Northern Nigerian Musical Traditions in Transition

Medinat Adeola Abdulazeez

Musical cultures in northern Nigeria have transcended colonial and religious epochs. Over the last few years, under the influence of a growing media industry and the introduction of electronic musical equipment, musicians in northern Nigeria have developed new varieties of longstanding musical traditions. Northern Nigerian pop music provides the soundtrack for the local movie industry and circulates online. These innovations, however, challenge some notions about decent moral and religious life that large parts of conservative, strictly Muslim communities in the north adhere to. In its most extreme form, the discourse on which musical practices are appropriate for pious Muslims finds its expression in attacks on musicians by the Boko Haram terrorist group. As bearers of cultural knowledge that is partly rooted in pre-Islamic traditions, musicians are a thorn in the flesh of these terrorists’ idea of an ‘Islamic State’.

A set of kalangu drums from northern NIgeria, Ulli Siebenborn collection /
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

Traditional Hausa music was produced with specific instruments. These include the hourglass-shaped kalangu, a talking drum similar to the dùndún drums of the Yorùbá of southwest Nigeria. The ganga is a wide, hollow, double-faced drum made of wood. Besides drums, other prominent instruments include the trumpet-like kakaki and the double reed wind instrument algaita, and the string instruments goje and kuntigi. While men are predominantly the drummers and makers of music, women also feature in music specifically using the shantu, a long and hollow calabash struck against the thighs to produce distinct thumping sounds, and tapped with the fingers to make light clinking sounds.

One aspect of traditional Hausa music is prominent in palaces and the courts of rulers. Praise songs for the Sarki (king) and his entourage form part of royal celebrations such as durbars, where royals and dignitaries display their insignia and their horses. Musicians accompany them to play their praises, cite their biographies and emphasize their good deeds and character traits. Such celebrations are held to mark important state celebrations such as the crowning of a king or a traditional title holder. After Islam was introduced into Hausaland in the 19th century, durbars were held to celebrate Eid.

When musicians sing praises, they are lavished with money and gifts. This is the reason why a singer (mawaki) is sometimes denigratingly referred to as a maroki(beggar), because he or she is presumed to serve the highest bidder.

Mamman Shata: Lafiya Zaki

As the absolute authorities of Sarkis waned in northern Nigeria under the influence of Islam and later of foreign colonialists, musicians expanded the scope and accessibility of their craft to include songs about everyday life occurrences, reserving praise singing for both royals and aristocrats. Diverse occasions such as weddings, naming ceremonies and even political gatherings began to include traditional music as an integral part.

Prior to Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the most popular musicians were Mamman Shata, Dan Kwairo and Dan Marayan Jos. Shata was unarguably the most sought after. His songs about politics, life in Hausaland and praise-singing for affluent associates were accompanied by his vocalists choruses, with music made specifically by the kalangutalking drums.

The rise of the Hausa movie industry Kannywood, named after the city of Kano, was a defining moment in the development of music in northern Nigeria. Kannywood’s growth was furthered by its adoption of the singing and dancing sequences from Bollywood films. Male and female dancers and performers lip-sync to pre-recorded nanaye music, accompanied by choreographed dance routines.

The song “Babban Gari” from the movie of the same name.

From singing in films, Kannywood stars like Adam A Zango, Ali Jita and Naziru Muhammad began individual singing careers which would crystallize into what is contemporarily known as Hausa pop music, which is characterized by electronic sounds. Hausa pop is also the major musical genre in the non-Hausa speaking areas of northern Nigeria, such as parts of Kaduna, Jos and Benue states. Prominent Nigerian hip-hop singers and rappers emerged from these areas, including 2face Idibia, MI Abaga, Ice-Prince Zamani, Jesse Jags, Classic-Q and Morell.

Naziru Muhammad, “Mata Ku Dau Turame”

The conservative religiosity of northern Nigeria means that all aspects of life there are influenced by Islam, and music is no exception. There are two main opinions about the Islamic permissibility of music in the area. One asserts that music is allowed as long as its contents are not vulgar or immoral, and that it is created using only percussion instruments or as purely vocal music. This view sees the major aim of music to be for religious reminders (nasheed). This viewpoint is championed by the Sufi school of Tijjaniyya adherents who utilize drumming and dance movements in their wazifas (religious exaltations and worship). The Sufis’ bandiridrummersbeat the daf drums during Sufi celebrations of Maulud(the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad).

Tijjaniyyah bandiri drummers during a Zikir competition.

The second view is championed by the Salafist school. The infamous extremists of the so-called ‘Boko Haram’ insurgency group represent the most radical and fundamentalist extreme of this standpoint. This view completely forbids music in Islam. They cite the writhing dance movements, dancers’ body exposure, the mingling of males and females in music halls and vulgar, lewd languages in most songs as the reasons for moralistic decay in society. Thus, music is seen as a pathway for immoral behaviour to pervade the conservative society of northern Nigeria. Hausa films, especially their songs and dances, are a source of great anxiety to conservative critics, who believe that the Kannywood is introducing alien, immoral influences to audiences.[i] This school of thought also claims that music was part of Hausa pre-Islamic traditional ‘heathen’ practices, such as the bori possession cults, which makes it categorically un-Islamic.

A Gangakura drum of the Hausa. Inv. Nr. III23918a+b. Museum der Kulturen Basel
Photo (c) Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

The Boko Haram perception on music in the north has, however, been challenged. When the insurgency broke out in the northeast in 2009, many assumed that the group’s rejection of Western ideals automatically translated to their rejection of music. Boko Haram’s Salafist leanings also posited that the group would automatically reject tenets from other Islamic sects such as the Sufis (who support and use music in worship). However, Boko Haram’s propaganda videos often feature some form of music as an introduction. In these videos, Arabic and Hausa music is used to encourage insurgents not to give up their cause, with the music frequently depicting the group’s vision as an underlying theme of a cosmic war between good and evil.[ii]

Although musicians have been caught in the crossfire, just like other civilians, the insurgent group have also made direct attacks on the music and drumming cultures of the north. With musical traditions being at the centre of many aspects of cultural life, these attacks on musicians and the destruction of their instruments poses a direct threat to the social fabric of communities affected by the insurgency. By targeting musicians, the insurgents aim to extinguish their deep cultural knowledge and, thus, dismantle longstanding traditions.


Photo © Fatima Bukar Hassan 2018



Carmen McCain, “Kannywood, the Growth of a Nigerian Language Industry” Nigerians Talk  October 9, 2012

Sada Malumfashi, “Religion and Music in Northern Nigeria” Music in Africa  August 17, 2017.