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In April 2014, Sian and Mike drove from |Giribes plains north-west of Sesfontein, southwards towards the Hoanib River, with Christophine Daumû Tauros and Michael |Amigu Ganaseb (see image left) who now live in Sesfontein. As we were approaching Borro – a tight rocky ‘gateway’ between the mountains – Christophine began singing a |gais song. The song told of how |Amigu’s father’s brother had once chased a young male oryx down towards Borro. He wanted to kill the oryx for food, but the oryx was running away, and he made a song about that oryx running. As Christophine sang this song to us in 2014 a young male oryx ran past us. It was as if the song had brought an event from the past into the present as we moved through the place in which the song had arisen.

The act of singing praise songs (|gais) and healing songs (arus) is indeed described locally as like re-living and re-seeing the events, people and entities of which the song is about. In this way songs and their performance reaffirm identities, values and histories about people and places. With regard to arus songs, their performance also supports the skills of healers – those who have the rain-spirit and can see and attend to sicknesses in the people.

Nathan ≠Ûina Taurob (R), Christophine Daumû Tauros (centre) and Michael |Amigu Ganaseb (L) greet and gift their ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead, looking across the |Giribes plains towards their home area of Purros in west Namibia. Photo: Sian Sullivan, May 1995, composite by Mike Hannis with aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.

Nathan ≠Ûina Taurob (R), Christophine Daumû Tauros (centre) and Michael |Amigu Ganaseb (L) greet and gift their ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead, looking across the |Giribes plains towards their home area of Purros in west Namibia. Photo: Sian Sullivan, May 1995, composite by Mike Hannis with aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.

Experiences of singing and dancing engender enjoyment and connection. |Gais songs are specifically described as sung ‘for happiness and the heart’. Elderly people in Sesfontein remember a long list of |gaines – celebrated leaders of |gais songs played in dances that lasted through the night. Accompanied by complex clapped rhythms and collective polyphonic vocal arrangements, the songs allow(ed) participants to recursively and affectively (re)experience places and events expressed in the songs.

The vulture |gais. Christjan Garamub (foreground left);
Dance leader Jakob ||Hoëb (centre). Photo: Sylvia Diez, March 2016.

|Gais about hunting the leopard. Photo: Sylvia Diez, March 2016.

Jakobus ||Hoëb (left) leading the Sesfontein cultural group. Photo: Sylvia Diez, Sesfontein, March 2016.

Place, storytelling, cultural identity: all these elements are poetically entangled and expressed through songs and dances. For elderly people who are no longer able to live in and move to places in the landscape they remember, it is often the loss of playing their arus and |gais in these places they recall on returning to these places.

Hats made of steenbok horns, shown here by Christjan Garamub of Sesfontein, are worn by men to ‘add spice’ to their head movements as they dance. It is tempting to see continuity here with early European and American encounters with west Namibia. Thomas Bolden Thompson, commander of the HMS Nautilus in 1786, observed in a settlement inland from Walvis Bay people who ‘wore aprons and sandals, and some of the men affected caps with small antelope horns attached’[1].
Photo: Sian Sullivan, Sesfontein, March 2015.

The changes accompanying modernity in Namibia tend to mean that either these song-dances are no longer enacted, or that they are enacted as performances for audiences in varied contexts. They become altered in the process as well as hybridised through accelerating encounters with different musical forms and genres. The influence of the Christian church has been key in this respect. Since the late 1800s, church music has become a focus for local skills in harmony and arrangement and west Namibia is now home to a diversity of choirs.

The grandmothers who attend the twice-weekly soup kitchen at the Lutheran Church in Okombahe demonstrate a game-song they used to sing as children. Photo: Angela Impey, Okombahe, March 2015.

With permission from those recorded as well as from collections where recordings are archived, we share a range of musical forms associated with west Namibia in the soundtrack accompanying our exhibition.


