Sunday, April 28, 2019

The REAL Origin Of The Song "Funga Alafia" - Hint: It Isn't A Liberian Song, Or A Nigerian Song, Or A Traditional African Song

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series on the song "Funga Alafia".

This pancocojams post corrects widely found misinformation about the provenance (origin/source) of the song "Funga Alafia".

Click for Part II of this series. Part II showcases some video examples of "Funga Alafia" songs and/or dances.

Selected comments from these videos' discussion threads are also included in this post.

Click for Part III of this pancocojams series. Part III showcases two YouTube videos of Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji performing "Fanga".

Selected comments from these videos' discussion threads are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural information.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Larocque Bey, the real composer of the song "Funga Alafia" and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
An earlier version of this pancocojams series was published in 2011. Click for that post. That post contains additional information about the history of "Funga Alafia". Links to Part II and Part III are found on that page. Part II provides some text (word) examples of that song and Part III showcases YouTube videos of "Funga Alafia" other than those that are found in this 2019 post.

I first wrote about the song "Funga Alafia" on this pancocojams blog in 2011.

I decided to revisit this subject because of the relatively widespread inclusion of "Funga Alafia" in school curriculums in the United States andin  other non-West African nations and also because of the widespread misinformation about where this song comes from.

Even if people prefer later arrangements of a particular song, I believe it's important to document and share that song's provenance (origin/source).

If possible, it's important to know who composed the song - if not the actual composer/s than which population it came from. It's also important to know what the original words were, which tune and tempo was originally used and what performance activities, if any, where used while singing or chanting the composition.

Knowing where the song came from can help determine the overall meaning of the song itself as well as the meanings of specific words/phrases (including slang and colloquial expressions).

Knowing the provenance of a song can also help instill and reinforce group self-esteem and personal esteem in people from that particular population.

Here's some basic information about the song "Funga Alafia":
1. The song "Funga Alafia" was composed by African American drummer and dancer LaRocque Bey in Harlem (New York City) in 1959 or 1960.

2. The word "funga" is a folk processed form of the Vai (Liberia, West Africa) word "fanga".

3. The words "alafia" and "ashe" are from the Yoruba (Nigeria, West Africa) language.

4. The tune for the song "Funga Alafia" is from the American folk song "Little Liza Jane".
Click for a sound file of Nina Simone singing "Little Liza Jane".

"Funga Alafia" dances may be based on the traditional Vai (Liberian) dance called "Fanga", but aren't authentic replications of that traditional dance. Widely performed Funga Alafia "head and shoulders" movements are contemporary American adaptations that aren't part of the traditional Liberian Fanga dance.

(numbers provided for referencing purposes only)
1. Information about Sierra Leonean musician Asadata Dafor:
"Asadata Dafora Hortan (August 4, 1890 – March 4, 1965) widely known as Asadata Dafora was a Sierra Leonean multidisciplinary musician. He was one of the first Africans to introduce African drumming music to the United States, beginning in the early 1930s...

In 1929 Asadata Dafora journeyed to New York City to try and pursue his career as a musician. He was then 39 years old...


Dafora co-authored a radio play with Orson Welles entitled "Trangama-Fanga" [in 1941]."
Source: From
Sierra Leone borders Liberia, and some members of Assata Dafor's dance company were from Liberia. It's therefore likely that Dafor would have known the Fanga rhythm and dance. In her PhD dissertation, dance historian Marcia Heard indicates that Asadata Dafor was the first person to introduce the Fanga dance to the United States, and he called that dance "Fugale". Furthermore, multi-instrumentalists, writer, and educator Sule Greg Wilson*, who drummed with Babatunde Olatunji, asserts that Assata Dafor was the first person to introduce Fanga to the United States.

Source: [hereafter given as "Schwartz: Pearl Primus Biography"].

*Read a comment from Sule Greg Wilson given below #2 in this section of this post.

2. Information about African American dancer/choreographer Pearl Primus
"[Pearl Primus] was born in Trinidad before her parents immigrated to Harlem in 1919. She worked at the New Dance Group Studios which was one of few places where black dancers could train alongside whites. She went on to study for a PhD and did research on dance in Africa. Her most famous dance was the Fanga, an African dance of welcome which introduced traditional African dance to the stage."

