Hausa Poetry and Songs

An Introduction to Hausa Poetry and Song

Hausa has a rich literature in poetry and song. In terms of the texts, there is really no difference between poetry and song. Hausa has a single word, wak’a (plural wak’ok’i), for this type of linguistic artistic expression. All wak’ok’i have certain things in common:

  • Sung oral presentation: Artists compose their works for sung performance. One never hears spoken recitation typical of oral performance of European poetry, and silent reading of poetry is essentially unheard of except perhaps in certain modern intellectual circles.
  • Composition following strict metrical patterns: Hausa wak’ok’i always follow fixed rythmic patterns. A text not following such patterns, such as the “free verse” of nearly all modern English “art” poetry, would not be wak’a. The basis for metrical patterns in Hausa is syllable weight (or “long” and “short” syllables). Click on the links above for more information.

One can broadly distinguish two co-existing traditions in Hausa poetry and song. The Hausa terms for these traditions are wak’ar baka ‘oral song’ and rubutacciyar wak’a‘written poetry’. These terms are a bit misleading since both types are intended for oral performance, but the former is COMPOSED IN ORAL FORM and would never be written down by the artist, whereas the latter is generally COMPOSED IN WRITTEN FORM, then read or performed from memory on the basis of a written text. In addition to these differences in modes of composition, there are other differences:

Origin Hausa traditional folk and professional singing dating from pre-historical times Formal study of Arabic and Arabic poetic texts
Themes Professional artists specialize in praise-singing; folk traditions cover everyday life events, such as marriage, relations between men and women, etc. Originally, focus was on religious themes, which are still dominant in the “written” tradition, but modern poets write on every imaginable theme
Composition Composed and performed orally–never written down by the artist Written out by the artist (often in Arabic script); there are also blind poets who compose and perform in the “written” style but who obviously cannot write out their own texts
Performance Performed to instrumental accompaniment, such drums, lutes, or fiddles; professional praise singers usually perform as soloists with an accompaning chorus Performed by a solo artist without instrumental accompaniment
Verse structure No fixed pattern; a verse (insofar as “verses” can be identified), may range in length from one to many lines Poems follow fixed verse structure. The most common are 2 and 5-line verses, but 3 and 4 line verse patterns also exist.
Rhyme No rhyme pattern Usually exhibit a regular rhyme pattern. Most common is an “external” rhyme (the last line of each verse rhymes) and an “internal” rhyme for poems with verses of more than two lines.
Meters Traditional, probably dating to the earliest Hausa times Classical Arabic. Arab poets of the classical period had a complex system of meters. Hausa artists apply these to Hausa. Some modern poets in the “written” tradition also use traditional Hausa meters.
Samples of Songs in Each of the Styles
Wak’ar Baka: The late Alhaji Mamman Shata “Yan Arewa Ku Bar Barci”


Alhaji Mamman Shata, who died in 1998 in his mid-70’s, was far and away the most popular Hausa musician of his, and perhaps any muscian’s time. Like most professional musicians, his main theme was praise songs, though unlike most traditional praise singers, he composed songs for both the great and the humble. He also composed songs on many other themes of social commentary. Lines from many of his songs have worked their way into Hausa as aphorisms. Shata performed in the standard traditional praise singer’s mode as a solo vocalist accompanied by drummers (in Shata’s case, playing the kalangu, the hourglass shaped “talking drum”) and a chorus (‘yan amshi’answerers’) who repeated a fixed refrain after each of Shata’s verses.

The excerpt here is from a song admonishing northern Nigerians to work for their own and for Nigeria’s prosperity. Click on the start button of the player below to hear the song excerpt.

