the bride's virginity. Laabaan is the term both for the ceremony and for the genre of songs sung at this event.
For the researcher, however, even one who comes from Wolof society, the songs marking the laabaan ceremony are the most difficult not only to understand but also to record. In my case, although I began research on wedding songs in 1996, I did not record a single laabaan song or performance until 1998. My paternal aunts, who are performing guewel, the Wolof term for griots of both sexes, sang laabaan songs, but they refused to let me enter the space where these songs are sung because it is reserved exclusively for married or divorced women. The result was that I had to enlist the help of neenyo who were not family members and who were much younger than my aunts.
Before turning to the lyrics of the songs, it is important to explain the circumstances of the recordings. As an unmarried graduate student conducting research for a doctoral dissertation, I had to rely on someone my own age. Although I had attended several laabaan ceremonies in the past, including one with Adji Diara, I did not record those songs in the field because the public circumstances of the ceremonies were in general not conducive or appropriate to field recording. There was too much noise and movement during the event. Also, while the bride's friends are invited, they are asked to cover their ears because of the sexual nature of the songs. These conditions differ markedly from those in which epics are often recorded. In many cases, the epics are recorded in private venues such as the home of the performer. Although I did manage to record some songs in poor audio conditions at public events for the corpus collected for the women's songs project, I was most interested in those sung by Adji Diara because they were the most poignant. That is why I asked her to sing them again for me in a private context.
The 1998 recording of songs by the neenyo took place at my apartment in Dakar. Both of the singers were, like me, in their twenties. Although they felt at ease in discussions with me about sex, they insisted that the door of the apartment be closed because they did not want other people to attend the performance.
In the case of songs analyzed here, three women—Adji Diara as well as two neenyo from Dakar, Amy Thiam and Khady Thiam—allowed me to make my first recordings. I was introduced to these neenyo by one of my neighbors in Medina, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dakar.
Once I had recorded songs from them, I was able to interview my mother (Diouf 2003a and 2003b), who gave me other laabaan songs and sayings. But our interaction illustrates the delicate nature of the subject. I should explain that we conducted these conversations on the phone, she in Senegal and I in the United States, thus creating some distance between the two of us. She would not have been comfortable with me in a discussion face-to-face in our home, where we had never had a conversation about sex. She was amazed, in fact, that I was interested in this subject and that I came all the way from the United States to conduct research on it.
During the phone interview, she emphasized to me the importance of virginity for a woman. She told me that nowadays women tend to believe that virginity is not important for the success of their marriage. But she said that men still want their brides to be virgins even though they say otherwise (Diouf 2003b). In her view, despite the Senegalese claim that some practices have been abandoned and that rituals such as the virginity test are now viewed as outmoded activities from the past, men still want virgin brides even if they do not say so openly.
Laabaan songs are traditionally performed by neenyo today, but women from other social groups can also sing them. As mistress of the ceremony, the family griotte is the one who most often leads the laabaan ceremony. However, any other griotte can also attend and make her contribution. They receive presents and money during and at the end of the ceremony. Other women can take part by giving testimonies or contributing to the singing, or by sharing their sexual tips.
Like the other sub-ceremonies of the wedding, laabaan constitutes a space for women's expression. However, I find it the most ambiguous site for the negotiation of power. The songs are sexually charged and speak mainly to the necessity for young women to remain virgins until marriage. Their messages do not seem to contest the sexualization and commodification of the female body. However, if one examines the lyrics more closely, the messages clearly show a break from the stereotypical silencing of African women. Laabaan ceremonies provide a place for Wolof women to transgress both Islamic and traditional modes of speech that advise "good women" not to use "bad" language. Laabaan songs also help listeners understand society's perception of the female body and its gender biases toward sex and sexuality.
VIRGINITY TEST: ALIEN OR INDIGENOUS?
Virginity is a subject that is central to the laabaan ceremony. As in many patriarchal societies, virginity was once a prerequisite for marriage for Wolof women. Although the tradition continues today, it appears that fewer women are virgins when they marry.
A ceremony is organized as part of the many other events that mark the wedding. The purpose is to highlight the abstinence of the bride and to celebrate her purity. It is not clear whether the Wolof conducted a virginity test before the arrival of Islam and European colonization, but some people claim that in any case the practice is alien to the culture. Writing about ancient African cultures, Kandji and Camara note:
Although promiscuity is not condoned, fulfilled sexuality is not a taboo. The only prohibitions that exist pertain to kinship relations (against incest) or to marriage (against adultery). One is free to live in cohabitation, or wait until one has one or several children before getting married. (2000, 42–43)
Whether this statement is valid for the Wolof or not, it is clear that there is no mention of the practice of a virginity test among the Wolof in the numerous documents written by travel writers and missionaries, European or African, such as the Abbé Boilat and others. However, there are stories about virgins being used for sacrifice or compensation to heroes in many legends and myths. But even these stories do not clarify the difference between a virgin and a woman who has never been married, because the Wolof used the same term, janx, for a virgin and for a young woman who is not married. One is then tempted to say that these sacrifices were based more on maidenhood than on virginity.