1. Dawn Chorus I, Gobabeb, Namib Desert. Recorded by Angela Impey, February 2015.

2. Western Youth Choir of Namibia, The Namibian Repertoire Vol. 2.: ‘Oshikandela’ (Enjoy the refreshing, sweet Oshikandela [dairy drink]), composed by Khwesi Haosemas, 2012.

3. |Gais (Damara dance-song, performed at community gatherings). Recorded by Emmanuelle Olivier[2] in Sesfontein, 1999.

4. |Gais song about a bird flying over the mountain at Sesfontein. Recorded by Sian Sullivan in May 1995.

5. Dawn Chorus II, Gobabeb, Namib Desert. Recorded by Angela Impey, February 2015.

6. Western Youth Choir of Namibia, The Namibian Repertoire Vol. 1.: ‘≠Khi ≠Khisen’ (‘Rejoice in the Lord’), Composer: Clarence Geingob. 2012.

7. Arus healing song. Recorded in Sesfontein by Chris Low, March 2016.

8. Ruben Saunaeb Sanib performs tsē-khom (greeting/gifting ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead) before finding the spring Sixori the following day. Recorded by Sian Sullivan, 7 April 2015.

9. |Gais women’s dance [“Frauentanz Omaruru”], recorded and introduced by Ernst Damman, Sesfontein 3 February1954 Archives BASLER_39B7[3].

10. Aaxu-eb, Damara singer-songwriter from Windhoek/Okombahe: “Invited by Ghosts” recorded by Robin Denselow at Damara King’s Festival. Okombahe, November 2016. The song warns against life’s temptations.

11. Dawn Chorus III, Gobabeb, Namib Desert. Recorded by Angela Impey, February 2015.

12. Arus healing song performed by Christiphine Opi |Awises with Ruben Saunaeib Sanib about how ||Khao-a Dama people originated at ||Khao-as mountain, north of the !Uniab river (now Palmwag tourism concession). Recorded by Sian Sullivan at ||Khao-as mountain on 8 November 2015.

13. A piece played on a mouth-resonated bow with metal string known as . Recorded by Emmanuelle Olivier in Sesfontein, 1999.

14. Nama/Damara flute ensemble - – accompanied by singing and dancing. Flutes are made from papaya stalks. Recorded by Emmanuelle Olivier[2] in Sesfontein, 1999. This genre is currently not performed today.

15. Western Youth Choir of Namibia, The Namibian Repertoire Vol. 2.: ‘Ti mama’ (Wishing Mum the greatest love and thank you for raising me). A well-known Damara song, arranged by Roger Nauturo, Soloist Letie Nangolo.

16. Story told by Louise ||Areses, Sorris Sorris, recorded by Andy Botelle and Chris Low, March 2016.

17. Solo song about boyfriend, sung by Suro Ganuses, Sesfontein. Recorded by Chris Low, March 2016.

18. Aaxu-eb, Damara sing-songwriter: ‘Song about Perfume’. Recorded at the Damara King’s Festival by Robin Denselow, November 2016. The song concerns the traditional fragrances used by Damara women made from wild herbs and known as !gari sâb.

19. |Gais recorded by Emmanuelle Olivier in Sesfontein, 1999.

20. Western Youth Choir of Namibia, The Namibian Repertoire Vol. 1.: Heilig Heilig (Afrikaans spiritual, ‘The word of God is holy’). Composed by Simon Beuker and Arr. By Roger Nautoro.

21. Dawn Chorus IV, Gobabeb, Namib Desert, Recorded by Angela Impey, February 2015.

22. Sebulon Gomachab, ‘!Uri Piris’ from the album, A Hand-ful of Namibians (P) 2004, College of the Arts Namibia (C) 2004, Nocturne.

The Damara King's Festival.

On music, dance and performance, the Damara King’s Festival deserves special mention. Now in its 37th year, the festival marks a significant annual moment when Dama / ≠Nūkhoen people gather in Okombahe to sing and dance, eat, and receive counsel from their king, Justus |Uruhe ||Garoëb. Lineages (!haoti) from all over the country arrive dressed in the emblematic blue, green and white of the Damara nation. Women wear long Victorian dresses and shawls that mimic the attire of influential colonial missionaries, whilst men are adorned in matching T-shirts and remnants of WWI military paraphernalia. Others remember their pre-colonial pasts by wearing costumes made of skins of the wild animals that supported their forebears.

The Damara King’s Festival is an annual ritual of reflection and regeneration, enabling performers and audience alike to ‘think aloud’ about their identities, histories and hopes for the future. In 2016 the festival opened with a parade by military and police bands, whose crisp uniforms, shiny brass instruments and precision choreography drew the excited crowd into the central festival space. Here the king – Justus ||Garoëb – who represents both hereditary authority and customary leadership within the context of the modern national state, presided over the day from the vantage of a large white throne overlooking the main festival space.

In 2016 the festival took place at the end of an intense 3-year drought. Calling for rain formed a major focus of the festival which, in a potent moment of relief and gratitude, was blessed by the first showers of the season.

Overall, the festival is not staged for outside consumption. In our exhibition, however, we are privileged to include a film made by Andy Botelle (of Namibian film company Mamokobo Video and Research) in association with the Damara King’s Festival Organising Committee that presents highlights from the 2016 Damara King’s Festival.

Having been profoundly displaced by German colonialism (1884-1915) and by seven decades of discriminatory South African rule, this film offers an intimate portrait of one community’s colourful celebration of itself.

Rare images of the Damara King’s Festival in 1995. Photos: Rick Rohde, Okombahe, November 1995.

The day’s programme includes speeches by clan elders and local dignitaries about Dama history, culture and local knowledge. These are interspersed with performances by cultural troupes, school groups and women’s associations from different lineages or !haoti, many of whom draw on traditional songs known as |gais.

Midway through the programme, the king leads a second procession to the nearby graves of key Dama / ≠Nūkhoen ancestors, who are ritually greeted before the procession returns to the dust, noise and spectacle of the festival space.

The day concludes with the collective social act of eating, the menu of zebra, donkey and oryx meat bringing additional nourishment to the festival’s symbolic and sensory celebration of people, place and tradition.

The Damara Kings Festival is one of many such regional cultural festivals that take place across Namibia during the year, their role in promoting cultural understanding and reinforcing social cohesion recognised as essential to this still fledgling democratic state.

More information, including a radio programme on the 2016 Damara King’s Festival by BBC journalist Robin Denselow, can be found here.

Damara King’s Festival, November 2016. Clockwise from top left: Damara indigenous culture performed by Abas ||Khoab cultural group; BBC radio journalist Robin Denselow speaks with festival organisers; AO AE SES performers from Sorris Sorris; Mamokobo film-maker Andy Botelle with festival MC Rosa Namises and assistant George Garad (photos: Angela Impey).


[1] Kinahan, J. 1991 Pastoral Nomads of the Central Namib Desert: The People History Forgot. Windhoek: Namibia Archaeological Trust, p. 99.

[2] Emmanuelle Olivier is a French Ethnomusicologist who recorded music throughout Namibia in the late 1990s. Through Future Pasts an archive of some 176 DAT tapes plus images, video and metadata has been collected from Olivier by Angela Impey from France and deposited in the British Library Sound Archives. It is now available as part of the World and Traditional Music - Africa collections (no. C1709). Work is ongoing to find or create an appropriate archive in Namibia for the repatriation of these recordings.

[3] See catalogue listings in Henrichsen, D. and Schaff, A. 2009 Ernst and Ruth Damman: Personal Papers and Sound Collection African Literature and Languages in Namibia and Southern Africa 1953 – 1997. Registratur PA.39, Basle: Basler Afrika Bibliographien.

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