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  • The Sonic Landscape of Benin: Music from Smithsonian Folkways

    Egungun masquerade in Cotonou, Benin. Photo by Rebecca Fenton

    Egungun masquerade in Cotonou, Benin. Photo by Rebecca Fenton

    In Benin, musical traditions and accompanying dances connect participants to their religion, community, and natural environment. Neighboring Nigeria and Togo along the northern side of the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, Benin is a long-standing and dynamic hub of cultural exchange.

    As a result, the region is comprised of a diverse mix of ethnic and cultural groups, all of which contribute unique sounds to the country’s creative foundation. Depending on the region and cultural group, music may be restricted to griots, masters of music and oral tradition, and performed only at religious ceremonies, or it may be a part of everyday life with unrestricted participation. Genres range from ritual praise to work songs, and from complex instrumentation to solo vocals.

    According to ethnomusicologist Sarah Politz, traditional music styles are consumed all over Benin today. She explains, “Music makes Benin’s cultural pluralism possible. Through music, with rhythms and dances belonging to specific groups and places, people communicate their identity positively, as if to say, ‘I am who I am within our society.’”

    In this playlist, you’ll hear recordings from three albums in the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings collection, two of which are a part of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music. It is merely an introduction to the sounds of Benin, just scratching the surface of rich Beninois musical traditions.

    Note: These recordings were made in the 1970s and 1980s. The albums use some names for ethnic groups that were common in scholarship of the time, while today we prefer the names that members of those communities call themselves. Unfortunately, the publishers did not include the names of all the musicians, instead sometimes crediting them only as representatives of an ethnic group. The ethics of recording, archiving, and sharing material like sound recordings are always evolving. Read more about our Center’s recently developed policy for shared stewardship.

    Yoruba Drums from Benin, West Africa

    Let’s begin our journey with the drums of the Yoruba, a major ethnic group of southern and central Benin, as well as Nigeria and Togo. Drumming is a primary musical expression of the Yoruba, who traditionally use the instrument during religious ceremonies, for praise singing, and for entertainment.

    Perhaps the most significant use for Yoruba drums is in communication with orisha spirits, through oriki, Yoruba praise poetry. Most orisha are associated with a particular type of drum ensemble, and their worship depends on followers’ ritual preparation and correct playing of the instruments. For example, the bata drum ensemble is associated with the worship of Sango, the orisha of thunder.

    Yoruba Drums from Benin, West Africa was recorded in 1987 by ethnomusicologist Marcos Branda-Lacerda in partnership with the International Institute for Traditional Music and UNESCO’s International Council for Traditional Music.

    dundun drum
    Iya’lu (Mother) dundun drum
    Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology

    1. “Rhythm of the Dundun Ensemble from Atchoukpa: Ale Ile”

    Yoruba dundun drums are referred to as “talking drums” because they can produce the syllabic sounds of the Yoruba language. The double-headed drums have an hourglass shape with leather straps along the sides. Musicians squeeze the straps with their bodies or arms to increase the tension of the skins, which changes the pitch.

    Using this technique, players can mimic the tones and glides of speech. Yoruba is a tonal language, and for the attentive listener, the tones alone can convey the meaning, even without vowels and consonants. The drum “speaks,” conveying village-wide messages or spiritual communication.

    2. “The Bata Repertoire for Egungun in Pobè: Ogogo”

    This piece offers an example of the bata drums, distinguished by their wide range of pitches. In this recording, the drums are played as a part of the Egungun festival, a celebration to honor and request the blessings of ancestral spirits. Ancestors manifest in the elaborately crafted costumes that dance to percussion and song during the Egungun masquerade. While women do not perform masquerade, they do participate in reciting oriki poetry.

    Niger / Northern Benin: Music of the Fulani

    Niger / Northern Benin: Music of the Fulani

    Moving through the collection and further north in Benin, we meet the Fulani, who live across West Africa, from Senegal to Sudan. Also known as Fula, Peul, Fulbe, or Hal-Pulaaren, they are primarily Muslim, with a traditional culture based on transhumance, the seasonal movement of livestock. Today, most Fulani settle in villages and cities but maintain a sense of identity tied to pastoral lifeways and pulaaku, the Fulani concept of ideal behavior, indicating dignity and independence.  

    The Fulani value music, oral literature—especially poetry—and other expressive arts, and it’s the responsibility of griots to transmit them. In everyday life, music and poetry are also integrated into the rhythms of daily routines and community ceremonies. Fulani instruments tend to be portable because of their traditionally nomadic lifestyle.

    Niger / Northern Benin: Music of the Fulani was recorded in 1972 and 1974 by ethnomusicologist Simha Arom and is a part of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music.

    3. “Flagellation Song”

    A major genre of Fulani music includes the songs performed at seasonal goja or soro gatherings, or “festival of the girls.” There, young men participate in dances and martial arts matches as a rite of passage, hoping to impress female onlookers. “Flagellation Song” was often performed at the beginning of the event, the lyrics taunting the male participants in encouragement.

    These gatherings declined in the twentieth century, but the tradition persists in northern Benin where acrobatic displays are also a part of the entertainment. These songs consist of unaccompanied male vocals and always begin with the same gripping vocalization that can be heard at the start of this track.

    4. “Bule Toko”

    Another genre of Fulani music is poetic odes to beauty. “Bule Toko” is a praise song for a beautiful woman who lives nearby and features the most common instrumental combination of the genre: the flute and calabash hand drum.

    Benin: Bariba and  Somba Music

    Benin: Bariba and Somba Music

    In northern Benin, we come to the Bariba and Somba cultural groups. The Bariba—more correctly called Baatɔmbu—are known for the precolonial kingdom of Borgu, which also extends into Nigeria. The courtly social structure is reflected in their poetic traditions, which consist of ceremonial music meant to increase the prestige of the nobility. Griots are uniquely authorized to perform this music.

    Benin: Bariba and Somba Music was recorded in 1974 by ethnomusicologist Simha Arom as part of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music.

    5. “Music in praise of Oru Sutu”

    This Baatɔnu recording recalls a prince’s predecessor and features an orchestra of drums and long trumpets called kakaki. Like the talking drums of the Yoruba, the kakaki can produce the tones of the Bariba language, uttering praise phrases over the drums.

    6. “Grinding Karite Nuts”

    The Somba people—or more correctly, the Batammaliba, “people who build with earth”—live in the Atacora Mountain region of northwestern Benin. They are renowned for their round, two-story traditional homes or tata somba, which resemble small castles built with wood, earth, and thatched spires. The Batammaliba incorporate music into daily activities and important community events like funerals, with the participation of men, women, and children.

    In this recording, two women sing a domestic dialogue while grinding karité, or shea nuts, to produce shea butter. Domestic tools like the mortar and pestle can become rhythm instruments, and impromptu performances can lighten the load of hard work.

    7. “Dinaba, myth of the origins”

    Although Batammaliba music may feature minimal instrumentation, their songs and sounds embody complex ideas. “Dinaba” is a recitation of the group’s origin and migration from the legendary “first town.” This demonstrates yet another essential function of music to Batammaliba people, something common to many African cultures: chronicling their personal, family, and communal histories. 

    To hear more Beninois music in the Smithsonian Folkways collections, explore the full albums on the website or on Spotify.

    Sylvia Wilson is a research intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in anthropology and French.

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