Gilles Holder & Emmanuelle Olivier, "Jenne : Music as a political Act in an African Muslim City"

Gilles Holder & Emmanuelle Olivier, "Jenne : Music as a Political Act in an African Muslim City", Proceedings of International Seminar of Urban Form Conference : The Planned City ?, Trani (Bari), 3-6 juillet 2003, pp. 682-688.


Jenne, a two-thousand-year-old city which has lived through all the great empires of West Africa, is a town in present-day Mali with a population of 15,000 people spread out over a residential area of some 65 hectares. The town, which is engaged in a democratic process involving decentralisation of the State and the creation of rural and urban municipalities, is reinvesting the multiple identities that have forged its history and its present configuration, while remaining one of the holy cities of Islam, as it has been for over 700 years.

From the outside, the city appears as a uniform ensemble, as though emerging from an immutable past : a town that is remarkable for its density and for its characteristic (so-called “Sudanese”) mud architecture, exemplified by a magnificent Great Mosque - elements which led UNESCO to write Jenne, along with Timbuktu, on the World Heritage List in 1988. However, from the inside, the town appears, on the contrary, as many-faceted, with its social diversity, its multilingualism and its poly-centred political organisation, all of which are the reflection of an urban geography based on districts, and divided into two halves, one called “the town” and the other “the bush”.

From these two cities, the one imaginary and the other real, one a cohesive whole and the other fragmented, one in the past and the other in the present, the people of Jenne continually reconcile the real city and the Muslim city by way of a series of political acts, subtly enacted by the preservation and re-creation of a unique musical repertoire that the local people call maduhu.
This paper sets out to illustrate the question of the planned city, by showing how the embodiment of the Muslim city, which is brought about by the performance of the maduhu songs, constitutes in fact a temporary, repeated and necessary re-planning of the real city in its temporal, spatial, linguistic and artistic dimensions : a process which gives rise to a redefinition of its historicity, its places, its hierarchies, and the place of the individual.

1. Maduhu : a Musical Metaphor for the Muslim City

In the Songhay language of Jenne, the term maduhu refers both to the panegyric poetical genre (in Arabic, madih or madh) and to the poems themselves (Arabic madiha, plur. mada‘ih). Very widespread in the Muslim world, these poems in the form of praises, which are initially addressed to the Prophet, are also performed for rulers, as well as for great dignitaries and Muslim scholars [1] . At all times, and whoever they were written by, they have always been governed by prosodic and poetic rules, which have been set out in a large number of theoretical texts, the oldest of which date back to the end of the 9th century, i.e. around two hundred years after the time of the Prophet [2].
In Jenne, the maduhu are inspired by the religious hagiography surrounding not only the Prophet, but also local saints and masters of the Koran. They coexisted alongside nonreligious musical repertoires, sung to honour the great men of the city. Unlike the Koran and other religious texts which are “chanted”, the maduhu are performed by means of a cappella “singing”, a characteristic which distinguished them from other nonreligious songs, sung to music made by rhythmical and melodic instruments and often accompanied by dancing. Moreover, the maduhu are religious texts written in Arabic, which are sung only by young men, by students and masters of the Koran, whereas nonreligious songs, which belong to the oral tradition, can be performed equally well by men or by women, in the various vernacular languages. The unicity of the Muslim city is thus opposed to the diversity of identity and language in the real city [3]. Thus, whereas nonreligious songs are associated with various groups present in the city (ethnic groups, “we-groups”, corporations, districts, families) and contribute to the construction of their identity, the maduhu bring together the people of Jenne as one, within the great Muslim community. The real city, taken as a whole, can only be measured by means of the Muslim city, of which these sung poems are a powerful vector.
The maduhu repertoire is made up of ancient poems, whose origin has often been lost sight of, and which are “brought out” : a term which covers both the public performance of texts belonging to a family heritage, and the “publicizing” of the eminent social and religious status of the owners of the texts. However, the repertoire is also supported by the creation of local poems, in the sense of a “making”, or of a “transformation”, as it is understood that ex-nihilo creation is an act reserved for God alone. Whether the singer is using old or new materials, the process is nevertheless always the same : like the Muslim city itself, the maduhu is a material which, by nature, is always in the process of realisation : a kind of ideal song, which only exists for the time of its performance, and whose vocation is to be constantly transmitted, recomposed and set forward both for the public and in public.
Ideally, a poem is “made” or “brought out”, a melody is composed or varied, and the product is presented to a restricted audience, made up of the family and close acquaintances. The maduhu therefore has to go through a kind of validation process : if it is approved by this limited audience, it will be performed on a wider scale, during the evening religious gatherings that take place in the month in which the birth of the Prophet is celebrated (the Maulud) : the last stage before the song is really made public. From then on, the author hands over his rights to anyone who wishes to perform the new maduhu by diffusing, or allowing the diffusion of copies of the text to be made, the song itself being passed on by ear. However, for the singer, singing a new maduhu in public means making his own publicity, for the creation of these praises reinforces the power of the great marabout families, based on religious, poetical and musical knowledge, which, in this religious space creating the Muslim city, supersedes the political power of the real city. And in this particular register of religious singing, the passage from private to public is confirmed by the production of a text, thus underlining the importance of writing in the Muslim city, which is organised and planned according to laws, rules and regulations, all set out in writing.