From The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography Of Pearl Primus by Peggy Schwartz & Murray Schwartz:
" "Fanga" was central to Pearl's school, her performances, and her lectures. A dance of welcome that she brought back from her first trip to Liberia it was probably a variation of a traditional dance that she continued to change over the decade." [page 88]
[information from that book] Pearl Primus' Fanga dance was picked up by other African dance companies in the United States and was reconstructed by them. Babatunde Olatunji was the first company to do so, because two dancers from Primus' company left to perform with Olatunji.

[quote from that book]
"Virtually every black community dance company in America has its version of "Fanga" and most start with the chant "Fanga alafiyah ashe ashe, fanga alafiyah ashe ashe" as its accompaniment. This chant was added by LaRocque Bey, a percussionist in New York in the late 1950s, was not part of the original work. Primus used two other chants "gehbeddy jung jung jung" with a strong, active, insistent rhythm, or "dum dake dake dum dake, dum dake dake dum dum dake", gentler, and with a swing and a sway to it." (Schwartz, Pearl Primus Biography, p. 88).
Here's a comment that was posted to a YouTube video discussion thread by Sule Greg C. Wilson in 2011:
Funga Alafia, published by Kathryn Nobles on Jun 14, 2009

[This is a YouTube video of a group of mostly White American drumming and moving to a version of the song "Funga Alafia"]
"They were having fun--great! But: what they're doing is not the dance Fanga, which was created by Pearl Primus after her trip to Liberia. Nor is it the rhythms traditionally played with the dance. The melody is U.S.: Lil Liza Jane, with Yoruba words put to it in New York City by LaRoque Bey. Would it be cute for Blacks to do Swan Lake with Firebird choreography? It would be fine with me--if they knew that's what they were doing. Spread culture around, but try to keep it intact...."

3. The song/chant "Fanga Alafia" that was composed by LaRocque Bey includes two Yoruba words: "alafia" and "ase" (usually written in the United States as "ashay". Here's how an African American man in Harlem in 1959/1960 likely became familiar with those Yoruba words: In the late 1950s and early 1960s (and since then) a small number of African Americans practiced/practice the Yoruba religion of Ifa in Harlem. The Yoruba Temple in Harlem was under the leadership of Baba Oserjeman, the first African American to be initiated into the traditional Yoruba religion of Ifa. Baba Oserjiman, a former dancer with Katherine Dunham, was initiated into that religion in Cuba in 1959. Source

It's likely that LaRocque Bey was familiar with Baba Oserjiman and the Yoruba drummers & dancers (if he himself wasn't a member of that drum group). And it's also likely that some of the Yoruba drummers and dancers were (also) members of Bey's drum company. The community of afrocentric African Americans wasn't all that large in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Here's the research that I did for the 2011 pancocojams post on several lyric examples for "Funga Alafia"

In the United States, the colloquial meaning that is usually given to the words "Funga Alafia" is "We welcome you" (or some other words that include the word "welcome". In the United States, the word "ashe" is sometimes interpreted as "amen". In the context of the song "Funga Alafia", the word "ashe" has colloquially been interpreted as "really", for instance "We really welcome you" ; We enthusiastically welcome you.

Here's information about the African language words in the song "Funga Alafia":
To date, I've not found any online source that definitely indicates the origin and meaning of the word "fanga" The word "fanga" can be found in several traditional African languages. However, words in several African languages that are spelled the same and may be pronounced the same don't necessarily have the same meaning.

For instance, here's an excerpt from Hillary Sargent's website:
"The word FANGA! Originates from the West African Mandingo lingo.
Literally it translates: Power! - It hits you to the core, in its multifaceted, powerful meaning: everybody has his or her own FANGA! - To me it is resilient, not only powerful, in essence the African rhythm in FANGA! inspires me with a spiritual enlightenment which has become the matrix of my soul identity."
Another example of the word "fanga" is found in this description of a Malian film:
Taafe-Fanga is the title of a highly acclaimed film from Mali, West Africa. The film is produced "in Bambara and Kaado [languages] with English [language] subtitles", and the title means "Skirt-Power".
Presumably, the word "fanga" also means power in one of those African languages cited above.

