Review | Women’s Songs from West Africa & Women’s Voices from West Africa: An Anthology of Songs from the Sahel Edited by Aissata G. Sidikou and Thomas A. Hale

Women’s Songs from West Africa. Edited by Aissata G. Sidikou and Thomas A. Hale. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. [341 p., ISBN, 978-0-253-01017-9, Cloth: $50.00; ISBN 978-0-253-01021-6, ebook $34.39].

Women’s Voices from West Africa: An Anthology of Songs from the Sahel. Edited by Aissata G. Sidikou and Thomas A. Hale. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. [160 p., ISBN, 978-0-2533-5670-3, Cloth: $34.95].

Reviewed by Katharine Stuffelbeam / University of California, Los Angeles

African women, as an abstract homogeneous group, in the collective unconscious seem to inhabit the realm of oppressed, marginalized, voiceless, individuals struggling to raise their children amidst devastating environmental, political, and economic disasters. While these unfortunate impressions may be a reality for thousands of women in the South Sudan, for example, many African women enjoy lives of stability, relative prosperity, and have a platform to express agency and power through songs. As a scholar of Women’s songs in northern Ghana among the Dagbamba, I have witnessed groups of women coming together to joyfully sing, joke, reminisce; Through singing, Dagbamba women produce social commentary, support each other, and express thoughts and ideas about their lived experiences. This is not unique to the Dagbamba, women across West Africa engage in song traditions that provide a much needed platform for women to have a voice in the community.

Women’s Songs from West Africa, is an essay collection based on the proceedings of a conference held at Princeton University with the same name, held in May 2003, which represented the midpoint of large research project (also of the same name) funded by a Collaborative Research Grant from the United States National Endowment for the Humanities that ran from 2001 to 2007 (2012:xii). The study was directed by the co-editors Thomas Hale and Aissata Sidikou (2014:50).[1] The NEH grant funded research that produced not only the conference and essay collection, but a companion volume (mentioned above) in the form of a song anthology (Sidikou and Hale 2012). This review focuses on the second volume (2014), but offers comments on connected material presented in the anthology (2012). It is important to include both books here, since the co-editors/co-authors intended them to be connected volumes: “The two books are complementary, with the anthology providing a broad sampling of lyrics for regional comparisons and the essays offering deeper background on particular song traditions” (2012:xii). On the macro level, both of these texts represent a collaborative coalescence of work completed over the past several decades primarily by linguists, historians, and anthropologists, rather than musicologists or ethnomusicologists.

Thomas A. Hale and Aissata Sidikou are both scholars of French literature and language. While Hale’s degrees are in French literature (B.A. ’64, M.A. ’68, Ph.D.’74), his illustrious career shows a deep dedication to African studies, comparative (African) literature, and African history, with a particular interest in epics and songs. He is currently the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Aissata Sidikou, Hale’s former student and a native of Niger, earned her B.A. and M.A. from the Université de Niamey, Niger, and in 1997 her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State.[2] Like Hale, Sidikou is particularly dedicated to the study of oral traditions, orality, as African literature.

As a scholar deeply invested in the subject matter, it is encouraging to find a publication of this kind since women’s music in Africa, and more specifically in West Africa, has been receiving increasing interest from scholars across various fields for decades now. In fact, much of the song research included in these two books date from the 1980s and 1990s (2014:1), while others were funded by the NEH grant during the early 2000s.

The song anthology, Women’s Voices from West Africa, is organized thematically and includes an introduction and four chapters: (1) Marriage, (2) Children, (3) Women in Society, and (4) Death. At the end of the text the editors have included a selection of English translations of songs (2012:119-126), although English translations of various lengths are also included throughout the text. The introduction provides an invaluable overview of the women’s song tradition in Africa. It includes a historical context, and traces women’s songs as a literary form beginning as early as ancient Egypt, as well as explaining the overall approach of the text as a whole. The text is regionally focused on the Sahel, topically organized by looking at the various subjects of women’s songs, and culturally grounded by showing the variety of roles that songs play as they can be a source of women’s power, action, verbal art, and provide a platform for engaging in public discourse:

 "As a form of discourse, songs can provide or construct models for action and thought in the communities where they are heard. The medium is not limited to professional singers–any woman can sing, and her songs may serve as verbal spaces where taboos can be attacked; thought processes contrasted; feelings expressed, exposed, and filtered; stereotypes emphasized or rejected; and selves constructed or shattered" (Sidikou & Hale eds. 2012:7).

