Filed Under (Beninese culture, Ethnomusicology, General) by Rob on 04-10-2007

Last week, Rob did a song-writing workshop and recorded many songs of the Ditammari people of northern Benin/Togo and made some interesting cultural discoveries…

First off, here are some musicians (and one intruder – can you spot him?!?) dressed in a traditional costume: a ‘hat’ with animal hair coming out of it (goat, monkey or horse, I’m told), sticks, beards and glasses(?!?) I’ve no idea why!


Day 1
The journey north was tricky as ever, but nothing out of the ordinary – I must have been up and down this road at least 12 times now, and this journey was a round trip of over 1,000 miles! The Land Rover did well most of the way, until I got to Natitingou, when the front right wheel started making an awful noise. Thankfully, there was a garage right there, so I pulled in. “I think it’s your wheel bearings, Monsieur,” says the garagiste “we’re unlikely to find any replacements in Natti, but probably in Kara.” Kara is in Togo, but only a couple of hours’ drive away. I leave the car and get a lift to a hotel in the town and crash.

Day 2
The only way to get to my destination of Boukoumbé in time for the workshop is on a motorbike taxi, so the hotel calls one and we’re on the road by 7:15am, with my travel bag and recording equipment on the front of the bike, just behind the handle bars (only my mic stands I leave behind – that would be just too tricky!) It’s a bit chilly on this 35 mile journey over the mountains on a dirt road, but I still manage to get my camera out for a quick shot. Have a butchers:


I get there in time and meet Norbert, my contact there. Some folk are still arriving on foot from a village about 15 miles away, so we don’t get started until around 11:00am, looking at song genres and composition techniques etc. I quickly realize that this workshop is going to be different from most others in the following ways: (i) over half of those attending were not Christians, even though it’s a Bible song-writing workshop. Instead they follow traditional or animistic religion and (ii) because they are almost all men, with only about 5 teenage girls attending and (iii) there are NO DRUMS!!! Hang on, this is Africa – where are the drums?!?

Here are some of the folks reading one of the scripture verses in the local language. The Ditammari are fortunate, as they already have the whole Bible in their language, whereas the majority of Benin’s 52 languages only have some Bible or none at all.


There’s no mobile phone signal in Boukoumbé, but I find a cabine téléphonique and call the garage in Natti – to my amazement, the Land Rover is mended!! He found the bearings in the town and it’s all done! So, I decide to catch another motorbike back, stay in Natti, then drive back the next morning – that way I can have my microphone stands at hand. Unfortunately, there’s a HUGE thunder storm on the way back and I get completely drenched. In the end, the driver stops for shelter and I wring out my shirt. Click here to see the video of the storm. I get to the garage, but by then it’s closed, so I find a hotel …and crash.

Day 3
The garage is not open until 9:00am, so I get the car then and head back to Boukoumbé. The guys are already composing when I get there. Later, I present three parables: The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan and The Sower. These work well in Africa, where story-telling is such an integral part of the culture and where the way of life is still similar to that in Bible times. In fact, as I’m explaining the Parable of the Sower, I notice that, just outside the door, there is a field of maize, in front of which are weeds and then a path. Wow – how very fortuitous – shame there was no rocky ground! Dinner with Norbert then – finally – a night in Boukoumbé!

Day 4

Breakfast at a local joint with a colleague. No coffee or bread, but instead this:


Mmmm! Very nutritious, and all for 30p!! Back to the meeting place and folks are practising their songs. Today, we begin recording and the local school seems the best location as it’s still school holidays and the site is far from the road and has plenty of open spaces and trees for shade. It takes a while to get and extension cable and the key to a classroom. We also go on a wild goose chase for drums and find one small drum, which some local nuns lend us! Recording starts by midday and all nine new songs are in the can by 5:30pm. Although there’s not much drumming, there is other percussion, including these plaited palm leaves which act as shakers round the legs (a bit like Morris Dancers’ bells!)


Day 5
Although the new songs are recorded, there are several musicians here who have their own songs they would like me to record and that’s today’s job. I’m back at the school by 7:50am, setting up mics etc and we begin recording by 8:20 when the first folk arrive. Some of the songs are Biblical, but many are educational songs, on subjects such as deforestation, literacy, child trafficking and bush fires. By 12:30, we’ve recorded 22 songs – that must be a record! Other instruments they use are metal ‘castanets’ which they click together for percussion, a small 3-holed flute and…traditional gourd guitars:


I’m all packed up and off by 1:15pm and manage to get over half the way home before dark. Phew!

Videos of the trip:

Traditional Dance (men)
Traditional Dance (women)
Recording session

Audio files for you to listen to:

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2 Comments posted on "A culturally broadening experience!"
Reggie on October 4th, 2007 at 6:33 pm #

My! Where can I get a beard like that!? Great stories and pictures, and I enjoyed watching the videos. Keep up the good work. Cheers, Reggie

Sharon & Johannes on November 11th, 2007 at 5:05 pm #

Biggles, eat your heart out! Or white Rob and the three dwarfs?