Dagara Verbal Art

An African Tradition

by Paschal Kyoore (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 274 Pages
Series: International Folkloristics, Volume 12


Dagara Verbal Art examines verbal art among the Dagara people of West Africa. It provides invaluable primary material for research, and does a close analysis of folktale narration, proverb usage, riddling, chanting of dirges and popular songs by male and female praise singers, and xylophone music performance as forms of verbal art. Folktales are characterized by wit, humor, and satire, and songs within tales are a mise-en-abyme, a story within a story that entertains but also enhances the narration through the participation of the audience in the performance. Moreover, Dagara tales are didactic and moralizing as a way of controlling the behavior of individuals in society. Riddling entertains but also helps to develop the cognitive abilities of children, and demands critical and logical thinking on the part of the participating audience. Proverbs were collected in context and analyzed closely for their meaning. The study also examines closely the art of speech-making, and concludes that a good locutor knows what figures of speech to use in order to enhance communication with the audience. This study concludes that an authentic theory of Dagara—and for that matter, generally African—folklore must be grounded on a thorough knowledge of the traditions, rites and rituals, and the socio-political structures that have held the society together in its historical experience. Dagara Verbal Art is an important resource for areas such as African studies, African literature and folklore, folklore in general, anthropology, culture studies, ethnomusicology, ethnic studies, and gender studies, among others.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Wit, Humor, and Satire in Dagara Tales
  • Chapter 2: Songs as Mode of Communication within Tales
  • Chapter 3: The Female Character in Tales
  • Chapter 4: The Supernatural as a Motif in Tales
  • Chapter 5: The Didactic and Moralizing in Dagara Tales
  • Chapter 6: Dirges, Praise Songs, and Praise Singers
  • Chapter 7: The Female Praise Singer
  • Chapter 8: Verbal Art of the Dagara Xylophonist
  • Chapter 9: Popular Songs as Verbal Art
  • Chapter 10: The Art of Speech-Making
  • Chapter 11: The Art of Proverb Usage
  • Chapter 12: The Art of Riddling Riddles and Other Forms of Orature
  • Conclusion
  • Series index

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I wish to express my sincere gratitude to various people who were extremely helpful to me during my fieldwork that produced this study. I would not have been able to make a collection of proverbs in context, but for the time that the following people spent over a period of time gathering proverbs in context for me in the Nandom area of the Upper West Region of Ghana when I myself was not in the country: Alfred Siekyoghrkure Kyoore, Rev. Sr. Beatrice Siekyoghrkure Kyoore, and Jude Siekyoghrkure Kyoore. I say “barka” (thank you) to the late Leander Lobber and his son Francis Lobber from Naapaal near Nandom (Ghana), for graciously finding time to narrate to me a number of folktales that are featured in my publications of Dagara folktales, and which are the subject of analysis in the chapter on folktales in this study. Many children living with their parents at the time on the Nandom hospital campus because their parents were hospital employees, enthusiastically came together one evening to narrate to me many Dagara folktales that I recorded on video. There were also many adults who participated in the storytelling session. I hope you all see my gesture of gratitude to you in my publication of the folktales, and also in the analysis of folktales in this book. Virginia Maaniasiε of Kogle, a village near Nandom which is also my maternal village, found time to demonstrate to me how Dagara women sing songs while grinding millet or corn on the traditional grinding stone. She also ← xi | xii → shared with me her experiences of learning how to be a praise singer, and how she performs at diverse occasions. I am grateful to her as well as to the late Nimorius Sokuu (praise singer), Bernard Woma, Kpεε Bεtuormanε, and Ralio Kpaakpulguba (xylophonists), Dang Bangnituo (folktale and riddle narrator), who all agreed to grant me interviews. This book would not have been possible without their willing hearts to share their knowledge with a researcher.

Likewise, I gratefully acknowledge the Journal of Dagaare Studies for permission to reproduce portions of an article, “A Study of Riddles among the Dagara of Ghana and Burkina Faso,” originally published with them in 2010.

Finally, I would like to very graciously pay a special tribute to my dear friend the late Rev. Brother Nicholas Zumanaa (Brothers FIC) from Daa-Ur in the Nadowli area of Ghana, for the keen and encouraging interest that he had in my research on Dagara folklore. I wish he were still around to read this book.

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Dagara tradition requires that when you meet someone the first time, to introduce yourself properly you need to include certain important details about your origins, because those details define your identity. Accordingly, before I can “speak” to my reader I will introduce myself in the following manner. I am from a village called Dabagteng, a few miles from Nandom in Ghana. I am of the Nabεglε paternal clan, the Gbaanε maternal clan, and I am Kpogda by my matriclan. For the Dagara people who are the focus of this study, this identify determines to a large degree the manner in which I socialize with people in any Dagara community across borders. It assures me of social solidarity in times of need, but also puts an onus on my responsibility towards the larger community beyond my immediate family. It is remarkable how much adults and especially elders in Dagara communities tend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of people’s clan identities. The importance of blood and family relation in Dagara culture is captured in the manner in which they express the connection that exists in human relationship. In the Dagara language, they say that: “Ninsaalε e na mε y⊃gvaar gbεra”, which means “a human being is like the branches of a pumpkin plant”. The branches of a pumpkin plant grow and spread on the ground and can extend very widely around the plant. Because Dagara people always find some type of blood or family relation that connects them to other people, the nature of the pumpkin plant is ← 1 | 2 → perceived as representing well this human relationship which is like tentacles that spread all over the place.

There is no single study on Dagara oral tradition that encompasses different genres such as proverbs, folktales, riddles, xylophone and folk songs, and praise singing. This study is a modest attempt on my part to fill that vacuum by discussing these varied genres. It also provides material collected in my fieldwork for researchers interested in the field. Verbal art is defined here as forms of communication that are done through speech or song. I include xylophonists in this study, because they produce an important form of Dagara verbal art. They produce and perform songs that become a means of communication on joyous occasions as well as on sad occasions. For the study, I have used an interdisciplinary approach, though my training is in literature, and not in anthropology, linguistics, or any of the other disciplines that might be relevant for this type of study. According to Richard Bauman (4), the conception of verbal art as performance is based upon an understanding of performance as a mode of speaking. “Performance”, according to Bauman, has been used to convey a dual sense of artistic action—the doing of folklore—and artistic event—the performance situation, involving performer, art form, audience, and setting (4). Bauman further postulates that verbal art may comprise both myth narration and the speech expected of certain members of society whenever they open their mouths. Performance is what brings them together in culture-specific and variable ways. This study does not include mythical performance of the Dagara people. However, it focuses on other forms of verbal art such as what is performed through riddling, storytelling, folk song singing, dirges, and xylophone music.

The verbal art of a people is by nature a dynamic literature. The written form is static by its very nature, though its interpretation changes and takes new forms based on the evolution of thought among the members of the society in which the art was produced, as well as within the world of critics themselves. The oral form however takes on a natural dynamism that is often driven by how much interest succeeding generations demonstrate in oral literature, the evolution of socio-political institutions, as well as the manner in which foreign cultures impact the indigenous culture that produces that verbal art. All these assertions are certainly true of the Dagara populations that live in the modern states of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire. European education and Christian missionary evangelization among the Dagara people are certainly factors that have impacted and continue to impact how verbal art evolves in their communities across borders, but the focus of this study is not on this influence. ← 2 | 3 →

