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  • Writer's pictureSian Sullivan

Repatriating Musics Digitised by the British Library to the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority, North-west Namibia

Nama-Damara flute (ǂāb) music performance in Sesfontein 1999. In the centre the three visible male flautists are (L-R) Isaac ǁHawaxab, Fanuel ǁHawaxab and Manasse |Nuab – all deceased. The women singers-dancers circling them are (L-R) the late Julia Ganuses, Evangeline |Nuas (= sister of Manasse |Nuab), unknown, Albertina Tjitena (wearing purple headscarf). Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier archive 1999 (no. 74).

In a rather steep learning curve, since 2021 I have acted as a 'Research Advisor' facilitating negotiations between the British Library's World and Traditional Music Collection in London, UK, and the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority based in Sesfontein / !Nani-|aus, north-west Namibia. The initiative we've been working on is the repatriation of an archive of digitised musics recorded in Sesfontein in 1999, whose return has been much sought after by those recorded and their descendants.  


Recorded by ethnomusicologists Emmanuelle Olivier from France and the late Minette Mans from the University of Namibia, in 2015 this collection of recordings was retrieved from Olivier in France by ethnomusicologist Angela Impey. The collection now housed in the British Library includes Olivier’s full set of recordings, images and notes from her wide-ranging ethnomusicology research in Namibia in the 1990s.


Following a lengthy process of negotiation, the full set of digitised recordings from Sesfontein in 1999 was returned to the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority (TA) and the Hoanib Cultural Group in March 2022. This process is documented in a co-authored British Library Sound and Vision Blog.[1]

Part of this process involved working with Welhemina Suro Ganuses, Sesfontein resident and Nami-Daman TA Councillor, to identify musicians photographed in the recorded performances using colour slides in the Olivier Sesfontein collection I scanned in 2018; following up this work in 2022 with Fredrick ǁHawaxab, Olivier’s translator in 1999.

The identified musicians, their families/descendants and the wider community represented by the Nami-Daman TA and the Hoanib Cultural Group of Sesfontein, are the Indigenous and local Rights Holders to the musics and musical performances in the Olivier / Mans Sesfontein Collection now catalogued in the British Library.

Five Sesfontein musics are included in this set of recordings. These five musical forms are interconnected, sharing histories and Rights Holders and existing in close relationship with each other. They are:

1. flute music / ǂā, a Khoe / Nama musical form on the cusp of extinction

Nama-Damara men in Sesfontein / !Nani-|aus, north-west Namibia, playing flutes (ǂādi) of four different pitches in 1999. From L-R the flautists are Petersen, Manasse |Nuab, Isaac ǁHawaxab, Fanuel ǁHawaxab – all now deceased. Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier archive 1999 (no. 55).

It is likely that Emmanuelle Olivier made the last recordings of Nama flute music – ǂāb (‘ǂab’ in the Olivier Collection) in Sesfontein in June and November 1999, now present as 12 recordings in the British Library collection. Polyphonic music played by ensembles of male flautists and accompanied by song-stories sung primarily by women has been recorded over the last 500 years for Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples in southern Africa. The 12 digitised recordings of Nama-Damara flautists and accompanying vocal performances made in Sesfontein comprise four flute songs performed by a reduced orchestra of four flutes/flautist and women singers.


An outcome of histories of displacement, mobilities, and interconnections means that Sesfontein appears to be the last place where this unique flute music was played. Here, it was played and participated in by a diversity of Khoekhoegowab[2]-speaking Nama, Damara / ǂNūkhoen[3] and ǁUbun[4] until the last years of the twentieth century.

Making flutes / ǂādi. The late Manasse |Nuab (wearing hat) and the late Isaac ǁHawaxab (wearing cap) demonstrate how flutes are made from paw-paw stems in Sesfontein, 1999. Top row: cutting paw-paw stems (left), cutting the stems to the right size (centre), the four differently sized and pitched flutes (right). Bottom row: cutting mouth-piece end of flute (left), soaking flutes in water (centre), trying out the flutes (right). Slides by Emmanuelle Olivier 1999 (top L-R, nos. 100, 14, 66; bottom L-R, nos. 106, 95, 57), montage compiled by Sian Sullivan.

2. Damara / ǂNūkhoe / ǁUbu praise songs – |gais

Damara / ǂNūkhoe |gais performance in Sesfontein. Male dancers, L-R: Jacobus ǁHoëb, Obed Ganuseb (d.), Jeremiah Garamub (d.), Wernhard ǁHoëb (d.). Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier archive 1999 (no. 23).

The Olivier Collection in the British Library includes 35 recordings of |gais praise songs, recorded in June, October and November 1999. The digitised files comprise 35 separate |gais recordings, with many of the songs recorded more than once.


ǀGais have a syncopated clapped rhythm, which differentiates them from the very straight 2/4 rhythm created through the striking of sticks and the beating of a drum in arus healing songs – see below. Loosely identified as praise songs, |gais are created and sung to celebrate a specific theme: for example, a person, an event or something of value, such as specific animals – like bees – with which people negotiate a close and reciprocal relationship.


Jacobus ǁHoëb, who features in the Olivier Collection and continues to be leader of the Hoanib Cultural Group – known locally as the ‘king of the |gais’ – thus explains that:

my grand-parents taught me to play the |gais. The springbok are playing. The zebra are playing, the gemsbok are playing. All the animals are playing when the rain falls. And the people say, ‘how can we make something to praise the animals?’[5] 


ǀGais have also been described to me as sung ‘for happiness and the heart’. Elderly people in Sesfontein today remember a long list of ǀgaini – celebrated leaders of |gais played in celebratory 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, events and values expressed in the songs. The act of singing |gais praise songs and arus healing songs is thereby described as re-living and re-seeing the events, people, places and entities invoked by a song.

For example, a |gais that features in the Olivier collection, praises the springbok, using its Nami-Daman name ǂhāeb. This animal is otherwise known as ǁgûb, and the song is called ǁkhub in the notes accompanying the Olivier Collection. This |gais also features in the 2020 film of the Hoanib Cultural Group The Music Returns to Kai-as. It celebrates both the springbok itself and the delicious stew that can be made from its meat, mentioning specific places close to Sesfontein where springbok can be found. The song repeats and elaborates these words:

Aro-ae di ǂhaero

Munudommi ǂhae |guis go !gau

Aro-ae di ǂhaero

Hio hio hio

Munudomma xus ge

Aro-aeba xus ge

At Aro the springbok are gone

Only the Munu river’s springbok are left

At Aro the springbok are gone

Hio hio hio [the springbok calls]

The hunters come from the Munu river

The hunters come from Aro

The Music Returns to Kai-as (30 min version / 52 minute version)

Comparison between the themes of the |gais listed in the British Library catalogue with recordings made during field research since the mid-1990s, indicate significant overlap and continuity in these songs. For example, several of the specific |gais present in the Olivier Collection were also performed by the Hoanib Cultural Group during the event that led to the 2020 film The Music Returns to Kai-as. A number of the specific performers recorded by Olivier and Mans in 1999 also continue to perform |gais as part of the Hoanib Cultural Group of Sesfontein. This congruence demonstrates that the |gais recorded in 1999 by Olivier and Mans are located within an extant community, cultural and inter-generational rights-holding context.

Damara / ǂNūkhoe |gais performance in Sesfontein. Lead dancer is Jacobus ǁHoëb. Women singers seated R-L: Begu Garamus, Sirigu Ganuses (d.), Hildegaart |Nuas (d.), Jogbeth Ganuses (d.). Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier 1999 (no. 21).


3. Damara / ǂNūkhoe / ǁUbu healing songs – arus

Men prepare the arus drum in a Damara / ǂNūkhoe arus performance in Sesfontein. L-R: Wernhard ǁHoëb (d.), Jacobus ǁHoëb, Joseph Kaisuma (d.), Obed Ganuseb (d.). Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier 1999 (no. 88).

Twenty-four recordings of healing songs called arus feature in the Olivier Sesfontein Collection in the British Library, recorded in October and November 1999.


Arus songs accompany collective healing events, which are also referred to as arus. They are distinguished by a very steady 2/4 rhythm marked by women beating together two sticks. The men strike a drum made from a wooden container (ǁkhoes, reportedly made from made from Commiphora glaucescens or |hūb), covered with a springbok skin. The resonance of the drum and how it ‘sings’ is a key contribution to the potency of an arus.  