Another example of the use of "fanga" is the French afrobeat group by that name. Here's information about that interracial group's name from
"Fanga means 'Force' (spiritually speaking) in Dioula, one of the numerous dialects of Western Africa. This French group of 7 musicians, deeply immersed in Afrobeat - a musical language pioneered by Fela Kuti in the 70's, combining African music, jazz and funk - was born from an encounter between the hip-hop programmer Serge Amiano and the rapper Yves Khoury (aka Korbo) of Burkina Faso."

I've also read that "Fanga" is a Vai (Liberia) word and I've usually seen "fanga" used as the name for the rhythm and accompanying dance which are based on a traditional Vai (Liberia, West Africa) welcome dance. Given those three examples, I believe that it's likely that the Liberian word "fanga" also means "force" or "power".

It should be noted that the authors of The Dance That Claimed Me: Biography of Pearl Primus by Peggy & Murray Schwartz indicate that drummers and dancers in different American companies didn't perform "Fanga" with the same tempo or in the same way. (Schwartz, Pearl Primus Biography, page 91)

ALAFIA (ah-LAH-fee-ah)
A number of online sources indicate that the word "alafia" is a greeting word used by Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa.

According to various online sites, the "Yoruba" word "alafia" originated from the Arabic word "alaafiyah" meaning "health" or "good health" and entered the Yoruba language by way of the Hausa (Nigeria) modification "lafia la".

From IFA: Òrìṣa Scientific Spirituality, July 12, 2016 ·
"For many, the Yoruba term "alafia" (also spelled alaafia) is used to mean "inner-peace" and said as a greeting like the use of the Kemetic word "hotep" and the Arabic word "salaam."

In the past ten years, there has been much controversy about the term alafia and whether or not it is truly Yoruba or derived from Arabic.

It is noted that the Yoruba word alafia shares its meaning with the Hausa (Northern Nigerians) word "lafiya" which means good health. They derived the word from Arabic's al-afiyah which means "the good health." When said as "zaman lafiya" in Hausa, it comes to mean innerpeace.

The indigenous Yoruba word for good health is ilera. Hence the popular Yoruba phrase, "Ilera loro" which means "health is wealth."

However, does all this mean that alafia is not a Yoruba word? Not necessarily....

All of this being said, alafia (whether indigenous or of Arabic origin) is not traditionally a greeting as seen in the Arab's salaam. That is definitely an attempt for people to imitate [sic] the Arab's greeting pattern of "peace" instead of learning Yoruba conversational protocol."....
-end of quote-
From at least the late 1960s, some afro-centric African Americans have used "alafia" as a greeting word that means "hello", "welcome, and/or "peace". I believe that "alafia" was first used by African Americans as a traditional African language for of the Arabic phrase "A salaam alaikum" (Peace be unto you).
Click for a pancocojams post on the origins and meanings of the word "alafia"

ASE ("àṣẹ" =pronounced ah-shay, and usually written "ashe")

"Ase" is the Yoruba term for the energy of creation; the spark of life. ; hereafter given as "Wikipedia: Yoruba Mythology"
"Ashe ( ah-SHAY, also Ase) – A Yoruba word meaning power, command, and authority. The ability to make whatever one says happen. Often summarized as “so be it”, “so it is”, or “it definitely shall be so”.

This concludes Part I of this pancocojams series.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Thank you! I had a feeling there was more to this than "Here's an African welcome song." Really trying to tell the kids the proper stories behind the songs.

    1. You're welcome, Duff.

      And thank you for helping children learn their roots and culture.

  2. Thank you for posting this history! Very informative, and it's especially helpful to know it's not a folk song at all. I always thought the melody was strangely similar to Lil Liza Jane...

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

      There's a lot of "fakelore" about the song "Funga Alafia"- particularly the misconception that this song comes from Nigeria or some other West African nation.

      LaRoque Bey deserves the credit for having the creativity for composing "Fanga Alafia".

  3. Thank you for all of this research.

  4. Thank you for this very thorough explanation of the song. Our church's children's choir will be singing it this spring and I want the children and the congregation to know the origin and meaning of the song.

