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  • UNESCO Collection Week 26: Vigil and Prayer

    In light of Diwali-Deepavali on October 23, Islamic New Year on October 25, Protestant Reformation Day on October 26, and All Souls Day on November 2, this week spotlights music for ritual and prayer with the compilation People at Prayer and the reissue of Côte d'Ivoire: A Senufo-Fodonon- Funerary Vigil.


    By Holly Hobbs

    Among the Senufo (Sénoufo in the francophone spelling) of northern Côte d’Ivoire live an ethnic subgroup called the Fodonon, who have fought to retain their traditions in the face of neocolonial exploitation and encroaching globalization. Recognized throughout West Africa and beyond for their art and sculpture, the musical traditions of the Senufo, and particularly the Fodonon, have been studied over the years by a number of ethnographers, including Michel de Lannoy, who recorded the audio pieces presented in this collection, Côte d'Ivoire: A Senufo-Fodonon - Funerary Vigil, during fieldwork trips to the village of Lataha in 1976 and 1981-82.

    Côte d'Ivoire
    Performed by bolonyen (literal translation, “the gourd people”) all-male orchestras, the music of Fodonon funeral rites is complex, prominently featuring a one-stringed harp called the bologbogo (“big gourd”). The bolonyen, along with calabash rattle players, are the musical basis for the community funerary traditions. They are joined by various vocalists—usually groups of two singers performing in a ritual call-and-response—providing sung interludes between instrumental performance events.

    naferi masked dancer/Danseur masqué de type naferi

    The first track, “Ye Fa Ra Nyu,” although lengthy, is but a brief excerpt of the funeral vigil, which often lasts through the evening and into the early hours of the morning. While listening, I was struck by the reverence and emotion audible in the singers’ voices, which allow us to emotionally connect on a fundamental level with these performances, separated as they are from us by distance and time.

    “Ye fa ra nyu / Toni / La tre”

    The field recordings include extensive ambient sound, providing more contextual information about the players, the setting, and the importance of the masked dancers who perform in dialogic conversation with the musicians. Close manipulation of time and space is of importance here, and as the tempo steadily increases in controlled, purposeful repetition, listeners are able to gain a brief glimpse into Fodonon aesthetics of mourning, loss, and transition.

    People at Prayer
    The People at Prayer album is a compilation of 24 songs of religious ritual and devotion from around the world, including India, Syria, Bali, Laos, Central African Republic and Mexico; there is also a ceremony performed by the orchestra of the Cambodian Royal Palace, a hymn from Vanuatu, and a track from the Sakasso peoples of Côte d’Ivoire, which offers an interesting opportunity to hear musical meditations on life, death, and spirituality from another region of Côte d’Ivoire.

    Drawn from the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, this stunning collection is remarkable for its breadth and diversity. The songs of people in prayer and reflection also contain a wealth of contextual information on community gender norms, the ways in which each community soundscape interacts with and informs its musical traditions, and how each culture presented perceives and performs the connection between music and spirituality. Listening to these musicians and spiritual leaders performing their relationships with higher powers was a touching and profound experience. It encouraged me to think about my own community’s musical religiosity and how we are able to find unity and connectivity through performance.

    In both Côte d'Ivoire and People at Prayer, improvisation-in-performance provides key insight into cultural values and perceptions of self and community. Perhaps most remarkable, however, are the commonalities that can be heard across culture, time, and space, and that speak to the shared experience of the human condition. Meditative, ritualistic, and transcendent, these thoughtful compilations show that we may have more in common than we expect.

    Holly Hobbs
    PhD Candidate, Tulane University
    New Orleans, Louisiana

    UNESCO Collection Week 26: Vigil and Prayer | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings