Songs Of The Ngoni People (Lullabies, Umsindo and Mthimba songs)

Margaret Read, 1937


Nearly 120 years ago the Ngoni left their homeland in the South during the upheavals of Chaka’s wars. In Nyasaland where the majority of them settled, they began to mix with the local tribes, preserving certain Ngoni institutions which they had brought from the south, to which they clung tenaciously as proof of their political and social superiority over their neighbours.1 Predominant among these exclusive Ngoni institutions were their songs and dances. The musician listening to the phrasing, rhythm and harmonies of Ngoni music knows that here is something of rare and distinctive beauty. The linguist studying the words of songs recognises the old Ngoni language, closely akin to old Zulu and Swazi. The social anthropologist watching the dancing and singing can see an expression of the ” national” spirit of the Ngoni, and watch how social distinctions mark off the true aristocrats from the former slaves, the latter being excluded from taking part in the dance.
Not being either a musician or a linguist but a mere social anthropologist, I have made a selection of Ngoni songs to show how they are interwoven with the great events of their life, both in their historic past and in the crises of their life today. I hope that this selection may evoke criticism and comment from scholars in South Africa who are familiar with old Zulu and Swazi songs of the same type in the early part of the 19th century. It may be of course that the departure of the Ngoni proved a means of preserving their heritage of music and song, and that in spite of mixing with other tribes for 120 years, they have kept some songs which have been lost in the changes that have been taken place in the south during those years. That is one of the reasons which has prompted me to put forward this selection— as a test, as it were, of continuity of culture, and the means by which that continuity is maintained. One interesting fact bearing on this question of continuity has come out during the process of collecting songs. There are in Nyasaland two distinct groups of Ngoni, one under the leadership of the Jere clan, the other under the Maseko clan, known today as Mwambera’s and Gomani’s people.These two groups left for the south independently, and except for two fights on the way north, never intermingled either in their journeyings or in their subsequent settlement. I have already found among them however a small group of songs, varying very slightly in words though not in music, which as both groups possess them in common must, I think, be proof that these songs were known to them before leaving the south. The recorded number of these songs held in common is small at present, but I think further research would reveal a number more.
On the linguistic side I am well aware of the deficiencies in the recording of these songs. When taking them down a number of varying renderings were given, some alleged to suit the music, others just “We say this or this.” In the recording I have had the invaluable help of Rev. Yesaya Mlonyeni Chibambo, an Ngoni of Mwambera’s people, I have accepted his spelling of the songs in his area, and have tried to record myself the songs in Gomani’s area. For translation purposes I have used a Zulu dictionary (Colenso), checking Rev. Y. M Chibambo’s English version in his area and getting, where I could, a Nyanja equivalent in Gomani’s area to assist translation. I am not at all satisfied either with the recording or the translating, and can only plead that an anthropologist working with three languages expects to be attacked by the real linguists for any texts he dares to put forward.
The selection and arrangement of songs
The musician studying Ngoni music would begin to classify tht songs under two heads ; those sung by groups and those sung by individuals. Among the latter are the only Ngoni songs sung to au instrumental accompaniment, namely those sung to the igubu or uhlanga.2 Nevertheless some of these igubu songs are sometimes by groups at marriages or initiation rites, and vice versa. The group songs of the Ngoni have no instrumental accompaniment, and the absence of all drums in Ngoni music is one of the outstanding characteristics, in comparison with the music of the local tribes. There is however usually accompaniment of some kind to Ngoni group songs. The men stamp their feet, or knock their shields, or whistle shrilly through their teeth. The women clap their hands, or trill by stroking their cheek with the thumb or pinching the lips together with the finger and thumb, or hum in harmonies. This humming and the rhythmical stamping of the men’s feet which reverberates in the dry dung of the cattle kraal or the newly softened earth of the first rains, are the most characteristic as well as the most aesthetically beautiful, forms of accompaniment.
The Ngoni themselves in old days divided their dances into two kinds,those for pleasure or pastime, and those for serious purposes such as war and religion. In these days however they say the distinction no longer exists as all are now really dances for pastime.
I have chosen a third form of grouping for the songs : those which are related to different stages in the life cycle of the Ngoni, and those which draw together people and recall their past. To the first group belong lullabies, initiation rite songs, marriage songs, mourning songs, and the songs of the izanusi when people went to them for divining in times trouble or sickness. To the second group belong war songs, praise songs of chiefs, ingoma songs, and a few fragments of inqwala songs.
A word should be added here on the composition of Ngoni songs as the people themselves explain it. Songs are never composed separately , words and music. It is always a single inspiration which leads the composer to find the right words and the right music. This applies both to songs which one man sings, such as praise songs, songs for the igubu, or songs of an isanusi ; and equally to songs such as ingoma, umgubu, mthimba for group singing. Such inspiration for omposing songs is recognised as a special gift, possessed only by a few individuals. These people have isifua, which is literally the chest, said to be the seat of inspiration and eloquence. Thanks to isifua a man or a woman can compose on the spur of the moment a song for a wedding or about the deed of a hero, and also today a Christian hymn. Such inspiration fortunately does not appear to be dying out, and the ompetitive visits of groups for singing and dancing from village to village after the harvest are a means of spreading these modern songs as they spread the old.
A. Lullabies
As might be expected songs in Ngoni relating to women’s work were very few, because in the course of time all the true Ngoni women assumed the role of aristocrats and had a number of attendant women who did all their work for them. I once asked a Maseko woman if there were any Ngoni songs sung while pounding maize. She looked at me with great scorn and replied ” As if the lngoni women ever pounded!” The same is true to a lesser extent of lullabies, for nursemaids were always employed in Ngoni households, and though some of them learned Ngoni lullabies, most of them sang their own lullabies to the children. These are two illustrations of Ngoni lullabies which have persisted and are widely known in Mwambera’s country.
(1) Ngoni :
Binda mntanami
Eya eya
Binda mntanami
Eya eya
Maguqa nazo oyiye
Maguqa nazo oyiye
Ho tivun’ umumbu.
English :
Hush my child
Never mind, never mind.
Hush my child
Never mind, never mind.
There is a busy-body gossiping
There is a busy-body gossiping
Ho ! we reap the maize.
(2) Ngoni :
UKholwane, Kholwane kaMakhwaphuna
UKholwane, Kholwane kaMakhwaphuna
Amasi omtakababa
Uhamba uyawakhwaphuna
Ngezindlela zaboyihlo
Zathi ngci ngci.
UKholwane, Kholwane kaMakhwaphuna
UKholwane, Kholwane kaMakhwaphuna
Uthweleni na ?
Ngithwele ‘kudla komntwana
Uhamba ukuchoboza
Ngezindlela zomnyama.
Kholwane, Kholwane, son of Makhwaphuna
The curds belonging to the child of my father
You go about dipping from them (the curds)
You are sprinkling them3 (the curds)
So that the paths of your fathers
Have completely become shut.4
Kholwane, Kholwane, son of Makhwaphuna
What are you carrying ?
I am carrying the food of the baby
For he goes about defiling it.5
On the dark paths.

From the moderator:  The above song no. 2 appears to have similarities with an ancient Zulu song based on an interview David Rycroft had with Princess Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu (1900 -1984), mother of Chief Gatsha Buthelezi of South Africa . The princess is pictured below with an ugubhu. She was said in the article to be the last known player of this nguni music instrument.among the Zulus. The article is entitled: A Royal Account of Music in Zulu Life with Translation, Annotation, and Musical Transcription Author(s): David K. Rycroft Source: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1975), pp. 351-402. Below are parts of the interview:-

Umsindo or umgonxo was the girls’ initiation ceremony which took place, not at puberty, but several years later as a preliminary to marriage. It was only celebrated for the daughters of important people and was an occasion for a great gathering with much feasting and dancing. The songs sung at this time belonged chiefly to the older women (umsindo songs are only sung by adults), though men joined in them too. They show a wide variety of subjects, ranging from warnings against jealousy in women to songs about historical events. Formerly as well as today umsindo songs are sung on other occasions, such as funerals for example, and many of them are sung as solos to the accompaniment of the igubu. They seem with the ingoma songs and mthimba to be songs of civil life as opposed to the periods of warfare, times when the people gathered together for song and dance with no thoughts of fighting to trouble them. The umsindo ceremony of the daughter of an important man provided such an occasion, and songs of many kinds originated round that gathering, some with no reference at all to the particular nature of the rites performed. There were however some umsindo songs referring to sexual intercourse sung only at umsindo ceremonies, in which the terms and allusions were frankly obscene. These are seldom heard today, and were apparently discouraged by the real Ngoni in the past, as they inflamed the passions, and the Ngoni had a firm belief that sexual licence and lack of control was detrimental to the qualities needed in warfare.
The first three songs are warnings to the girl to be married against giving way to jealousy when living among the other wives.
(1) Ngoni :
Yo! mfaz’ wobukhwele
Zhi-ha-a-wo !
Kuyahela zhi-ha-a-wo !
Yo ! luvalo lwakhe
Yo ! bukhwele bakhe.
English :
Behold thou woman who art jealous
Thou art torn with pain6
Alas her panic7
Alas her jealousy.
(2) Ngoni :
Yo ! mfazi wobukhwele
Uyingwe !
Uyingwe !
English :
Now thou art barking
Now thou art barking
Behold, woman of jealousy
Thou art a leopard.8
(3) Ngoni :
Hoyayiyoyo indoda ilalepi ?
He ngiyamfuna ngezinyawo ho
Indoda ilale endlini
Aye kwamayiikhuyu.9
Hau mkhuyu
Hau mkhuyu mkhuyu
Indoda ilale endlini.
English :
Woe is me !
Where has my husband been sleeping ?
I am looking for him
I am looking for him with my feet, ho !
Woe is me !
My husband is sleeping in the house
He went to the big mother
Alas to the big one
My husband has been sleeping in the house.
The following song is very popular in Mwambera’s country. It is said to be a lament of the women against the difficulties of polygamous households, and was so used by two Ngoni ministers in a recent campaign among the churches. They were speaking against polygamy and used this song which was well known as an illustration. The language of the song must be figurative for the Ngoni were continuously successful in war until the Europeans came, and long before their advent this song was known. This explanation of its meaning therefore may be correct. It is often sung as a solo to the igubu.
(4) Zizwe zonke (All the nations)
Zimemelene thina  (Are called together against us)
Zizwe zonke  (All the nations)
Zimemelene thina-nje (Are just called together against us)
Siyakuyibuza kubani?(Whom shall we ask about this ?)
Siyakulwa sithini (How shall we fight)
Zimemeleni thina (They are called together against us)
Siyakuyimemaphi ?(Whence shall we summon help ?)
Amigananda ho (The big husky ones, ho !)
Zimemelene thina (They are called together against us)
Sothelelwa ngubani (We are reinforced by whom ?)
Mhlaba uyemuka (The earth is departing) 10
Zimemelene thina (They are called together against us)
Zingongo zonke (We are in disfavour with everything

Sihlalukelwe-e-e (We are deserted )

Zimemelene  Thina (They are called togther against us)
Mhlaba uyafutha (The earth breathes fire)11
This song refers to the approaching marriage of the girl, speak of her as a victim to be killed, and her family as a fort to be entered. The “one who is selected ” is the man whom the girl or boy could take the initiative in choosing a mate.
(5) Ngoni :
Sithi ngubani ozakubulawa lonyaka?
Makhonjwa sivulele inqaba
Sithi ngubani ozakubulawa lonyaka?
English :
We say who will be killed this year ?
Thou chosen one open the fort for us
Let us enter
We say who will be killed this year ?
The next three songs (6, 7, 8) are examples of historical songs sung on occasions of umsindo. They are three out of a large collection of such songs, and are also sung as solos to the igubu. The first two both refer to the departure of the Ngoni from the south. Zide or Zwide was chief of the Ndwandwe people among whom were most of the Ngoni. On his defeat by Chaka they left to begin their march northwards. The third song is said to have been composed on the journey. It contains the refrain “Let us return to Swaziland where the people die fat,” which is also found in several other songs. It is suggested that the last six lines may be a veiled attack on the leader, Zwangendaba, because he seemed to be attempting the impossible.
(6) Ngoni :
Uzide Mankosi kuSoshangane
Ngilele ngingalalanga (repeat)
Mnaye UZide Mankosi kuSoshangane
Ngilele ngingalalanga
Hayi UShaka usichitha12 ngamahlathi kuSoshangane
Ngilele ngingalalanga.
English :
It is because of Zide, chief of the Soshangane people
That though I lie down I cannot sleep
O Zide chief of the Soshangane people
Though I lie down I cannot sleep.
Chaka scatters us among the forests of Soshangane land.
(7) Ngoni :
O qholosh’ intanga (repeat)
Ubondinda ngale phansi kwentaba
Ngolwani kuShaka?
Abantu baphelile phansi kwentaba
Elele Lohaya! (repeat)
Oyahoyo yahoyo yoya (repeat
O qholosh’ intanga (repeat).
English :
The man of our age-grade struts before us,
He wanders on the other side of the mountain
In the land of Panic.
Why should we fear Shaka ?
The people are finished beneath the mountain
Alas! Lohaya
The man of our age-grade struts before us.
(8) Ngoni :
Oya yi yayo qobo yeya ! (repeat)
Yo magcigca egumeni kwanazala
Yo Mnguni wakithi yowaliwayo
Owanyathel’ udaka lwabathakathi
Ubomuke simuke siy’ eSwazini
Laph’ abantu bafa yokhuluphala
Bayimis’ uluthi lomkhonto
Usuk’ ungcangce uhlal’ephezulu
Yo Magwaza ngomunwe waqhuqhumba
Isandla sokudlela ngesokungcongca
Ivila elidl’ amabel’ okulimelwa
Bathi kananyongo kanamehlo
Zi zi ntshe entshi (repeat)


Oya yi yayo, what does it matter!
Thou who joyest thine head in the entrance court of thy mother in law.
O Mnguni of our people who art rejected,
And hast walked on the mud of the wizards,
Come let us go to Swaziland
Where the people die fat.
Where they set up the shafts of the spears
Which rise up and walk with their bodies erect.
Thou who stabbest with the finger and it swells up,
Take care, the hand which is for eating also destroys.
The idle man eats grain hoed for him.
While he boasts that he has no bile, nor fat round his stomach.
Zi, zi, ntshe, entshi.

C. Mthimba songs:

The mthimba or marriage ceremony of the Ngoni was a lengthy series of rites of which had its appropriate songs. There were also some general mthimba songs which were interspersed with the special songs for each rite. Many of these general mthimba songs were sung at other times, and often as solos to the igubu. As in the umsindo songs some are historical and seem to bear no reference to marriage.

The first five songs refer to some event in the sequence of marriage rites. The general tone is that of sadness at giving up the girl to another family village, and the next two songs (6 and 7), sung by the bride herself , reflect the same feeling of exile from her family and friends. These songs can be sung to the igubu.

(1)Ngoni: “Ukuconga umntwana”
Niwunzulane unzulane
Yobaba ungidelile
Ngiykundinda kus’ebaleni
Yobaba ungidelile

English: “The preparing of the girl (before she goes to her husband.)
I am a stray, a stray
Behold my father has given me up
I shall wonder to the wild country
My father has given me up13

(2) Ngoni: “Ukuqandisa umlobokazi.”
Hoya yi yoya
Yo mntwana wenzulane kowani
Hoya yi yoya
Yo mntwana ongenayise kowani na?
Hoya yi yoya
Yo maqanda ngegundane zimswelekile
Sengiqandile bayiso kowani

English: “The bringing of the bride’s gift.”
Hoya yi yoya
Thou child of a wanderer, thou art mine.
Thou child without a father, thou art mine.
Hoya yi yoya.
Thou who bringest a present like a house rat because thou hast no cattle.
I have now brought a present to my comrades.14

(3) Ngoni: “Umbedlo.”
Zikuya yombedlo bayisa
Yombedlo bayisa
Ngezakithi wayimemez’ inkondlo
Wayimemez’ inkondlo.

English: ” The song sung sitting.”.15
You lads16 it is the dancing time my comrades
O comrades, a dance!
With the lads from our home he has called for the dance
My comrades
He has called for the dance.17

(4) Ngoni : “Umbedlo.”
Ntandane yangena
Uyangena haye
Siyangena haye
Ntandane yangena.

English: “The song sung sitting.”
She is entering
Let us make her enter
The orphan is entering
She is entering – haye
We are entering – haye
The orphan is entering.

(5) Ngoni: “Ummekezo”
Sikhon’ isilo sidl’ abantu
Ngomnyama yomntwana uyakhala
Sikhon’ isilo
Uyakhala yena yo mntwana
Sikhon’ isilo.

English: “The deflowering.”18
There is a lion eating the people
In the darkness a child is mourning
There is a lion
She is mourning that child
There is a lion.

(6) Ngoni:

Baba ngonile ngonile baba ngonile
Kadi ungichel’ ubaba ngaphik’ inkani
Seiyadlal’ imiyoni ngaphik’ inkani


Father I have done wrong, I have done wrong father I have done wrong
You did tell me, my father, I have made a quarrel (or) I have been disappointed
The birds’ feathers are now playing19 I have been disobedient.

(7) Ngoni:

Ngaphel’ umoya
Hoyayiyoyo ngaphel’ umoya
Zas’ eNgucwini ziyehla ngaphesheya
Ngaphel’ umoya


My breath is finished
My breath is finished
The cattle of eNgucwini20 have descended on the other side
My breath is finished.

The following song is a very old mthimba song, but is sung today chiefly as an igubu song. Ngoni ministers have told me they use it in church meetings, because all the people know it and it reflects their old philosophy, and as such is made the basis for christian teaching about death.

(8) Ngoni:

Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ indlu kuya nkuyu
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni. Nhi hi hi hi ! (in sobbing tones and nasally)
Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ amakawu kawu
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi !

Uyezwa mhlaba, sokulilel’ uyezwa mhlaba!
Sonke siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi!

Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ amakhosi-khosi
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi!
Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’amakhosikazi
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi

Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ abalumuzana
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi!
Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ amakhosazana
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi!

Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ abafokazana
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi
Umhlaba kawunoni. Uqed’ nezilwanyana
Siyakufel’ emhlabeni na? Nhi hi hi hi  hi!

Uyezwa zilale wena wosalelizweni ngci!
Sonke soshony’ emhlabeni na? Ho ho ho ho !
Uyezwa mhlaba liyashon’ iyangana, ngci!
Sonke songen’ emhlabeni.


The earth does not get fat21. It makes an end of those who wear the head plumes22
We shall die on the earth.
The earth does no get fat. It makes an end of those who act swiftly as heroes.
Shall we die on the earth?

Listen O earth. We shall mourn because of you.
Listen O earth. Shall we all die on the earth?

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the chiefs.
Shall we all die on the earth?
The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the women chiefs.
Shall we die on the earth?

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the nobles.
Shall we die on the earth?
The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the royal women.
Shall we die on the earth?

The earth does not get fat. It makes the end of the common people.
Shall we die on the earth?
The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of all the beasts.
Shall we die on the earth?

Listen you who are asleep, who are left tightly closed in the land.
Shall we all sink into the earth?
Listen O earth the sun is setting tightly
We shall all enter into the earth.

From the moderator: The following is a Mthimba song (Yobaba ngonile) from the Ngoni of Mzimba in Malawi recorded in 1950. It was sung by Inkosi ya makhosi M’mbelwa seven wives. The pictures are of different Ngoni women and not the singers.