This informative introduction highlights the theme of unity and diversity, found in much African music scholarship, especially those that take a broader regional or comparative approach. Many generalized insights are drawn from the diverse scope of the research collected in this anthology. In this way, the introduction is a kind of overview, and concise resource for scholars interested in the contribution of women’s songs to African literary, historical, musical and oral culture. I urge everyone to read these thirty-four pages, in fact, they are cited often in the Women’s Songs. The four subsequent chapters look at each theme by highlighting song examples from particular studies, grouped by these major life themes. Sidikou and Hale also summarize and highlight the main cultural points extrapolated from the song collections.

Similarly, the introduction to Women’s Songs from West Africa, although brief, offers a powerful and concise basis for the essay collection. The subsequent seventeen essays each focus on women’s songs from different cultural groups in the Sahel, namely from Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, and Nigeria. Most researchers conducted their fieldwork in the late 1990s and early 2000s, although some essays are based on field work beginning as early as the 1950s and as recent as 2007 or so. Since the collection is based on conference proceedings, some of the essays are very concise. The following will briefly describe each contribution. The first essay “1 ~ Wolof Women Break the Taboo of Sex through Songs,” by Marame Gueye, an English professor from Senegal, discusses sexuality in Wolof culture in great detail (9-33). Gueye describes how cultural norms around marriage, sexuality, virginity, and sex education are all taught through women’s songs. Issues surrounding premarital sex, virginity norms, abstinence, gender bias, cultural taboos are all discussed in a frank and open manner throughout the essay. Singing laabaan songs provide a space where Wolof women are able to discuss and address sexual issues in a patriarchal, islamized society: “laabaan performers have become agents of female resistance against religious patriarchy” (31).

The second essay “2 ~ Jola Kanyalen Songs from the Casamance, Senegal: From ‘Tradition’ to Globalization,” by Kirsten Langeveld (a Dutch policy analyst), focuses on the Kanyalen ritual and its transformative power in Jola society. Globalization is also discussed in terms of how Western culture has influenced and changed aspects of women’s groups, their appearance, patronage, and their songs. Like most authors in this collection, Langeveld shows how women’s songs address aspects of culture and life that cannot otherwise be openly discussed. Additionally, songs are filled with metaphor, double meanings, ambiguity, inversions, and other devices that can make interpretation difficult (35). Much of Langeveld’s essay focuses on how women’s status changes through participating in the kanyalen ritual, she becomes an anyalena (a woman who has undergone the ritual) and sings her own songs (35-49).

“3 ~ Azna Deities in the Songs of Taguimba Bouzou: A Window on the Visible and Invisible,” by Boubé Namaïwa a philosophy professor in Dakar, focuses on a famous singer from Niger named Taguimba Bouzou, her singing and dancing, the bori cult and bori spirit pantheon of the Azna people from Niger (53-78). This piece offers a close examination of how the spirit world, as depicted through songs, inform and influence Azna culture. The essay includes comparative analyses of the spirit pantheon, since so many cultures share in their belief of this complex system. Namaïwa includes various English translations of Bouzou’s song texts, as well as a description of the Hausa and Songhaï spirit pantheons, and the hierarchy and organization of hundreds of divinities (59-69; 74-77). The author also includes an appendix with charts to aid in the reader’s understanding of the complex relational structures of the spirit world (74-77). Parallels between the spirit world and “the world of the living” abound; Namaïwa argues that this spirit world creates a kind of archive of history, especially through the period of French colonization (72). Namaïwa highlights the fact that while the famous Taguimba Bouzou “may appear at first as an exception to the belief that women have no voice in African societies,” in fact it is women who sing most skillfully about the spirit world in Niger (73). As other authors argue, the examples presented here may seem like exceptions, women’s songs provide a forum for women to have a public voice in society.

“4 ~ Initiation and Funeral Songs from the Guro of Côte d’Iviore,” by the late anthropologist Ariane Deluz (1931-2010), is based on a lifetime of experience in the area that began in 1958 and continued through the 1980s. Deluz includes personal field notes, as well as expertly crafted thick description (79-87). The essay centers on women’s songs sung during initiation rites and funerals, although some of the songs may be sung at other occasions as well (80). Deluz argues that the songs show the complex role of women in Guro society, and offer a freedom of expression that contradicts the commonly held perception of African women as “voiceless servants in male-dominated societies” (80). Deluz discusses a variety of topics concerning women’s songs, including: women’s status, cultural change through the years, masked secret societies, rituals, death, the diversity of themes in women’s songs, double-meaning and metaphor in song lyrics, and more. The author closes by lamenting that many of these women’s songs may be disappearing, but that some of the songs were captured on film (87).

