Academic journal article Africa

Male Praise-Singers in Accra: In the Company of Women

Academic journal article Africa

Male Praise-Singers in Accra: In the Company of Women

Article excerpt

In a classic essay M. G. Smith (1957) analysed praise-singing in northern Nigeria as an institution that regulates social behaviour, by validating status, wielding sanctions, and generally maintaining social norms. Hausa praisesinging is a low-status occupation, whether carried out by men or by women. For men it is particularly so, given the gendered nature of status relations. In this article I focus on Hausa praise-singing in one of Accra's zongos (stranger quarters), and more specifically on the role of the male praisesinger.

The topic of praise-singing brings together issues of micro-politics and Islam with zongo dwellers in Accra and the construction of the separate worlds of men and women. I situate the zongo praise-singer by exploring zongo culture, especially male-female relations, occasions for praisesinging, and the importance of patronage in this status-conscious society. Interwoven throughout is a contrast with praise-singing in northern Nigeria. I consider how gender relations change and get reformulated while continuing to be salient. I suggest that the role of praise-singer males who perform in Accra, like that of females who sing in Kano, Nigeria, carries gender-neutral status which enables the performers to mediate between the sexes.

THE PRAISE-SINGER

In northern Nigeria, the Hausa live in a group of states that are organised centrally; each contains a hierarchy of offices competed for by important men, an electorally based chieftainship, and a set of occupational titles. `Occupational classification is the most important factor in the evaluation of social status' (Besmer, 1983: 31). Many crafts and trades operate alongside agriculture, differentiated according to whether they are hereditary (gargajiya) or freely chosen (shigege). The former carry greater status and prestige than the latter, indicating low occupational mobility and expressing `the general preference for social continuity and for stability in the status order' (Smith, 1959: 248). Occupational groups are also ranked in order of status, with officials, mallams, and well-to-do merchants at the top (Smith, 1959).

The segregation of Muslim Hausa men from women is epitomised by the institution of purdah, or kulle; housing is appropriately designed to protect adult women from the gaze of unrelated men (Pellow, 1988). Men and women share neither social nor physical space, and most women's activities--work or leisure--are carried out within the women's quarters (Callaway, 1987; Pittin, 1984). Market trading, so popular among coast West African women, is confined to the compounds, with young children acting as runners, carrying the products to sell to women secluded in other compounds (Schildkrout, 1983).

Not only are men and women kept separate--they are also ranked, in keeping with the pervasiveness of hierarchy in Islam and in the Hausa social system. The lowest social category includes praise-singers (marokil marokiya) who engage in praise-singing (roko, `eulogy'), a Hausa craft (Besmer, 1983; Smith, 1957).(1) Praise-singing, a traditional form of oratory, is actually proclaiming another's name to honour him/her. Traditionally, each Hausa has at least one personal praise song (take), which relates genealogy and life accomplishments. The praise-singer recites the praised person's genealogy, recounting his/her feats, fame, prosperity, and influence.

Roko is an expression of status, for which one needs an audience and publicity. And, while it is also a craft, `its product is an incorporeal good incapable of further exchange, an article of immediate consumption' (Smith, 1957: 27). It has a primarily social function, informally regulating the distribution of praise or shame. The praise songs are a kind of cultural capital, through which an individual articulates and defines social status.(2) In other words, they impose social control and reflect honour on formal agencies of social control. …

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