There is much research that has been done on the cultures of the Dagara people and/or their neighbors the Sisaala by Dagara intellectuals themselves, and publications include work by the following: Alexis Tengan (2000, 2013, 2016), Paul Bekye (1991), Edward Kuukure (1985), Edward Tengan (1991), Malidoma Somè (1993, 1998), Isidore Lobnibe (2013) and Dannabang Kuwabong (1992). This is far from being an exhaustive list. Not all the publications on Dagara folklore (which is what interests me most in this study) that have been done in Burkina Faso over the years were readily available to me. At the Diébougou Catholic mission, I was able to procure a number of the publications that have been done in Dagara or French by; Mètuolè Sòmda and Constantin Gbaane Dabire, Contes Dagara (1977); Mètuolè Somda, Contes Dagara du Burkina Faso: 72 contes; Raphael Dabire Dèr, Proverbes Dagara (n.d); Constantin Gbâane Dabire, Nisaal: L’Homme Comme Relation (1983); Constantin Dabiré Bû Nyeri Ni Bû-be-Nyeri (1978); Timothée Meda Sagkaa Naayüle Koroza Dagara Kuor Yele Nibere na man a 1967–1973 (n.d). On the other side of the border in Ghana, the following publications on Dagara folklore are worthy of mention. For example, Sebastian Bemile (1983) and Paschal Kyoore (2009, 2012) respectively published translations of Dagara folktales that they collected; and Luke Bangnikon (1999) published a collection of Dagara proverbs with explanations of the meaning of the proverbs. Sebastian Bemile (2010) also published a huge volume of Dagara proverbs with translations into several European languages. In addition, Gervase Angsotinge (1986, 2013) has done some work on Dagara folklore, focusing specifically on folktales.

My research was done primarily in the Nandom area of northern Ghana. Both the language and the people are called “Dagara” (Der 1). The Dagara, and the Dagaaba (who speak Dàgàáré) in Ghana are the same ethnic group, and they and the Waala speak three main dialects of the same language (Nakuma 16). In southern Ghana, the Dagara/Dagaaba ethnic group is commonly called “Dagarti”, an erroneous nomenclature that was coined by the British during the colonial era. On the other side of the border in Burkina Faso, the French colonists also erroneously called them “Dagari”, and this nomenclature has stuck till today. Some Dagara people in Burkina Faso who speak a different dialect of the language are also known as the “Wiile”. British anthropologist Jack Goody who did some work on the Dagara bagr myth in the 1950s confirms that he invented the term “LoDagaa” to refer to the people who live in the area between Baabili and Nandom in Ghana. Before him, F.B. Henderson had called the Dagaaba people “Dagarti”, whilst the French H. Labouret called the Dagara people “Dagari” (Goody 1956). These erroneous nomenclatures coined by Europeans only create confusion for ← 3 | 4 → people outside the region who want to be able to identify ethnic groups properly. This is how Constantin Gbâane Dabire describes the situation in his dissertation which is a philosophical study of Dagara culture:

L’administration coloniale française, à l’ouest du fleuve a inventé le terme Dagari—on ne sait comment ni pourquoi—C’est un mot qui ne se trouve ni dans la langue de l’ethnie concernée, ni dans celles des peuples environnants. En plus de son caractère artificiel, ce nom ne désignait qu’une partie seulement de l’ethnie, à savoir les Lobr, dénomination curieusement inconnue des auteurs mais que les intéressés emploient pour se désigner et se distinguer d’un autre sous-groupe, les Wiile, que les auteurs francophones ont classés, à tort, comme une ethnie à part. Par contre, le nom Dagari est appliqué par eux à des populations de l’est du fleuve avec lesquelles l’identification est fausse: c’est ainsi que Delafosse désigne tous les habitants des districts de Wa et Lawra indifféremment comme Dagari. (Dabire 10)
[The French colonial administration on the west of the (Black Volta) river invented the term Dagari–we do not know how and why–It is a word that exists neither among the ethnic group in question nor among the neighboring ethnic groups. Apart from its artificial nature, this name was used to refer to only a sector of the ethnic group, that is the Lobr, a name that curiously the authors did not know but which the ethnic group in question uses in order to distinguish itself from another sub-group, the Wiile, that the francophone authors erroneously classified as an ethnic group by itself. On the contrary, they use the term Dagari to refer to peoples of the east of the river, an erroneous nomenclature. This is how Delafosse refers to all the inhabitants of the districts of Wa and Lawra without making any distinctions as Dagari].