2. Circumstances and Urban Situations of Musical Performances

The maduhu are performed in public or private social circumstances which entail a situational and temporal recomposition of the corresponding spaces. Circumcision, marriage, the end of the reading of the Koran by a pupil, a pilgrim’s return from Mecca : all of these are private circumstances which require longer and longer processional routes : from the home to the district, then to half of the town, and finally to the whole town. Here, the occupation of space becomes greater by correlation, the routes becoming longer as the spaces become wider. As for sociability, in the sense of social relations, it extends from the family circle to the neighbourhood, then to the inhabitants of half of the town and finally to the entire population of the town, as the number of people in the procession increases. Indeed, when a pilgrim returns from Mecca, anyone can join in the procession through the town, which goes from the town entrance to the mosque, and from there to the pilgrim’s home. Although the procession remains, strictly speaking, a private event (related to personal initiative), it gradually falls into the public domain, insofar as it passes by the mosque, the unique, central, panoptic and federating point of the Muslim city. However, as it remains relatively independent from the religious calendar, it does not take on the public dimension that we find at the end of the period of fasting (the Ramadan), the sheep sacrifice (the Tabaski) and the Maulud, which aim in these cases at highlighting two important personages : the imam and the ruler of the town.
However, whenever a procession takes place, whether the circumstances are private or public, a particular maduhu called Assalatow (from the Arabic as-Salat, literally “the Prayer”) is performed. This song is characterised by the fact that its verses are sung by a soloist, with a chorus taking up the refrain in answer. This particular structure reveals the twin processes of individualisation and mutualisation that are put in place when this song is performed. But it also establishes, in parallel, a continuum between the private and public spheres, typical of the Muslim city, which leads from the street to the vestibule of the house, and from the vestibule to the inside of the house. For the private sphere, here (and this is not the case in the real city), merges into the public sphere, and conversely, the social, economic, political and residential frontiers being redefined by means of the ideal city of Medina.
Indeed, according to tradition, the assalatow singing was performed for the first time by the inhabitants of Medina to welcome the Prophet after he had left Mecca. In remembrance of this event, any private or public religious procession made by the people of Jenne is accompanied by this song. It re-enacts, symbolically, the Hegira, i.e., the emigration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, an event which marks the beginning (Year 1) of time for Islam : both historical time and calendar time (the passing of the year), punctuated by high points such as Ramadan, Tabaski, Maulud, and of course the Pilgrimage to Mecca. By linking together the two holiest cities of Islam, the maduhu, which sublimates both the Prophet and the Hegira, establishes thereby a new political, social and religious organisation, a re-planning of the real city on the lines of the Muslim city, which takes elements both from Medina, the religious centre, and Mecca, the trading centre. For the time of its performance, the song brings the ideal city to life through a synthesis of history and myth, in which Jenne incarnates temporarily and repeatedly the etymology of its own name : aljènnè, “Heaven”.