It is unclear whether the Wolof adopted virginity checks from European or Arab cultures, as it appears that both practiced them at one time or another. However, most of the activities and beliefs surrounding the Wolof practice of verifying that the bride is a virgin are similar to those occurring in some contemporary Middle Eastern societies. For instance, my mother reported to me that in the past, women who were not virgins at marriage were shot by their male relatives. Writing about a bride who failed to be a virgin in traditional Moroccan society, Combs-Schilling notes:
The groom himself does not kill her, for she is not his blood, not his responsibility, but rather hands the sullied bride over to a man whose blood she shares, her father or her brother, one of whom kills her on that very night. (Combs-Schilling 1989, 208)
This is the case in the very popular Wolof tale of Khandiou and Ndaté. On her wedding day, Khandiou, who was not a virgin, faced the possibility of being shot by her father. She confided in her best friend Ndaté, who, at night, took her place in the marital bed and saved her from death and disgrace. Because she sacrificed her honor in the name of friendship, Ndaté was given a new hymen by a spirit. While this story is more about friendship than virginity, it echoes the practice of honor killing still practiced in some Arab societies.
Another similarity with the view in many parts of the Islamic world is that female sexuality appears as very powerful, and the perception is that men's vulnerability to it can corrupt society. To protect men and society as a whole from sin and promiscuity, the female body needs to be controlled. This explains the veiling of women in many Muslim societies (Mernissi 1987, 3). Needless to say, by converting to Islam the Wolof adopted many practices of the religion and its adherents. Although the Wolof do not require women to be veiled, women are advised to cover their bodies in order not to tempt men. This ideology provides support for the tradition of genital cutting or surgery, and the sewing up of women's genitals, a practice carried out today in some Arab societies. The concept of protecting men and blaming the female for non-marital sex is a predominant pattern in contemporary Wolof culture.
Another Islamic influence lies in the word laabaan, which signifies "purifying" or "cleansing." In Islamic tradition, one is supposed to have a purifying bath after the sexual act, but it is not clear whether that view explains the practice. It may also be that the hymen is a symbol of innocence and that the bride is washed in order to celebrate her entrance into adulthood. Certain Wolof also refer to the ceremony as "laundry." The bride "cleans" the sheets she and her husband slept in the night before. She does not physically wash them because her mother is supposed to keep them as proof of her daughter's chastity. The symbolic cleaning is a ceremony where the groom gives a present to express his satisfaction. The bride organizes a party with her friends during which they wash some other clothes. The "cleaning" marks the bride's second step into adulthood, the first being when she menstruated for the first time. That monthly experience is also called "laundry."
I should stress that many practices associated with Islam are aspects of Arabic culture that predated the religion. In fact, in one of our interviews, my mother explained that Islam is against the publicity surrounding the virginity of the bride. In the past, the sheets were exhibited for everyone to see. Even though Islam expects both men and women to be virgins at marriage, as sex is only allowed within matrimony, the virginity test is mentioned neither in the Qur'an nor in the Hadith.
Whether the laabaan ceremony is alien or not, it has been practiced for generations. Although it is vanishing today, its existence underscores the importance given to sexuality in Wolof culture.
THE LAABAN CEREMONY AND THE FIGHT FOR ITS SURVIVAL
The following verses are accompanied by seven drumbeats played early in the morning to let people know that a bride is a virgin:
Whoever does not know Mbaar
The drummers accompany these verses to announce the good news to the neighborhood and prepare for the laabaan. In many cases, the drummers already know that the bride was "given" to her husband the night before. Hence, they are ready the next morning. Wherever women are, they rush to finish their chores and head to the bride's house. Most arrive with praises and congratulations to the mother.
Laabaan is a ceremony organized by women for women. It provides the bride, her friends, and any other sexually active woman who is present with very important sexual education grounded in the culture. It can take place at the bride's parents' home or at the bride's new home the morning after she joins her husband, depending on where they sleep together for the first time. Most often, it happens at the bride's home. Because they cannot accompany their married daughter to her new home, most mothers want to be present when she goes through her first sexual experience. In many cases, the family of the bride is informed that the groom wants to "take his wife." The "taking" is often permitted only when the groom has fulfilled all the clauses of the bridewealth transaction. In cases when he has not met all financial requirements, the bride's family is often hesitant to allow him to be alone with her for fear the couple may elope and not go through the ritual. This implies that the bride's family uses her virginity in order to "force" the groom to honor his financial responsibility. Otherwise, it may appear that the groom is only interested in sex.
