African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Swahili (Page 1 of 2)

Serenade II

This is another version of the much-loved Swahili love song from the east African coast (see Serenade), probably the best known and most widely admired of all Swahili poems in translation. Like My Mwananazi, it is associated with Liyongo, the epic hero. There are interesting differences from the former version. Here, for instance, she is advised to listen, not to sing, to her suitors, and the ‘passers-by’ are not supposed to hear anything of what is going on.

O lady, be calm and cry not out but attend to your suitors patiently,
listen patiently to them who have climbed up to your window,
lest those passing along the road may see…

My Mwananazi

This is a well-known Swahili song, a version of which we posted previously without the vernacular text (see Mwananazi). This is an older, longer version, sung in praise of a dutiful wife in the Islamic tradition. It was first recorded in the 1860s, but is still extant in slightly different versions. The translation (slightly revised) was by Hamisi wa Kayi…

The Hesitation Dance

A Swahili dance song, recorded in the 1860s, giving a glimpse of sophisticated life in the coastal cities in earlier centuries. The song is also called ‘The Stumbling Figure’. Bishop Steere calls it ‘Gungu’ or ‘The Hesitation Dance’, adding “it is the custom meet about ten or eleven at night and dance on until daybreak. The men and slave-women dance, the ladies sit a little retired and look on. Each piece takes a long time to sing, as most of the syllables have several notes and flourishes or little cadences to themselves.”

Mother take me that I may see, may see
Beauty and ornaments at Ungama…

The Well-Wined Warrior

This is another version of the song in praise of palm-wine, attributed to Liyongo the national hero of the Swahili people. See also Liyongo’s Drinking Song for a different version of this song.

O tapster of soured wine,
from the sheath of the withered palm…

The Hunter’s Praise of his Bow

Another of the poems attributed to Liyongo, the national hero of the Swahili people, who lived in the area of the delta of the Tana River, north of Mombasa.

Praise my bow with its haft of the wild-vine,
let it be dressed with oil and shine like glass.

Song of the Coco-Palm

A Swahili poem in praise of the coconut palm, discovered c1905 by the scholar Muhammed Kijuma (1855.1945) in an old collection of marriage songs. It is attributed by some to the legendary hero Liyongo (see ‘The Legend of Liyongo’). Swahili poetry is much influenced by Arab and Persian forms, as is evident here from the long lines (each of 20 syllables), and rhymed couplets.

Give me the minstrel’s seat that I may sit at ease and tell of the praises of the coco-palm.
This tree, when it is young and sprouting, spreads its leaves outwards widely…

The Song of the Poor Man

Another Swahili song discovered c1905 by the scholar Muhammed Kijuma (1855-1945) in an old collection of marriage songs. It begins by seeming to mock the poor man, but quickly shifts to sympathising with him…

Liyongo’s Self-Praises

The nineteenth century Swahili poet Sheik Abdallah (d. 1820), wrote a poem called ‘Song of Liyongo’, in five-line stanzas, in which the first three lines of each stanza were his own work, while the closing two lines were by Liyongo, as recorded in the oral tradition. In the version presented here, the closing lines of each stanza are presented separately, without Sheik Abdallah’s additions…

Liyongo’s Drinking Song

A Swahili song from the East African coast. It is one of the songs attributed to Liyongo, the Swahili national hero. The ‘tapster’ is the man who taps the palm tree for palm wine. Muscadet is a kind of European wine. Like other peoms associated with Liyongo, the Drinking Song arises from the rich culture of the East African coast with its centuries of trading with the East and with Europe.

O tapster, give me the palm-wine
With the bitter flavour from the coconut palm

The Legend of Liyongo

Liyongo, the national hero of the Swahili people, lived in the area of the delta of the Tana River, north of Mombasa. His father, ruler of the city-state of Shaka, had two sons – Liyongo the elder, and Mringwari. On his father’s death, Mringwari was chosen as ruler and Liyongo was imprisoned: he escaped, joining the villagers and ivory hunters on the mainland, and building a reputation for bravery, chivalry, generosity and justice. Many of the poems praising him are said to have been composed by him, so that he is also celebrated as a poet.

Oh my child, be silent, do not cry;
Listen to the tale of the King of Bauri,

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African Poems