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Janzen, John M - Theories of music in African ngoma healing – Part 1



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

John M. Janzen – Theories of music in African ngoma healing

The subject of this article is a widespread type of ritual in central southern Africa that entails divination, song-dance, percussive rhythm, counselling and support during a lengthy therapeutic initiation in which the sufferer-novice often develops an identity-in-song and may eventually become a healer.

This widespread and varied institution is often identified with the word ngoma which is translated variously as 'drum', 'drum of affliction', or 'rite of affliction', or more inclusive definitions.

I use the African term in my work because of the frequency with which it is used to describe the core sequence of activities in therapy: a sung, danced healing ritual around a particular song/call-response set, usually focused on a particular person at a time, within a larger setting of a group of healers, their patients/novices, and sometimes their families and other community members.

This set of activities is often directed by African medicine specialists known across the sub-continent by the general term ganga 'doctor of medicine', although it is hyphenated to, or substituted by more specialized titles such as that widespread in southern Africa where the practitioner of ngoma is simply called i-sa-ngoma, one who does ngoma.

Both 'ngoma' and 'ganga' are probably several thousand years old, and belong to the foundation of historic cultures which spread from West Africa southward and eastward across the continent.

Some of the features common to the entire region of ngoma distribution are likely to be as old as the word. We are thus dealing with an ancient, classical African ritual therapeutic process in which music is central.

Some of the features of ngoma have spread to other regions, especially in the New World, where they have joined local or Western musical traditions……………….

another essential feature of ngoma, [is] the spirits who are brought into - or evoked within - the ritual setting by the song-dance. The point is that the Western definition of music suggests performers or players before an audience, rather than music emanating from amongst the participants for whom the rhythm, bodily movement, sound and words are a conversation that grows in intensity and fullness and movement as it progresses.

This combination of song, dance and catharsis evocation does not make ngoma any less technically 'therapeutic' than technical approaches to Western music therapy. Although I am sure there would be a diversity of opinion amongst the thousands of ngoma healers across the sub-continent, were they ever to meet, those with whom I have spoken emphasize the therapeutic nature of ngoma. Muslim waganga in East Africa, and Christian sangoma in southern Africa, stress that ngoma is 'medicine' rather than 'religion', even though its therapeutic work is to discern the appropriate spirits in the music.


The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Spirit helper


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy