Funereal Language Revival in Northern Ghana

The occasion of the 1st International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation seems an appropriate moment to note a recent post by Mark Dingemanse of The Ideophone about an encouraging bit of language revival in Siwu, spoken in the Volta region of Ghana: the return of traditional funeral dirges. (Note that Siwu is the language, Kawu is the place, and Mawu are the people, suggesting a noun-classification system most definitely related to those in found Bantu languages.)

Speaking of parting, it is only rarely that dirges are heard in Kawu nowadays. Two factors are contributing to their decline: firstly the fact that many churches discourage their use, preferring edifying hymns instead. The reason behind this, I am told, is that the dirges reflect a pre-Christian worldview and as such are to be eschewed by true Christians. A second factor has been the coming of electricity to the villages halfway the nineties, which has led to loud music taking the place of the dirges during the wakekeepings. Elsewhere I wrote that “culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself”, yet at the same time I can’t help but lament the imminent loss of such a rich vein of Mawu culture.

However, during my last fieldtrip there were some signs of a renewed interest in the genre. For example, one pastor told me that he had been reconsidering the rash dismissal of the dirges by his church. Realizing how important the dirges had been in containing, orienting, and canalizing the feelings of loss and pathos surrounding death, he felt that the Christian hymns did not always offer an appropriate replacement. Another hopeful event was that I was approached with the request to help record a great number of dirges in Akpafu-Todzi in August 2008. This was not just to record them for posterity (although this was part of the motivation), but also very practically so that they could be played at wakekeepings. I gladly complied with this wish of course. The result is a beautiful collection of 42 dirges, sung by eight ladies between 57 and 87 years of age. The first time the dirges were played at a funeral they sparked a wave of interest.

via Culture-Making, where Nate adds a lead-in: The cultural fall and rise of the traditional funeral dirges performed in the Volta region of northern Ghana: brought low by Christianity and recording technology, brought back by the same.

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Filed under Ghana, language, religion

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