The next two songs (9 and 10) though called mtimba are usually sung to the igubu, and contain historical references. The first song refers to the fights on the road between Zwangendaba and two other leaders. Nqaba is said by some to be the same as Mzilikazi, and Soshangane was the founder of the Ngoni Kingdom in Mozambique. The second song is one of the many telling of the famous crossing of the Zambezi during the solar eclipse in November 1835. It was after the fights with Nqaba and Soshangane that Zwangendaba was forced to flee across the Zambezi.

(9) Ngoni:

Ngihlangane ngentombi kaMahamba
Uzenz’ uhlanya njen’ oyise
Ngihlangane ngentombi kaMahamba
Uzenz’ uhlanya njeng’ oyise
Musani kungihleka
Musani kungihleka
Sengahlul’ uNqaba
Ngahlul’ uSoshangane kaZigodo


Let me meet with the daughter of Mahamba
She acts the madman like her father.
I have met with the daughter of Mahamba
She acts the madman like her father.
Do not laugh at me
Do not laugh at me
Now I have conquered Nqaba
Now I have conquered Soshangane son of Zigodo

(10) Ngoni:
Siwel’ uZembezi23 sawela ngentambo
Samwela ngentambo
Mnawo yayoya
Sekuwahlw’ emini
Mnawo yayoya
Se kwash’ ubani?


When crossing the Zambezi we crossed with a rope
We crossed it with a rope
We crossed it with a rope
The sky darkened at day time
The lightning flashed.


1. See article in Africa, Vol. IX, No.4, Oct 1936, On “Tradition and Prestige among the Ngoni ” by the author.

2. An instrument shaped like a bow with a gourd pressed against the body. Thy string is struck with a stick.

3. i.e. wasting them—amasi (curds) is always plural in its pronoun like the Scotch porridge.

4. The expression zathi ngci ngci is used of the ears being shut so that gossip cannot be, heard.

5. Defiling—i.e. dipping into it with a dirty hand. The whole song is a reproach to someone who has brought food for a child and been careless with it.

6. Ukuhela—lit. to cut grass and is used figuratively to express a sharp cutting pain in the bowels—the bowels are the seat of sympathy and there a woman feels pain if her child is in trouble or if her husband goes to sleep in another home.

7. Uluvalo is used both for madness and for great fear.

8 . i.e, she is fierce and ready to tear at you.

9. This song is from Gomani’s country and Chinyanja expressions have crept in. L and Y are sometimes interchangeable here, especially in songs.

10. i.e. everything has gone from us—goods, glory, happiness.

11. Ukufuta has the idea of something going on continuously, as a man gasping or steam issuing from a boiling pot. I have taken the simile here from a dragon breathing file.

12.This an example which occurs constantly in Ngoni songs of the use of the historic present into a past meaning.

13. This song is sung by the girl herself with her companions joining in. She is still in her own village waiting to go with the gift to give her husband-to-be.

14. This song is sung by the older women of the village who stand in relation to the girl as her mother. It is the song of a poor girl, perhaps with no father, as she brings a small present, though it is also Ngoni etiquette to belittle any girl before the donor.

15. Ukubedla is to sing while sitting after the bride’s gift is given.

16. Zikuya=the grown ones-i.e. ready for inclusion in a new regiment.

17. Inkondlo is used by the Ngoni with the same meaning as Ingoma-i.e. dance and song.

18. This is one of the songs sung after the girl has slept with her husband for the first time.

19. The bride-to-be sometimes put feathers on her head when going to her husband’s village. Now she sees the feathers shaking in the hut and is reminded by them of what her father told her.

20. A reference to cattle given by the boy’s father to the girl’s family. On the completion of handing over the cattle the girl had to her husband.

21. Ukunona = never be satisfied, because the earth is always receiving the dead.

22. Indlunkulu is used for older men entitled to wear tall head feathers.

23. The Ngoni always say Zembezi and not Zambezi.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: