Edited by Azizi Powell
This post provides a brief excerpt from Ruth Finnegan's 2012 book Oral Literature In Africa (Open Book Publishers, United Kingdom). This post also showcases two videos of Jessica Mbangeni's South African praise poetry.
The content of this post is provided for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to Ruth Finnegan and all others who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to praise poet Jessica Mbangeni who is featured in these videos and thanks to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.
EXCERPT FROM "ORAL LITERATURE IN AFRICA"
"The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background [pp.65-67]
..."Linguistically Africa is one of the complex areas in the world. The exact number of languages to be found is a matter of dispute, but the most often cited figure is 800, if anything an underestimate (Greenberg 1962, 1963). These, let it be stressed, are languages in the full sense of the term and not mere 'dialects'. They can, however, be grouped together into larger
language families. The exact composition and relationships of these are, again, a matter of controversy, but the overall picture is clear. The best-known group is that made up of the Bantu languages (these include such languages as Zulu, Swahili, and Luba), which extend over a vast area, practically all of south and central Africa. In the opinion of some recent scholars, even this large Bantu group is only one sub-division within a much larger family, the 'Niger-Congo' group, which also includes most of the languages of West Africa. 10 Another vast family is the Afro-Asiatic (also called Hamito-Semitic), a huge language group which not only includes Arabic but also, in the form of one language or another, covers most of North Africa, the Horn of East Africa (including Ethiopia), and an extensive area near Lake Chad (where it includes the well-known and widely spoken example of Hausa).
The Central Saharan and Macrosudanic families are two further groupings, the former covering a large but mostly sparsely inhabited region north and east of Lake Chad (including Kanuri), the latter various Sudanic languages around the Nile-Congo divide and eastwards in the Nilotic and Great Lakes region of East Africa. Finally there is the Click (or Khoisan) family covering the Bushman and Hottentot languages which, in the south-west of Africa, form a separate island in an area otherwise dominated by Bantu. Besides these indigenous languages we should also mention the more recently arrived language of Arabic and, more recently still, European languages like English, French, or Afrikaans.
In spite of the differentiation into separate language families, there are nevertheless certain distinctive features which the indigenous languages tend to have in common. These, Greenberg writes, result from later contacts among the languages of the continent, on a vast scale and over a long period. Practically none of the peculiarities listed ... as typical are shared by all African languages, and almost every one is found somewhere outside of Africa, but the combination of these features gives a definite enough characterization that a language, not labelled as such for an observer, would probably be recognized as African (Greenberg 1962: 22)
Besides the basic structure of Bantu languages in vocabulary and morphology there are some further linguistic features which add to its resources as a literary instrument. Perhaps most important among these is the form usually called the ideophone (sometimes also called 'mimic noun', 'intensive noun', 'descriptive', 'indeclinable verbal particle', etc.). This is a special word which conveys a kind of idea-in-sound and is commonly used in Bantu languages to add emotion or vividness to a description or recitation. Ideophones are sometimes onomatopoeic, but the acoustic impression often conveys aspects which, in English culture at least, are not normally associated with sound at all— such as manner, colour, taste, smell, silence, action, condition, texture, gait, posture, or intensity. To some extent they resemble adverbs in function, but in actual use and grammatical form they seem more like interjections. They are specifically introduced to heighten the narrative or add an element of drama. They also come in continually where there is a need for a particularly lively style or vivid description and are used with considerable rhetorical effect to express emotion or excitement. An account, say, of a rescue from a crocodile or a burning house, of the complicated and excited interaction at a communal hunt or a football match— these are the kinds of contexts made vivid, almost brought directly before the listener's eyes, by the plentiful use of ideophones:
They are used by accomplished speakers with an artistic sense for the right word for the complete situation, or its important aspects, at the right pitch of vividness. To be used skilfully, I have been told, they must correspond to one's inner feeling. Their use indicates a high degree of sensitive impressionability (Fortune 1962: 6, on Shona ideophones) …
The Rhodesian Shona have a wide range of ideophones whose use and syntax have been systematically-analysed by Fortune (1962). Among them are such terms as
k'we— sound of striking a match.
gwengwendere— sound of dropping enamel plates.
nyiri nyiri nyiri nyiri— flickering of light on a cinema screen.
dhdbhu dhdbhu dhdbhu—oi an eagle flying slowly....
go, go, go, ngondo ngondo ngondo,
pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka — the chopping
down of a tree, its fall, and the splintering of the branches.
