Songs from the Anywaa

The Anywaa (may also be spelled "Anuak" or "Anyuak") ethnic group consider themselves as the indigenous people of Ethiopia's Gambella region on the western border with South Sudan. The root word for "Anywaa" is "nyuak," which means something like “sharing” or “togetherness,” referring to a communal way of life and generosity with one another.

At present, plenty of Anywaa still live in rural areas of Gambella region, but movement back and forth from major urban centers across the globe is increasingly common. Musically, this means many musicians have a variety of soundworlds from which to draw their inspiration: indigenous musical aesthetics, Ethiopian popular music, global popular genres, Arabic music from Sudan, and music from neighboring ethnic groups in Ethiopia such as the Amhara and Oromo, just to name a few.

Musicians are especially adopting hip-hop, reggae, and afrobeats, and several are also working on adapting their local song genres for the recording studio. The Protestant Christian church is also a significant source of musical creativity, and Anywaa church composers have a particularly high song output.

Lyrics are also an important component of Anywaa songs. Many musicians whom I interviewed during my fieldwork stated that they use songs to teach or advise their communities, and listeners often talk about the song's message when discussing their music preferences. Since Anywaa communities have been predominantly oral/aural societies until recently, this is not not surprising. Many researchers in sub-Saharan have noted the importance of songs for transmitting historical information and teaching moral values in the absence of written language. Though the Anywaa language now exists in written form and educated Anywaa are also literate in the English and Amharic languages, orality persists as a privileged form of transmitting knowledge.

The Anywaa have several genres that they consider traditional, or, in the Anywaa language, dudi møa døngø (literally, "big song.") They also have what they call “regular” songs, or, in Anywaa, dudi møa thero (“small song”), which are composed outside of the traditional genre frameworks. Dudi møa thero is an umbrella term that encompasses anything from western hymns translated into the Anywaa language to new original songs by Anywaa composers.

The two most prominent traditional genres are the obeero and the agwaa-ga. In previous times, lyrics of the obeero and agwaa-ga would praise the chief or advise the community. The agwaa-ga were often songs of war: extolling past deeds, warning neighboring villages, et cetera. Most the agwaa-gas now, however, are not to do with war but with general moral instruction.

Many agwaa-gas and obeeros have also been recontextualized for religious purposes, as Anywaa composers began adapting them for the church following the arrival of American missionaries in the 1950s. It is not too difficult to see how they could be refitted for religious purposes: lyrics praise God instead of the chiefs, advise communities to live a Christian lifestyle, and declare war against the devil instead of against neighboring villages. These songs serve an important function in the church, as they are often used to teach the congregation theological concepts.

The songs included here represent all these genres. They span from as early as the 1950s through the present and include both field recordings and studio productions by popular musicians. In most cases, I have included the audio recording, English translation, and transcription of the original Anywaa lyrics. Click around and enjoy!

Credits and Bibliography

Research Associates

Apay Ojullu Aballa
Meher Omot Obang
Ojho Ojullu Othow
Wenraya Aballa

Bibliography

Feyissa, Dereje. 2011. Playing Different Games: The Paradox of Anywaa and Nuer Identification Strategies in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Osterlund, David Conrad. 1978. “The Anuak Tribe of South Western Ethiopia: A Study of Its Music within the Context of Its Socio-Cultural Setting.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.