“5 ~ Praise Performances by Jalimusolu in the Gambia,” by Marloes Janson, focuses on the Mandinka female griottes (jalimusolu) in the Gambia. Janson uses two case studies to look at women’s roles in society and their relationship to their male counterparts (88-111). She examines jalimusolu performance practices as an organizing principle, comparing voluntary performance with commissioned performances by patrons (91-107). Janson concludes that gender dynamics have been changing slowly over time, and one manifestation of this is seen in the erosion of the patronage system, coupled with the necessity for women to earn money on a daily basis. This has led to more praise singing in markets and the like where women can earn petty cash to help with daily expenses (107-108).

“6 ~ Saharan Music: About a Feminine Modernity,” by Aline Tauzin (a francophone researcher of Mauritania), discusses women’s song and their roles in complex Mauritanian society and culture (112-123). Similar to other Arab cultures, poetry is sung to specific modes and rhythms, and in contemporary society with increasing influence from Egyptian media and other influences, these traditional performance practices are becoming less popular (121-122).[3] Tauzin argues that there has been a “feminization of music in the contemporary period” (115), with women singers becoming more popular than men.

“7 ~ Songs by Wolof Women,” by Luciana Penna-Diaw, presents an extremely clear, thorough, concise, and informative survey of Wolof women’s songs and culture. She begins by expertly situating the study, highlighting the primary importance of women singers and musicians, then contextualizes the study by discussing Wolof culture and society (124-126). Penna-Diaw continues systematically through the essay examining musical practice and society, “organization of the Wolof musical heritage,” when music is performed, instruments, songs, and so on. Throughout her comparative analysis of three different regions, a theme of similarities and differences (or unity and diversity) emerges. The author argues that while there are regional similarities in performance contexts, there are many differences as well (131-132).

“8 ~ A Heroic Performance by Siramori Diabaté in Mali,” by Brahima Camara and Jan Jansen, examines male and female griots (jelikèw male, and jelimusow female) and the similarities and differences of their performances of epics. Specifically the authors look at the well documented music of celebrated Malian jelimusow Siramori Diabaté. Men have generally been the only performers of the epic, while women are said to “add songs to the performance” (137). The authors ask whether women in fact perform epics in Mande culture, and ask whether the “lines between the sexes can be drawn so strictly” (137-139). Much of the essay is an English translation of a song that includes portions of the Sunjata epic (139-144), as well as an analysis of said text (144-146). With such a brief article, and rather limited source material for analysis, the resultant conclusion asks more questions than it answers. Camara and Jansen call for more research on griottes in order to begin to better understand the richness of their craft (146).

“9 ~ Women’s Tattooing Songs from Kajoor, Senegal,” by George Joseph (a professor of French), explores the practice of female tattooing and how tattooing songs function in Wolof culture. Research for this project began in 1973, and continued in 2002. The article is primarily based on research partially funded by the NEH project directed by Hale, in 2002, which included recordings of nine tattooing songs and interviews with singers (152). Joseph discusses parallels between male and female initiation rituals and ceremonies, cultural ideas around bravery, pain, and courage (154-157). The author argues that women who withstand the painful process of being tattooed aided by tattooing songs to help distract from the intense pain, are said to have courage and be worthy (157). Joseph writes: “this anesthetic of pain is based on a patriarchal esthetics of courage [...] The songs quiet a woman’s pain without voicing what is specific to her potential for bravery–that may be seen, for example, while giving birth” (157-158). It seems that given the rich source material, further study of gender issues around such practices across the Sahel is needed (158).

“10 ~ Drummed Poems by Songhay-Zarma Women of Niger,” by Fatima Mounkaïla (a professor of comparative literature), discusses a highly restrained culture in Niger where “oral art [...] offers the only medium for people, and especially women, to openly compose and express feelings” (160). Rather than field research, this article is based primarily on secondary sources written and recorded from 1972, 2003, and 2005 (161). Mounkaïla centers her study on zamu poems that tend to be concise forms of critique (161-162). These poems are part of children’s education, they can be voiced or drummed, and “contribute to the shaping of heroes representing the social ideal” (161). At the same time the author argues that zamu are “doubly marginalized, first as non-professional texts and second as verbal forms by women” (162).[4] This powerful and significant article closes with a declaration of Songhay-Zarma women’s power and voice, in both private and public spaces, through their composition and participation in zamu (190).

“11 ~ Space, Language, and Identity in the Palm Tree,” by Aissata G. Sidikou (a professor of French), analyses a single English translation of a song text to discuss space, language, and how these themes contribute to women’s identity formation (192). The six-page article (192-197), focuses on a detailed textual, literary analysis and offers very little ethnographic information such as who sang the song, where the singer was from, where the performance took place, or the performance context. The song was originally published in French in 1990 by Pascal Baba Couloubaly, and again in Sidikou’s own text in 2001. Sidikou contextualizes her analysis by comparing the song to sentiments expressed in other literary forms, such as African novels (196-197). She argues that the protagonist in the song and novel “suffer from marginalization, exclusion, and incomprehension…. In each case, the narrator arrives at some form of self-understanding as the result of questions directed at the values of society” (197). Thus Sidikou calls for a centering women’s songs in scholarship, as it is a vital African literary form (197).

“12 ~ Bambara Women’s Songs in Southern Mali,” by Bah Diakité (Cabinet Chief in the Malian Ministry of Culture), claims that women express feelings, and their experiences of society through song (199). By analyzing women’s songs the author aims “to learn about their hopes, their wounds, their anger, their fear, and their needs” (199). The article is based on Diakité’s own field recordings from 2003, as well as historical recordings from the National Museum in Bamako (200). Six songs out of the larger collection, are analyzed and discussed. They exemplify a range of topics including marriage, gossip, jealousy, conflict, issues around water, work, child rearing, the importance of children, and other topics (201-210). A common refrain continues to surface in the conclusions to each essay: namely that songs offer a space where women can express themselves in otherwise restricted societies. “Above all, these songs offer a valued medium for individual and collective expression in a society in which men dominate the public space…. Finally, they also enable women to educate, in the broadest sense of the term, the younger generation” (210). Unfortunately, in many cultures, pressures of globalization, Westernization, and other influences have seen some of these song forms in decline (211), which makes archiving and research even more important.

“13 ~ Patriarchy in Songs and Poetry by Zarma Women,” by Aissata Niandou (a professor of English), explores whether or not women’s songs can subvert the patriarchal nature of their society, language conventions, and values (212). Niandou’s research took place in 2003, and her article is based on a collection of twenty-five Zarma songs (or poems). Unlike most other essays in the collection, Niandou includes both the original text along with the English translation (213-222). The author highlights difficult topics addressed in Zarma songs mostly surrounding marriage, namely polygyny, teenage brides, migration, rivalry between co-wives, co-wife hierarchy, physical beauty and ugliness, jealousy, mother-in-law conflicts, among other topics. Through Niandou’s analysis she argues that while women are voicing their opinions about unfair patriarchal aspects of culture, they also “unconsciously adopt patriarchal male values not only to convey their responses to male domination ... but also in their relations with each other” (223). She concludes stating “In these poem-songs, subversion in the sub-culture of women is subverted by the adoption of values absorbed from the wider, male-dominated culture” (223). In effect Niandou is acknowledging the value and poignance of these women’s songs, but at the same time devaluing their contribution since they are unable to break out of the pervasive underlying patriarchy.

“14 ~ Muslim Hausa Women’s Songs,” by Beverly B. Mack (professor of African studies), offers a thorough treatment of the scope of Hausa poetry and songs in northern Nigeria and seems to be based largely on her book Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Popular Song (2004). Mack focuses on differences between vocal (oral) and written poetry/songs, and the influence of Islam in Hausa culture (224). She goes on to discuss singers, musicians, poets, metaphor, Islam and poetry, Western and traditional influences, women’s education, community, and poetry and history (228-251). The author asserts that oral performances fulfill many needs in Hausa culture, including education, entertainment, and news about current events (251). Mack concludes that Hausa women’s songs “reflect a pervasive concern for literacy and for social and religious obligation of devout Muslims, especially women ... to ignore women’s perspectives on these issues is to hear only half the sound of contemporary Hausa voices” (251-252).