    1. You're welcome, Anonymous January 14, 2020 at 2:35 PM.

      I'm glad that you are sharing information about the song and not just teaching the lyrics.

      Best wishes to your children's choir and your church's congregation.

  5. Hello.I saw the video(s) on YouTube and I had to search for the meaning of what they were saying 'Fanga Alafia' and the 'ase' that follows.
    My comments:
    1-The closest thing to the word 'Fanga' in Yoruba nation is 'Fanda' which means 'majestic'. Let me use the word in Yoruba then I'll translate it. *mo yan Fanda be oba* meaning I am walking majestically like a king.
    2 - So if I say 'Fanda Alafia' means majestic peace or a kingly peace. Depending on sentence or message I want put down.
    3- Ase is a response used by traditional worshipers of Yoruba nation after saying prayers maybe during festivals,sacrifice(s)... example, when saying a prayer to some who is about leaving town *wa lo re wa bo re* meaning- you will go in peace and return in peace. The response of the traveller will be 'ase' meaning so be it.
    4- Looking at the way the dancers move there body in one of the presentations by Baba Olatunji( not sure I get the name correctly), it was majestic. So to say Fanda/Fanga Alafia means welcome is not correct. Except there other words that was said before or after the chant-like song.
    Note: During the era of human continental-reshuffling; languages, character,culture, tradition and stuffs were only verbally passed to children and grandchildren and non of these attribute were written down for actual learning. So it is basically what brains could pick and transmit was been said to each other. And along the line, the original sound and lettering went missing.
    If say FANGA was substituted for FANDA, I will say to you that the origin of 'FANDA ALAFIA' 'ASE' is from the Yoruba nation. But like you said that Fanga could be traced to the people of Liberia...
    On a final note, I will say if the words were not pronounced in the exact way due to poor documentation and communication gap from source to the children, then the exact word will be 'FANDA ALAFIA' 'ASE'. If I am to reconstruct this word it will be *ni ajo to nlo yii, wa yan FANDA ninu ALAFIA o* then the response will be *ASE* . I just said a prayer that could have been said to one subject in the re-shuffling menace. Saying "In this journey you are about to embark on, you will walk majestically in peace" and response will be "so be it".
    I have only made my comments/observation as a Yoruba man not based on any research. Thank you.
    Thank you for your research on Fanga Alafia. I hope one day we will all agree on who we really are. God bless you.

    1. AKOGUNOFYORUBALAND, Thanks for your comments.

      I appreciate your sharing your thoughts on these words with me and those who visit pancocojams.

      And whether we all agree or not on who we really are, we still are- and that's important for us to really know.

  6. thanks so much for this info! I'm working on the song for a church project. Up until 5 mins ago, I would have told everyone "it's an old Nigerian folk song"

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

      As indicated in this post, I'm convinced that "Funga Alafia" isn't "an old Nigerian (or Liberian) folk song, but is a song composed by an African American who combined (and adapted) the West African words "fanga", "alafia" and "ase" (ashe).

      Best wishes for your church project!

  7. I appreciate your research....and brief historical info. We as american africans need to be recognized for our inspirational creativity. I still love the version I know and teach...Baba Olatunji's version. Peace.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Unknown.

      Peace to you also and àṣẹ.

    2. Thanks for your research as always. I am sharing what Baba Chuck Davis told us at a workshop. He said the song was composed spontaneously as the drummers played the rhythm as a way to remember the rhythm. He was the one who told us the tune was Lil Liza Jane. I hope my addition helps. But I have a question. Did Pearl Primus introduce the dance or not.

    3. [I first wrote this reply on January 29, 2021, but deleted it because I misspelled Baba Chuck Davis' name.]

      Greetings, Afi.

      Thanks for sharing that information that Baba Chuck Davis shared in a workshop.

      With regard to Pearl Primus, here's a quote that I included in this post about the origin of the song "Funga Alafia":

      From The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography Of Pearl Primus by Peggy Schwartz & Murray Schwartz:
      " "Fanga" was central to Pearl's school, her performances, and her lectures. A dance of welcome that she brought back from her first trip to Liberia it was probably a variation of a traditional dance that she continued to change over the decade." [page 88]

      Best wishes,
      Azizi Powell

  8. thank you for this extensive and very helpful history