The bride is prepared for her first sexual experience by her female family members. Men are almost never involved. The preparation for the night is led by the baajan, the bride's paternal aunt. She embarks on her task several days before by interrogating the bride to ascertain whether or not she is a virgin. If she is not, measures are taken by the women to fake the virginity or avoid the test.
On her nuptial night, the bride takes a ritual bath that combines Islamic and Wolof pre-Islamic practices. The young woman is bathed in herbs and waters prepared by local healers to cast away the evil eye. It is believed that virgin women are the targets of evil spirits because of their purity and innocence. While she is being bathed, some other paternal aunts make the bed. They burn incense in the room and spread a white cloth on the sheets to make sure that the stains from the hymen can be more visible. They also bless the room to make sure that their niece emerges from this experience with her head high. When all this has been done, the groom discretely enters the room to await his wife.
After the bath, the bride is dressed in a white wrap and is taken into the bedroom by the aunt, with the griotte behind her singing her praises. The aunt asks the bride to lie on her right hand and officially hands her to the groom by saying "here is your wife." After that, she leaves the room. My mother noted that in many cases, the aunt and the griotte sleep on a mat outside the room, out of concern about the outcome as well as because they are supposed to be the first to know the results of the intercourse at dawn. Early in the morning, the groom comes out and delivers the results. If the bride was a virgin, he tells the aunt that he is "happy." As soon as he says that, both the aunt and the griotte rush into the bedroom screaming and whistling, thus alerting the rest of the family and the neighborhood. They start praising the bride for meeting their expectations and honoring the family. The following words taken from one of the songs are often uttered.
You have done your share, you are innocent
The path that grandmother took,
Mother took, you have taken
May adulthood bring you luck.
Often, the groom leaves a considerable amount of money under the pillow to signify his satisfaction. That money, called ngegenaay (pillow), is distributed among the griottes and the bride's "slaves."
The sexual education of the bride begins at the very moment her aunt and the griotte enter the room. She is now considered a woman and is treated as one. The aunt asks her to sit up and spread her legs apart. The Wolof assume that after the first sexual experience, blood remains in the woman's organ and that if she sits up for a while, it will come out. The aunt then covers her with the most expensive handwoven cloth while the griotte continues to sing her praises.
The laabaan starts at dawn and lasts almost all day. Neighbors and friends learn about the event from the sounds of the drums as well as from the screaming and praising by griottes. The bride's friends who are still single are also invited to attend in order to learn from their friend's achievement. But they are asked to cover their ears or leave when what are viewed as obscene things are being said or discussed. They are also the pupils whom the griottes and other women target for their lessons on sex and the importance of remaining a virgin.
Excerpted from Women's Songs from West Africa by Thomas A. Hale, Aissata G. Sidikou. Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Women’s Songs and Singing in West Africa: New Perspectives
Thomas A. Hale and Aissata G. Sidikou
1. Wolof Women Break the Taboo of Sex through Songs
2. Jola Kanyalen Songs from the Casamance, Sengeal: From ‘Tradition’ to Globalization Kirsten Langeveld
3. Azna Deities in the Songs of Taguimba Bouzou: A Window on the Visible and Invisible
4. Initiation and Funeral Songs from the Guro of Côte d'Ivoire
5. Praises Performances by Jalimusolu in The Gambia
6. Music about Feminine Modernity in the Sahara
7. Songs by Wolof Women
8. A Heroic Performance by Siramori Diabate of Mali
Brahima Camara and Jan Jansen
9. Women’s Tattooing Songs from Kajoor, Senegal
10. Drummed Poems by Songhay-Zarma Women of Niger
11. Space, Language, and Identity in the Palm Tree
Aissata G. Sidikou
12. Bambara Women’s Songs in Southern Mali
13. Patriarchy in Songs and Poetry by Zarma Women
14. Muslim Hausa Women’s Songs
Beverly B. Mack
15. Lamentation and Politics in the Sahelian Song
Thomas A. Hale
16. Transformations in Tuareg Tende Singing: Women’s Voices and Local Feminisms
Susan J. Rasmussen
17. Income Strategies of a Jelimuso in Mali and France
List of Contributors
What People are Saying About This
These essays affirm the importance of women performers and the importance of the songs in articulating women's issues in the Sahel region of Africa today.