“15 ~ Lamentation and Politics in a Sahelian Song,” by Thomas A. Hale (professor of African, French, and comparative literature), takes a historical perspective and traces women’s songs in Africa from ancient Egypt (1300 BCE) through the early 20th century (257-260). Hale is interested in documenting the role of women in pre-independence Africa, and looks to historical texts for glimpses into how women in the Sahel were expressing themselves, and what they were saying (259-261). This concise article utilizes a women’s song text from 1915, and finds that women did have a voice, and expressed their power through songs (261). He concludes: “that power often comes from collective activity that involves both professional and non-professional women singers. What are needed now are deeper analyses of the complex nature of that power” (261).

“16 ~ Transformations in Taureg Tende Singing: Women’s Voices and Local Feminisms,” by Susan J. Rasmussen (professor of anthropology), utilizes Taureg women’s songs in an attempt to understand local modernity and feminism. Rasmussen explores “changing meanings of women’s song performance in relation to gendered experience of social upheavals among the semi-nomadic, Muslim, and traditionally stratified Taureg of Niger and Mali” (263). The essay is based on research conducted in Niger from 1976 to 2002, and Mali from 2002 to 2006. An impressive collection of interconnected research questions surrounding Taureg women’s tende songs are addressed in the essay, namely questions around music and change, meaning, singer’s roles, social consequences of singing, enduring popularity of tende music, gendered themes, gendered dialogues, tende and society, and so on (267-268). The author goes on to discuss several themes including, verbal art, performance, tende singing and drumming, texts and contexts of tende songs, and the tende songs’ impact on Taureg culture and society. This dynamic contribution contends with vital issues in Taureg society: “Women singers remain prominent as vocal critics of actions by individual men, but they now extend their critiques to institutions such as the state, militia, and NGO agencies” (283). Rasmussen concludes by complicating the picture, she writes that women’s critiques voiced through songs “do not always translate into actual authority or influence in practice” (283). In this way tende songs both show women’s resistance and their limited influence (283).

“17 ~ Income Strategies of a Jelimuso in Mali and France,” by Nienke Muurling (professor of anthropology and sociology), describes the dynamics of Malian performers living in the Diaspora, and the impact of their foreign earnings and remittances (290-298). Research for this piece was conducted in Mali and France from 1999 to 2003, and focuses on Malian jelimuso (female griot) Sanungwe Kouyate. This chapter discusses the complexities facing a successful musician attempting to maintain her family ties in Mali while performing in France, income distribution, and so on. Muurling argues that by expertly managing her patronage, and her choice of a spouse, Kouyate was able to foster a successful and lucrative career as a performer in France (298). This article, focused on a single case study of a successful performer, shows one of the career possibilities that many African musicians idealize and strive for. Unfortunately, for many musicians attempting to live abroad is extremely difficult, even obtaining a travel visa can be nearly impossible for many Africans.

Taken as a whole, Women’s Songs from West Africa, is a valuable resource for scholars interested in West African music, and represents a remarkable achievement. Authors included in the collection come from a variety of disciplines including African studies, anthropology, comparative literature, language, sociology, and others. Each scholar offers their own perspectives on a wide range of cultures and topics related to women’s songs in the Sahel. Essay collections like this are extremely valuable, but undoubtedly difficult to organize. It would be wonderful to see similar collaborative collections on women’s music and dance in Africa coming from African musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and musicologists. As an ethnomusicologist, I found myself wanting more musical and ethnographic information on each study. Regardless, this collection represents decades of research by seventeen individuals dedicated to highlighting the importance of women’s voices, their struggles with patriarchy, and their lived experiences in West Africa. These are immense topics that are particularly relevant in contemporary society and demand continued research.


Works Cited:

Comparative Literature. “Penn State, College of Liberal Arts. People - Thomas A. Hale.” (Accessed 5 June, 2014).

Lott, Joanna. 2002. “Keepers of History.” (Accessed 5 June, 2014).

[1] This is significant since the grant was substantial in the amount of $150,000, and spanned six years from June 2001 until May 2007. See Thomas A. Hale’s departmental webpage for more information,

[2] For more information on Sidikou and Hale and their collaboration, see “Keepers of History” Joanna Lott (2002),

[3] This article includes some very contradictory and unclear passages, perhaps due to the fact that the author is not a native English speaker. For example: “[...] women are inaccessible objects of desire. Everything is done to obtain their passivity and their impassiveness” (113).

[4] See extensive English translations included in the article (162-184).


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