‘Yan Arewa Ku Bar Barci, Najeriyarmu Akwai Dad’i Northerners Stop Sleeping, Our Nigeria is a Pleasant Place
Shata: A’a, ‘yan arewa a bar barci,
Najeriyarmu, akwai dad’i.
To!‘Yan Amshi: A’a, ‘yan arewa a bar barci,
Najeriyarmu, akwai dad’i.Shata: K’asar Afuruka, bak’ar fata,
K’asar Afruruka, bak’ar fata,
In ka yi yawo ciki nata,
Duk ba kaman Najeriya, gidan dad’i,
Najeriya k’asar farin jini,
Najeriya ce gidan dad’i,
Balle arewa uwar dad’i.
To!‘Yan Amshi: A’a, ‘yan arewa a bar barci,
Najeriyarmu, akwai dad’i.
Shata: Oh, northerners stop sleeping,
Our Nigeria, it’s a pleasant place.
All right!Chorus: Oh, northerners stop sleeping,
Our Nigeria, it’s a pleasant place.Shata: The continent of Africa, (home of) the blacks,
The continent of Africa, (home of) the blacks,
If you travel within it,
There’s no place like Nigeria, home of pleasure,
Nigeria, the popular country,
Nigeria is the home of pleasure,
How much less the north, mother of pleasure.
All right!Chorus: Oh, northerners stop sleeping,
Our Nigeria, it’s a pleasant place.
Rubutacciyar Wa’ka: The late Alhaji Ak’ilu Aliyu “Hausa Mai Ban Haushi”


Alhaji Ak’ilu Aliyu was a prolific poet working in the written tradition. He was a well-trained Koranic scholar, and particularly in the days before and after Nigerian independence, he was highly active in promoting the causes of the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), one of the more left-leaning, anti-traditionalist parties. Alhaji Ak’ilu’s large body of published work covers many religious, social, and political themes. He combined biting critiques of those whose behavior he disapproved or whose opinions he did not share with poetic virtuosity, playing with sound and meaning. He was an imposing public performer of his own work, with both a powerful voice and a strong rhythmic feel more akin to performers in the oral tradition than to his peers in the written tradition.

The excerpt here is from a poem decrying the weakening of the Hausa language by the modern generation, who have an anemic vocabulary and fill the language with English borrowings.

Hausa Mai Ban Haushi Hausa, the Giver of Vexation
Saba da neman gaskiya duk nisa,
Sarari da b’oye kadan ka so bunk’asa.Ga gargad’i ya zuwa gare mu, zumaina,
‘Ya’yan Arewa da wanda duk ke Hausa.
Get used to to seeking the truth no matter how distant,
Out in the open or hidden, if you want to advance.Here’s an admonition directed toward us, my clansmen,
Children of the north and anyone else who (speaks) Hausa.
Descriptive Studies of Hausa Metrics


Metrical Studies of the “Marriage Songs” of Dan Maraya Jos


This page includes links to a detailed study of a group of songs by a famous Hausa musician, Dan Maraya Jos. You can download the full text of a rather long and technical unpublished paper, you can download the full texts and translations of the songs, and you can listen to samples of the songs while viewing a musical transcription and scansion.

The following “movies” allow you to play a sample of each of the songs, see a musical transcription of each line as you hear it, see the scansion for each line, and get more information on Hausa metrics.

Jawabin Aure
Auren Dole
Gulma Wuya
Brief Biography of Dan Maraya Jos


Dan Maraya Jos, whose name means “The Little Orphan of Jos”, was born in 1946 in B’ukur, near Jos in Plateau State, Nigeria. His Islamic name is Adamu, but his father died shortly after his birth and his mother died while he was still an infant, hence the name by which everyone knows him. Dan Maraya’s father was a court musician for the Emir of Bukur, who took Dan Maraya under his care when his parents died. Dan Maraya showed an early interest in music and came under the influence of local professional musicians. During a trip to Maiduguri while he was still a pre-teen, he was impressed by musicians there and made a kuntigi, with which he has accompanied himself ever since.

The kuntigi is a small, single-stringed lute. The body is usually a large, oval-shaped sardine can covered with goatskin. Dan Maraya and other kuntigiplayers are solo performers who accompany themselves with a rapid ostinato on the kuntigi. During instrumental interludes they repeat a fixed pattern for the song they are playing, but while singing, they will often change the notes of the pattern to parallel the melody they are singing.