Damara / ǂNūkhoe arus performance in Sesfontein. Women seated L-R: Christina Ganuses née |Ûses (d.), Sirigu Ganuses, Hildegaart |Nuas (d.), Emma ǁNowaxas, Erestine ǁHoës. Healer / |nanu-aob in centre: Joshua Bakar ǁNowaxab. Male drummers L-R: Martin |Nuab, Joseph Kaisuma (d.), Manasse |Nuab (d.), Jacobus ǁHoëb. Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier 1999 (no. 87).

An example of an arus recording in the Olivier collection is the song !Gamû-haiseb. The notes accompanying Olivier’s recording write that this refers to ‘someone who likes to joke around’ (‘quelqu’un aimant faire des blagues’). In more recent research in Sesfontein the song has been explained instead as referencing the trickster-hero Haiseb. The repetitive death and reappearance of Haiseb in many tales of this culturally important character resonates with the repeated collapse and regaining of consciousness exhibited by a healer (|nanu-ao.s/b – a woman or man who has the spirit of |nanus, i.e. rain), as they enter and leave the trance state enabling them to see what is needed for healing to take place. 

Again, there is continuity here with recordings made since the mid-1990s, as well as with 1970s field research by German researcher Wagner-Roberts. The arus recorded in 1999 by Olivier and Mans are set within this broader community and cultural context of rights holders. For example, two long arus sequences featuring in the The Music Returns to Kai-as overlap in both repertoire and musicians with the Olivier Sesfontein recordings.

4. bow songs / khās – a Damara / ǂNūkhoe and ǁUbu musical form rarely played today

Werner |Gabenaeb ǁHoëb (d.) plays khās in Sesfontein. Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier 1999 (no. 37).

Fifteen recordings of bow songs (!gomakhās) feature in the Olivier Sesfontein Collection, recorded in June, October and November 1999. All these recordings are of one individual, the late Werner (Wernhard) |Gabenaeb ǁHoëb, who is the only Rights Holder named in the original notes accompanying the Olivier Sesfontein Collection. Although rarely played now, khās music is part of a Damara / ǂNūkhoe musical meditative and self-delectation praxis stretching back as far as people can remember.


5. Nama-stap, a contemporary Nama music played here on guitar with music composed by Sesfontein resident Jonathan 'Fritz' |Awarab

Nama-stap in Sesfontein, 4 November 1999, L-R: Isaac ǁHawaxab, Linda ǁHawaxas (behind) Khomtoma ǁNases (front), Obed |Nuab, Jonathan Fritz |Awarab (with guitar), Priscilla ǁHoës (carrying baby). Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier 1999 (no. 24).

Nama-stap constitutes the fifth set of recordings in the Olivier Sesfontein Collection, recorded in November 1999. Many if not most of the songs played in this sequence of recordings are by Jonathan ‘Fritz’ |Awarab, who leads the songs and is the guitar player in the image above. These contemporary songs are played for fun and enjoyment.

The significance of recognition and repatriation

Nami-Daman musics and their recordings have previously been little valued and recognised. They have sat on recorded cassettes in disparate global locations, variously inaccessible to contemporary digital playback technologies or to the communities where they were sourced.

Systemic dismissal and disavowal of Nama, Damara / ǂNūkhoe and ǁUbu cultural heritage due to colonial and apartheid prejudices and marginalisation has also acted against recognition as archives of musical heritage value. Given this context, the relocation, digitisation and repatriation of the Sesfontein Olivier Collection has been a critical moment in recognising the value of Nami-Daman musics, and in reconnecting the Rights Holders with these recordings.

The return of the ‘Damara / Nama’ Olivier Collection recordings is officially celebrated with members of the Hoanib Cultural Group and their families, including a number of individual Rights Holders recorded by Olivier in 1999. Photo: © Sian Sullivan 17/03/2022.

The contemporary presence of specific performers recorded in 1999 by Olivier, combined with inter-generational transfer and the collective nature of intellectual property in the recorded musics, is also a reminder that it is important not to assume that Rights Holders to research recordings no longer exist in the present.

Intersections between digitisation of academic research recordings, granting access by public archives, data protection, copyright and Indigenous/local concerns can be fraught with complexity. A Future Pasts Working Paper has recently been published to document the process of repatriation and permissions negotiations for this collection. It illustrates the complexities arising as different worlds and expectations intersect around music, recordings, archives and rights. See:

Sullivan, S., Nami-Daman Traditional Authority, Hoanib Cultural Group, Fredrick ǁHawaxab and Welhemina Suro Ganuses 2023 The Olivier ‘Damara-Nama’ Collection from Sesfontein (Namibia) (British Library Sound Archive C1709): repertoire, Rights Holders and repatriation.



Thank you to Emmanuelle Olivier for the original recordings in the Sesfontein ‘Damara-Nama’ Collection, and for her support for the return of digital copies of this material to Sesfontein; Angela Impey for retrieving the recordings from France; and Michele Banal, Finlay McIntosh and Janet Top Fargion at the British Library all their work to support the repatriation process. Research funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council through the projects Future Pasts (, AH/K005871/2) and Etosha-Kunene Histories (, AN202101038) has made the work shared here possible. I especially acknowledge the contributions of all Sesfontein Constituency residents who have sustained their musical heritage in spite of significant factors of marginalisation, and for their ongoing and generous participation in this research.


[1] Unfortunately the British Library experienced a serious cyber-attack in 2022 and many of its collections remain offline for the time-being. See:

[2] Khoekhoegowab spellings used here are from field research by Sullivan and Ganuses, combined with feedback from Khoekhoegowab linguist Wilfrid Haacke, unless quoting directly from the Olivier’s 1999 field notes or from the British Library catalogue. Many of the Khoekhoegowab words in this paper include the symbols ǀ, ǁ, ! and ǂ, denoting consonants that sound like clicks and which characterise the languages of Khoe and San peoples who live(d) throughout southern Africa. The sounds these symbols indicate are: ǀ = the ‘tutting’ sound made by bringing the tip of the tongue softly down from behind front teeth (dental click); ǁ = the clucking sound familiar in urging on a horse (lateral click); ! = a popping sound like mimicking the pulling of a cork from a wine bottle (alveolar click); ǂ = a sharp, explosive click made as the tongue is flattened and then pulled back from the palate (palatal click).

[3] Damara Khoekhoegowab-speaking people tend to refer to themselves as ǂNūkhoen, meaning ‘black’ or ‘real’ people and thus distinguished from Nau khoen or ‘other people’. Historically, ‘Dama-ra’ was the Nama or Khoe name for ‘black people’ generally. Since Nama were those who early European travellers first encountered in the western part of southern Africa, they also used the term ‘Dama’ in this way. This gave rise to a confusing situation in the historical literature whereby the term ‘Damara’, as well as the central part of Namibia that in the 1800s was known as ‘Damaraland’, tended to refer to cattle pastoralists who called themselves Herero. The terms ‘Hill Damaras’ and ‘Plains Damaras’ were used to distinguish contemporary Damara or ǂNūkhoen (i.e. ‘Khoekhoegowab-speaking black- skinned people’) from otjiHerero-speaking peoples respectively. This differentiation signals historically-constitutive processes whereby pressure on land through expansionary Herero cattle pastoralism throughout Namibia pushed Khoekhoegowab-speaking Damara / ǂNūkhoen further into mountainous areas that became their refuge and stronghold. For more information see here and here.

[4] ǁUbun are Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples who moved between the coastal areas of the Northern Namib desert where !nara melons (Acanthosicyos horridus) could be harvested and areas to the east where alternative foods were found, interacting with especially different Nama and ǂNūkhoe lineages (!haoti) of Namibia’s north-west. For more information see here and here.

[5] Jacobus ǁHoëb interviewed by W.S. Ganuses and S. Sullivan (Sesfontein), 25 May 2019.

This work builds on collaborative music research in north-west Namibia with the Hoanib Cultural Group, the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority and Sesfontein Conservancy, as documented in the film The Music Returns to Kai-as (see above), and in the following research articles:

Sullivan, S., Ganuses, W.S., Olivier, E. and ǁHawaxab, F. 2022[2021] Tasting the lost flute music of Sesfontein: histories, memories, possibilities. Future Pasts Working Paper 10.

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