3. From the real city to the Muslim city : re-planning and continuum

The real city of Jenne is, as it were, suffused with the Muslim city which emerges in certain conditions, on four levels : the temporal (with the observance of ritual and festive occasions), the spatial (through the redefinition of geography and urban routes), the linguistic (with the special use of Arabic as a religious language), and the artistic (through the performance of sacred songs). The embodiment of the Muslim city, that is, the way in which it is projected into real life, is a process of re-planning which gives rise to a redefinition of its historical and temporal nature, of its topography and its hierarchies, which brings about a new representation of the city as a whole.
It is, precisely, the assalatow singing which enables this re-planning process to take place, in the course of situations determined by festive occasions, linked either to private ceremonies or to the festivals of the Muslim calendar. However, from a symbolic point of view, the singing is necessary not to open the festive period, but to recreate the Hegira, insofar as it alone allows the Muslim city to supersede the real city, and to fit the latter into an open time-scale. Recreating Medina in Jenne, whether to celebrate a pilgrim’s return from Mecca or the transfer of a bridegroom from his family home to his wedding chamber, allows the city to re-actualise its future again and again, for going back to Mecca would mean the end of the history.
Parallel to this new temporality, Jenne also redefines its space, and first of all its global space, which it re-centres around the Great Mosque and its corollary, the open space for collective prayer. However, beyond this unity of place, the Muslim city also invests many of the numerous spaces usually reserved for social, economic or political life (squares, streets, vestibules of the houses) with its particular processional routes and gathering places. It creates new links between private and public spaces, which are from now on considered as a continuum rather than an opposition. It is from this point that Jenne, by incarnating a new Medina, embodies not only the perfect model of the holy city, but also of the city par excellence, in Arabic al-Madîna. The re-planning is upheld here by this prototype of the urban ideal versus the rural, an opposition of civilization on which Jenne is founded as much as on its religious definition.
Once the time and space of the Muslim city has been put in place, Jenne finally produces a new political and social order in which the hierarchies of the real city are replaced by those of Islam, passing ideally from the aegis of a temporal sovereignty (the Sultan) to that of a religious sovereignty (the Prophet). However, this substitution based on the temporary time-and-space of the Muslim city cannot totally ignore the more permanent time-and-space of the real city. Thus, while the imam replaces, so as to speak, the ruler of the town, these two personages in Jenne are both singled out for attention and the ruler of the town thereby is potentially an imam. Indeed, both men are invested with the same baraka : that which characterises those who are appointed to lead the secular city like the religious city, as witnessed by the large white turban, the blessing and the performance of the assalatow singing that both receive when they take up their functions.
Moreover, this reversibility of supreme hierarchies also shows that they are not only the product of a social, economic and political logic, but also of a divine one, and, in this way, the Muslim city introduces the idea that anyone can potentially occupy these high functions. Hence, if the performance of assalatow singing brings about an ontological transformation in the individual to whom it is destined, it would be sufficient to perform it before any individual for this person to become, in his turn, the imam or the ruler of the town. Thus, when a pilgrim returns from Mecca, or, an example which is even closer to the everyday life of the city, when a man gets married, he receives a blessing and is given a white turban, and the assembled crowd sings assalatow to him. For the duration of this unique musical performance, which puts the Muslim city in place, the circumcised boy, the student of the Koran, the bridegroom or the pilgrim become, de facto, the head of the town, through this singular telescoping of the public and private, but also political, spheres.


The time of the maduhu is that of the Muslim city, an ideal city which is brought into being on regular occasions by various operations of re-planning, which affect not only the public and private categories, but also the collective and individual, spatial relations, historicity and temporality, allowing the real city to rediscover a political unity which is often dissolved in its urban practices.
However, aside from the religious event, Jenne is telling the world that it is the town, one of the three Medinas of Mali. And its re-planning takes on a particular significance, that becomes all the greater when we remember that the city is going through a process that is ongoing in Africa, and also worldwide : a process whose watchwords are decentralisation, and an increased importance accorded to local identities. Thus, every time that Jenne sings that it is Medina, it shows itself as part of a dynamic process, a political action, in the face of various external enterprises that seek to fix it forever like a museum, and it strongly asserts its urban status and its contemporaneity.

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[1Cf. L. Al Faruqi 1985) ; J. Topp Fargion (2002) ; G. M. Wickens (1986) ; L. P. Monts (1998) ; A. Simon (1980, 1998).

[2Cf. G. Meredith-Owens (1960).

[3Cf. G. Holder (2004) ; E. Olivier (2004).

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