Like most professional musicians, the mainstay of Dan Maraya’s repertoire is praise singing, but Dan Maraya singles out his personal heros rather than the rich and famous. His first, and perhaps still his most famous song is “Wak’ar Karen Mota” [“Song of the Driver’s Mate”] in praise of the young men who get passengers in and out of minivan buses and do the dirty work of changing tires, pushing broken down vans, and the like. During the Nigerian Civil War, he composed numerous songs in praise of soldiers of the federal army and incorporated vivid accounts of scenes from the war in his songs.

Many of his songs incorporate social commentary. These include the songs on marriage in the study here, which probably date from the early 1970’s. One might argue that they are really one large song, and in performance, Dan Maraya incoporates lines from each of them. However, the recordings that serve as the basis for this study have three distinct musical settings, and the songs themselves have three different themes. “Jawabin Aure” [“Discourse on Marriage”] lists the problems attendant in divorce and admonishes married couples to try to patch up their differences. “Auren Dole” [“Forced Marriage”] decries the practice of families arranging marriages for their daughters rather than letting them decide on their own mates. “Gulma-Wuya” [“The Busybody”] describes a neighborhood gossip who works in collusion with a boka (a practitioner in casting spells, removing evil spirits, etc.) to disrupt marriages by sowing dissension between women and their husbands. The latter song is amusing in that Dan Maraya performs it as a drama, imitating the voices of the different characters as they speak, a technique that he has used in other songs as well.

Metrical Studies of Three Generations of Poetry in Hausa in a Non-Arabic Meter

Meters from the Classical Arabic canon form the basis of meters for most Hausa poetry that the poet composes in writing, with regular stanzaic form an end rhyme. The oral tradition of Hausa poetry and song, which typically does not have regular stanzaic patterns or rhyme, uses meters which presumably predate widespread education in Islam and the concomitant exposure to Classical Arabic poetry. Despite this bipartite division of Hausa poetic traditions, there is crossover, particularly where poets in the “written” tradition use non-Arabic meters from the “oral” tradition.

My paper “Text and performance in Hausa metrics” is a study of three poems related in this way. The “base” is a song by the late Alhaji Mamman Shata Katsina, “Wak’ar Mata Ku Yi Aure” [The Song Women You Should Marry]. The late Alhaji Ak’ilu Aliyu, hearing Shata’s song, adopted the meter for his “‘Yar Gagara” [The Wayward Woman], a stinging condemnation of prostitution. The late Alhaji Aliyu Namangi, in turn, adopted the metrical pattern he heard in Ak’ilu Aliyu’s poem for a religious praise poem, “Tsarabar Madina” [A Gift from Madina].

Shata’s song, in the traditional style, has “stanzas” of varying length, and no end rhyme. The latter two poets composed in couplets, Ak’ilu Aliyu using internal rhyme within each couplet (rather unusual for Hausa poetry) and Aliyu Namangi rhyming the second line of each couplet in the syllable -na throughout the poem (the commonly used Hausa rhyming pattern). What all three works have in common is a line with the rhythmic pattern

— vv — vv — vv — vv (where “—” = heavy syllable, “vv” = two light syllables or one heavy)

In the paper, I refer to this meter as “anti-mutadaarik” since it is the mirror image of an Arabic meter, mutadaarik, which Hausa poets sometimes compose in as well.

The paper studies in detail the way each of the poets has used this meter, including invariant aspects, deviations they permit, and some differences between the “oral” and “written” adaptations.

Download “Text and performance in Hausa metrics”

Further resources on Hausa language and culture: 


On this webpage you will find resources on Hausa language and culture, including an online Hausa course.

Hausar Baka Online Course

Hausa online grammar

Hausa-English-German online dictionary

Hausa language variation and dialects

Hausa printed resources

Relevant links for studying Hausa



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