Dabire then goes on to explain further that:

De son côté l’administration coloniale anglaise regroupait sous le vocable Dagarti diverses ethnies de la région nord de l’ex-Gold Coast, en en excluant les “Dagari” et les “Wilé” des francophones qu’elle classe dans le groupe “Lobi”, extension abusive du nom d’une ethnie manifestement distincte, malgré certainnes affinités culturelles. (11)
[On its part, the English colonial administration used the common name Dagarti to refer to diverse ethnic groups of the region north of the ex-Gold Coast, excluding the “Dagari” and the “Wilé” of the Francophones that it classifies among the “Lobi” group, an improper inclusion of the name of an ethnic group that is obviously different, in spite of certain cultural commonalities].

Students of African history know that the boundaries that the Europeans carved out in Africa during the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, following their scramble for the continent, were very artificial ones. The consequence of the partition of the West African region was that the Dagara people found themselves partitioned among three modern states. They belong to countries that use English and French respectively as their official and administrative languages. Dagara ← 4 | 5 → folklore is the same across borders, though proverbs, riddles, and folktales do evolve from one village to the next, and with time, and this explains the variety that characterizes the same folktales that are told among the Dagara communities. Dagara folktales are characterized among other things by their wit, humor, and satire, and that is what I focus on in the first chapter of the study. In his groundbreaking study on folktales decades ago that was to influence greatly the approach to the study of folktales, Vladimir Propp’s approach was to identify the number of functions we see in tales, because for him “l’étude montre que les fonctions se répètent d’une manière stupéfiante” [study shows that functions are repeated in a surprising manner] (29). Interesting as this approach might have been for scholars, it is not an approach that I find helpful in my study.

I collected and translated folktales over several years. During some of the storytelling sessions, the participants told riddles as a prelude to the storytelling. The folktales and riddles were recorded on video and audiocassette. On one of such occasions, there were over thirty children and adults ranging in age from five years to about fifty years old. The riddles were told mainly by the younger members of the audience, presumably because of their interest in the genre, and also because they found it as a good prelude to the storytelling session. At another storytelling session, the tales were narrated by only adults. Dagara riddles cover very varied themes in life, and like proverbs there is a preoccupation with the flora and fauna that characterize Dagaraland.

In African society, verbal art is a distinctive mode of communication but also a source of knowledge for research into other disciplines. Simon Amegbleame puts it succinctly when he asserts that: “Ainsi la literature orale est-elle l’expression de toutes les dimensions de la vie, de la culture et de la religion. Toute de performance, elle est une littérature des majorités puisqu’elle postule constamment le collectif” (41). [Thus, oral literature is an expression of all aspects of life, culture, and religion. In all its form, it is a literature of the majority since it always postulates the collectivity.] Proverbs, riddles, folk songs, dirges, and other modes of verbal art among the Dagara people are an expression of all the different facets of what constitutes Dagara culture.

There are many advantages in using technology to record folktales on audio and videocassette for research, and that includes the ability it gives to the researcher to examine the material more closely. However, there are also inconveniences because the use of technology creates an unnatural environment in a storytelling setting or during an interview with a praise singer.

The second chapter of the study focuses on proverbs, an extremely important mode of speech among the Dagara people. The Oxford English dictionary defines ← 5 | 6 → a proverb as “a short pithy saying in general use, held to embody a general truth.” This definition suggests that society accepts the information embedded in a proverb as truth. It seems to me that it entails therefore an acceptance of the values portrayed in the saying that society considers as a proverb. Also, this is based on an assumption that all societies accept certain assertions as “truth”. In the Dagara language, through the mode of usage in speech, the “zukpar” (proverb) is distinguished from the “zukpar lrba” (riddle). Because the word “zukpar” means both a proverb and a riddle, the distinction is made not only through the choice of words in the utterance but also in the context in which it is uttered. Folktale sessions are often introduced with the utterance: “ti lb zukpai”, which means “let us tell riddles”. This serves as a prelude to the narration of the folktales. However, when “zukpar” is used to mean a proverb, it might be introduced by the following phrase: “Dagara tεri zukpar kang”, which means “the Dagara people have a saying that”. Parents often use proverbs to put a message across to their children in a manner that would help them remember the lesson embedded in the utterance. Praise singers (lang konmε) too also often use proverbs in their dirges. As I have explained in a study on Dagara riddles (Kyoore, 2010), a proverb is distinguished from a riddle by adding some explanatory phrase such as “zukpar lrba”, or “ti saakuminε tεri zukpar kang”—“our ancestors have a saying that”. One could also identify a proverb by prefacing it with “Ni bεrε mi yelkε”—“the elders have a saying that”. Riddling is normally done as a prelude to a folktale telling session, and is more popular with children because of its entertainment value. Proverbs (“zupkar” in the singular, “zupkai” in the plural) on the other hand, are employed daily by Dagara people who are well-versed in proverb usage to communicate in a lucid manner with their interlocutors. They are also often employed by a speaker to impress the audience, provided of course they are properly used in the context. The most illuminating definition of “zupkar” written in a study in a European language is one by Sebastian Bemile (19) who attempts to trace the etymology of the word “zupkar”. According to Bemile, “zupkar” is a compound word that is probably formed from “zuur”, which means a tail, and “kpar’ which means the butt or the handle of an object. Bemile also acknowledges that some Dagara people give a different origin of the etymology of the word “zupkar”. According to this other version, “zupkar” is a combination of the words “zùmε” (an intuition), and “kpar”, to bundle. The term “zupkar”, according to this source would then mean “the quintessence or product of intuition, i.e. any impression or any expression that may result from the piece of knowledge gained through apprehending something ‘pre-cognitively’ or through obtaining immediate awareness or the understanding of it” (Bemile 19). Deriving an interpretation from this second source ← 6 | 7 → of the etymology of the word, Bemile suggests that this also means that “zupkar” describes a phenomenon that seems to amalgamate verbal and non-verbal arts. The conclusion that he draws seems to me plausible. The chapter on proverbs in this study is an expanded version of a chapter that I contributed to a book edited by Alexis Tengan, Christianity and Cultural History in Northern Ghana: A Portrait of Cardinal Peter Poreku Dery (1918–2008).

The third chapter of this study focuses on other aspects of Dagara orature that are related to folktales, namely riddles and puzzles. I am not aware of any significant studies that have been done on Dagara riddles. In the Dagara language, the terms that are used to refer to riddle and puzzle make it imperative to understand that we cannot always transpose English terms onto concepts in African languages without paying attention to important nuances. I published an article on Dagara riddles in an issue of Journal of Dagaare Studies (2010). The chapter on riddles in this study is a revised and expanded version.

There is a chapter each on “lanηni” (dirge chanting), and “pgbε danu”—female praise singing. “Lanηni” is praise singing done by men at funerals. It is rare to see a woman perform at funerals, as this is the domain of men. On the other hand too, “nuru kyεb”—female play songs—, bibile bεlu yielu—lullabies—and niεr εru yielu—songs performed while grinding millet—are the sole preserve of women. I was not able to record any chants performed for plastering a house. “Nuru kyεb” is performed at weddings, and as entertainment among young girls and women alike at times when they want to relax after performing their household chores. When “nuru kyεb” is done in the evening after supper, it brings together girls from the households in the village, and even from neighboring villages in a sort of communal entertainment activity. Unfortunately, these traditions are only practiced in the rural areas, because big city dwellers are too busy indulged in so-called modern life style of watching television or listening to commercial type music. The rural communities indeed continue to be the custodians of traditions in a way that makes city dwellers sometimes too “foreign” to some of the rich traditions of their own society.

In his book The Proverb in the Context of Akan Rhetoric: A Theory of Proverb Praxis, Kwesi Yankah (1989) discusses proverbs in context. The approach that he adapted in his work is of interest to me in this study. Also, Luke Bangnikong has published a collection of Dagara proverbs in which he explains the meaning of each of the proverbs in his collection. However, he does not go beyond an explanation of the meaning of the proverbs. His collection is useful, but analyzing the proverbs in context was not the goal of his work. In this study, I am not just interested in a collection of Dagara proverbs and what they signify. I am interested ← 7 | 8 → in studying the meaning of proverbs as they are used in specific contexts. This approach gives a better understanding of their meaning as well as their socio-cultural importance. For such a study, I had to (with the help of assistants) collect proverbs in context by recording the contexts in which the proverbs were uttered, and why they were used in that context to the specific audience. The folktales, proverbs, and riddles that I analyze in this study are all from my own collection that I made during a number of years of fieldwork.

The chapter on riddles is a close analysis of riddles that were narrated as a prelude to some of the folktale telling sessions that I recorded. In the chapter on folk songs, I use a sample of songs that were recorded on audiocassette by Dagara musicians and shared with friends. These songs were popularized at the time thanks to the use of this limited technology. I got the chance to interview one of those musicians (Lucio Aayire) before he passed away. In the same chapter, I also use the transcription of songs that were performed for me by one of the xylophonists that I interviewed for the study. Also, there is a chapter on female praise singing. For that chapter, I interviewed Virginia Maniasiε who shared her experience on how she learned to be a praise singer, and also demonstrated the chanting of a praise song while she was grinding millet on a traditional grinding stone that women used in the rural areas in Ghana and other parts of West Africa. In villages in which a grinding machine is still not available, women continue to do the physically demanding job of grinding their millet on the grinding stone, though this now seems to be rare. The chapters on male praise singers and xylophonists respectively benefited from several interviews with praise singers and xylophonists. The chapter on folktales focuses on wit, humor and satire, and all the tales that are the focus of the discussion in the chapter are tales that I collected in my own fieldwork. I have a separate chapter on folktale songs as a mode of discourse, because such a close study of the songs within tales reveals a certain mode of communication between characters in the tale on the one hand, and between the narrator (performer) and his or her audience on the other. There is also a chapter each on the supernatural in folktales, and female characters and narrators.


Amegbleame, Simon A. “La Littérature orale comme mode de connaissance et méthode d’investigation.” Présence Africaine, vol. 139, 1986, pp. 41–56.

Angsotinge, Gervase T. “If you Do Good You Do It to Yourself and if You Do Evil You Do It to Yourself.” Christianity and Cultural History in Northern Ghana: A Portrait of Cardinal Peter Poreku Dery (1918–2008), edited by Alexis Tengan. Bruxelles: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013, pp. 89–104. ← 8 | 9 →

———. Wisdom of the Ancestors: An Analysis of the Oral Narratives of the Dagaaba of Northern Ghana. Los Angeles: Ph.D. Dissertation UCLA, 1986.

Bangnikon, Luke D. Wisdom to Guide You: A Book of Dagara Proverbs, Wisdom and Humour with English Translations and Comments. Ghana, 1999.


XII, 274
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XII, 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Paschal Kyoore (Author)

Paschal Kyoore earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University and his D.E.A from the Université de Bordeaux III. He is currently Professor at Gustavus Adolphus College. His publications include The African and Caribbean Historical Novel in French: A Quest for Identity, Folktales: Dagara of West Africa, and Dagara Folk Tales: Ghana and Burkina Faso, among others.


Title: Dagara Verbal Art
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