...Also very striking are the praise names of Bantu languages. These are terms which pick out some striking quality of an object and are used for inanimate objects, birds, animals, and finally, in their fullest form, as names for people. We meet compound names that could be translated as, for instance, 'Forest-treader', 'Little animal of the veld', 'Crumple-up-a-person-with-a- hardwood-stick', or 'Father of the people'. Other examples are the Ankole 'He Who Is Not Startled', 'I Who Do Not Tremble', 'He Who Is Of Iron', 'He Who Compels The Foe To Surrender', or 'He Who Is Not Delirious In The Fingers' (i.e. who grasps his weapons firmly) (Morris 1964: 19ff), and the Zulu 'He who hunted the forests until they murmured', 'With his shields on his knees' (i.e. always ready for a fight), or 'Even on branches he can hold tight' (i.e. able to master any situation) (Cope 1968: 72). Sometimes the reference is to more recent conditions and formulations, a type which occurs in Kamba praise names for girls in popular songs. These include Mbitili (from English 'battery'): car-batteries are said to provide heat just as the girl's attractiveness heats up her admirers; Singano (needle), praising the sharpness of the girl's breasts; and Mbynki (from English 'Buick'): as Buicks are famous for their high-gloss black finish, this is effective praise of the beauty of the girl's skin (Whiteley 1963: 165) Praise names, it is clear, provide a figurative element in the literature in which they appear and, like the Homeric epithet in Greek epic, add colour and solemnity. In panegyric poetry the use of praise names is one of the primary characteristics (see Ch. 5), but in all contexts the use of praise names can add an extra dimension to speech or literature and continue to flourish amidst new conditions (further comments on praise names in Ch. 16)....
Strongly-marked dynamic stresses, occurring in more or less regular positions in all words of the same language, and the fairly regular incidence of long syllables also usually in the same positions, give to Bantu utterance a rhythmic quality and a measured and balanced flow not met with in languages with irregular stresses and more staccato delivery (Lestrade 1937: 303).
The particular genius of each language gives rise to various possibilities in the structure of verse. The type of 'prosody' often used exploits the grammatical and syntactical possibilities of the language, which is not, as in English, bound by a fixed word order. Alliterative parallelism is easily achieved. Thus in the Zulu proverb
Kuhlwile I phambili II kusile I emuva
It is dark / in front // it is light /behind ('it is easy to be wise after the event'). 14
(quoted Lestrade 1937: 307)"
These videos are posted in chronological order based on the date that they were published on YouTube. The videos with the oldest dates are posted first.
Example #1: Jessica Mbangeni - Praise Poet, Singer and Actress
MarieGreySpeakers1, Published on Oct 2, 2012
Jessica Mbangeni made her mark as a praise-singer when she joined Soweto Gospel Choir in 2002 and toured the world in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and North American States. She has performed at prestigious events such as the 46664 concert in Cape Town and the South African President, Thabo Mbeki's second inauguration. Jessica recently released her first single, "iGoli", to great acclaim.
Commenters indicated that Jessica Mbangeni's language is Xhosa [isiXhosa]
Example #2: *Jessica_Mbangeni
BadilishaPoetry Badilisha, Published on Feb 28, 2013
This is the same praise poem to Nelson Mandela that is given above.
BONUS VIDEO :7 year old Izibongo Praise Singer
blacfoundation, Uploaded on Sep 2, 2009
Here's a comment from that video's viewer comment thread from GrumpyTinashe1 (2013)
"He is hailing Zuma as well as praising [President of South Jacob Zumas'] ancestors. Akin to what Muhammad Ali used to do, proclaim he is the greatest and all that only this time its done by a third party. Was done for and to kings/chiefs at gatherings back in the day and still is. Among other things he says indoda emadodeni meaning J.Z is a man among men. Like Gunman gunner says below its hard to get the flavour of it in translation. Imagine a rap battle dissing each other only this time you are praising someone lol"
In addition to the flow of the oratory, it's interesting to note the audience's responses to those spoken words.
South African Praise Poet Zolani Mkiva - Transcript: Praise Poetry Is Essential Part Of African DNA
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