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Observations placeholder

Janzen, John M - Theories of music in African ngoma healing – Part 3



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

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

The first ngoma is spoken, the second is sung. The first is done with everyone standing still or kneeling; the second is a demonstration of animated bodily motion and rhythm. The first has no instrumental accompaniment, the second is joined by whatever instruments or rhythm are at hand, including hand-clapping, shaking rattles, or the booming drum

Table 3.1 The two parts of the ngoma unit

ukunqula ( self-presentation )                        ngoma (song dance)

spoken                                                                 sung

individual                                                             collective

motionless                                                            song-dance, rhythm, instrumentation

'call'                                                                         ‘response’

suffering, confessing dreams                              healing

This stark contrast within each unit of 'doing ngoma' represents a dynamic tension within the therapeutic performance that lends a great deal of power to the ability of this institution in all its fluidity to transform the individual who is willing to open up innermost thoughts and dreams to his or her peers.

These evocations that open each ngoma unit were done with great intensity, in a voice often filled with pain and passion, as if spoken by an individual wanting to get a weight off of his or her shoulders bytelling it to those gathered. The ukunqula is sometimes about dreams but other themes are evoked as in this out-pouring by the senior healer for whom the 'washing of the beads' was held, here addressing her mother:
'ukunqula: ... I'm praying to Mama. We’ll leave having washed each other ... we survive because of each other ... while we say we came to "heal".'

The response was either initiated by the self-presenter, or it was initiated by someone in the gathered group of other healers and novices with this short phrase which was repeated many times: 'Ngoma… mama died ...'.

Regardless of who introduces the ngoma, as soon as it is intoned the circle begins to move in a counter-clockwise direction in a pattern characteristic of African group dance. The dancers' legs and bodies move in seemingly spontaneous yet concerted energy. If the dancers also have rattles in hand, they now begin to shake them in correspondence with their dance step and the singing. Shortly the drum joins the rhythm, but never before the vocal and smaller individual shakers and clappers have begun. The rhythm is thus initiated not by the drum, but by the energized group singing-dancing in a tight circle within the small room. The choreographer, who is singing-dancing in the circle, signals the end of the unit, which comes abruptly. The 'ngoma' is then 'passed on' to another individual who waits for everyone to become quiet, before he or she kneels and 'confesses'.


Repressed thoughts, social messages too dangerous to speak or act out bluntly, are veiled in other idioms such as mime, metaphor, myths, dreams  and drama. Particularly the rituals of aggression and healing are known to divert emotions into channels other than explicit language.

Thus, music, trance behaviour and non-verbal symbols may become necessary for the survival of life in human society. There may indeed be healing in such communication that releases aggression, or expresses contradiction, rather than engaging the conflicting parties directly in violent confrontation.

Thus surely ngoma ritualizes the word.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy