Friday, 20 April 2018

R is for Rai... and... Red Ochre ...

is for
Rai is an Algerian genre, it first developed in the 1920’s in Oran. The word rai in Arabic means 'opinion' or 'advice.' Cheikha Rmitti is revered as ‘the mother of the genre.’ Originally sung by women, Rai rejected the then conventional rules of refined Arabic poetry and used a gritty, often vulgar colloquial lyrics and a fusion of Arab and Western musical influences, which found a ready resonance among the underprivileged classes, but was unpopular with the posh audiences and authorities. Rmitti travelled to France and for most of her singing career sang for Algerian immigrants there. Rai was rediscovered in the 90's and became a hit with world audiences with Cheb Khaled being the most well-known exponent of the art. 

Listen to a Rai song by Cheikha Rmitti and also by a later 1980's Algerian band Raina Rai below:  

Ruff n Smooth are a Ghanaian band, but they sing in pidgin English which makes them popular in Nigeria and in wider Africa, even abroad. Take a listen

From the North to the West and then onto South to Laurika Rauch, a legendary singer from South Africa, here with a lovely slow Afrikaans track. She is bilingual - sings both in English and Afrikaans. Read more about her here

Red Ochre. Rising stars. Rock art. And Revelations.

The notion of abstractions, the ability to think up concepts and in symbols, to go beyond the here and now - this capacity for imagining is what distinguishes modern humans from our prehistoric hominin ancestors. It crucially underpins most of what we understand today as culture – language, art, music, ritual. And naturally palaeoanthropologists have been investigating the exact point in our evolution when the human mind acquired it – the huge mental leap to organise sounds into language, make symbols, representational and abstract art.

Till the 1970’s, the oldest rock paintings found were in Europe. These went back to around 20,000 - 35,000 years ago, and everyone assumed this was when something had sparked modern human imagination off. This, combined with the finding of jewellery and sculpted figurines, led to a simple straightforward notion - modern cognition had evolved in Europe about 40,000 years ago due to some sudden mutation.

However, the first snag was that older fossil evidence for human evolution was skewed entirely towards Africa. And as anthropological work went on outside Europe, it became progressively harder to support that hypothesis. Evidence of symbolic thinking was found in other places and dated much further back. Findings increasingly contradicted the 70’s model and narrowed the time lag between physical evolution and symbolic behaviour. In other words, both the mind and body of modern humans evolved at the same time.

Source Shell beads, SA
Fragments of ostrich eggs unearthed in Blombos, South Africa showed engravings and the mixing of pigments, there was the unequivocal evidence of crosshatched ochre, dated to 55,000 - 77,000 years ago respectively.  Another piece of evidence - perforated shell beads found in Morocco dated to around 82000 ya, which also show red ochre markings – obviously a form of decoration. Together these made the Europe hypothesis untenable. Thus there developed a consensus that symbolic thinking was already in place when modern man evolved around 200,000 years ago, and it was likely present in other hominin species as well.
Source Crosshatched ochre, SA

In another part of South Africa, the excavation at the Cave of Rising Stars has reshaped our understanding of human evolution.  In 2013, a treasure trove of hominin fossils were found there, which were later called Homo naledi and dated to between 236,000 - 335,000 years old. The only entrance to the chamber where the fossils were, is through a narrow, almost vertical chute, no other entrance has been found. At the time of H. naledi, the entrance was higher, the chute was longer.

In the first excavations (work is ongoing), bone fragments found were pieced together to form the complete skeletons of 15 individuals, aged either very young or old.  There are no other animal skeletons there, no herbivore or predator specimens. Clearly, they hadn’t been dragged there by some predator. They either fell, or…they were put there. That’s a mind-bending thought!

That polarised age profile is exactly what is found in cemeteries, mortality in any population is higher in the very young and very old.  It leads to an earth-shaking idea – if indeed, the skeletons were dropped down the chute, was H. naledi disposing of its dead? That’s a social behaviour, a ritual - uniquely human. It opens up the possibility that ritual behaviour dates back at least 236,000 years. Before modern humans actually evolved even. (Here's a link to the documentary Dawn of Humanity)

But hang on, there’s more. Last year, hominin fossils found in Morocco are again likely to reshape the narrative. The fossils there have been dated to 300,000 years ago, older than any found so far, and it’s possible the Rift Valley origin of humankind may actually be a pan-African origin. The debate goes on.

In Namibia, in late sixties a series of painted rock slabs were found in a cave called Apollo 11. Seven painted slabs of quartzite, with animal figures depicted in white, ochre and charcoal were uncovered over four years. The images have not been identified at the species level (though it looks remarkably like a wildebeest to me!) but are agreed to be felines or bovides.  These are the oldest representational artworks found in Africa, and they have been dated to around 60,000 – 100,000 years ago.  Note that artworks are super difficult to date, exposed paintings fade due to erosion and can’t be dated accurately. Buried drawings can be dated from the geological layer they are in, but that doesn’t show how old the paintings were when they were buried, they could have been painted aeons before that! So these dates are only an indicative ‘at least’ estimate.

However, if we look at paint use as a marker for the creation of ‘art,’ then art goes back in Africa even further. Several archaeological sites in South Africa (Blombos, Sibudu, Klein Kliphuis, Rose Cottage), Namibia (Apollo 11) and Zambia (TwinRivers) show pigment use, the oldest of them in Twin Rivers dating back to 400,000 years ago. In 1999, hundreds of sticks of brown, yellow, red, purple, blue, pink, all from locally available minerals were unearthed there, some with evidence of being rubbed and/or ground to powder. They were likely used for body painting, ritual and rock art, though no direct evidence remains after thousands of years. But the use of pigments itself is irrefutable proof of ritual and/or ornamentation, both products of the uniquely human mind. That’s the oldest art studio right there in Zambia! Whichever way we look at it, no other conclusion is possible.

So. Just like everything else, the very first artists and creative thinkers, like the music-makers and lullaby-singers, were also African. Why am I so not surprised?

From the Safaris

~ Thank you for watching! ~

Books n Stuff

Mwangi Ruheni (1934-) is the pen name of Nicolas Muraguri, who is a reticent Kenyan writer. His work has been included in the African Writers Series by Heinemann. He wrote several novels from the 70s to the 90’s, and has recently published non-fiction. He received a degree in the Sciences and served as the Chief Chemist for the government in his country for many years, a reason for his publishing under a pseudonym. His novels What a Life! And What a Husband! remain in print four decades after their first publication. In his 84 years, he has granted only one interview to a journalist. An intriguing personality!

David Rubadiri (1930 - ) – is a Malawian poet, playwright, novelist, diplomat and educator. He was born in Liuli, graduated from Uganda and then went on to study in UK. He has spent time teaching in universities in Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya and also at home. His poetry combines his African heritage with influences from Europe. A small excerpt from one of his poems -

An African Thunderstorm

From the west
Clouds came hurrying with the wind
Here and there
Like a plague of locusts
Tossing up things on its tail

Like a madman changing nothing…

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2018


  1. Really fascinating. As always.
    We have so much to learn. And unlearn. Some of our facts simply aren't. Some animals also mourn their dead, and I suspect we have a lot to learn on that front too.

    1. Oh absolutely! Animals not only mourn their own kind, their jump across species and love their human caregivers as well. The rangers in Ol Pejeta, which has a blind rhino and orphan chimps in shelters, have a connect with the animals that's amazing to witness, so it extends to wild animals as well, not just pets. In fact it sometimes seems that animals have a greater capacity for love and empathy and are more humane than humans!

    2. I agree with your take on this. You hit the nail on the head in your last sentence. (Sorry, I always read all the comments as well and sometimes I just jump into the conversation.)

    3. No apologies required! The more that jump in, the merrier! :)

  2. Hari OM
    Love the Rai... Interestingly, have been following a BBC program called 'Civilisations' which looks specifically at atefacts and art to describe the nature of human society and the very difficulty of dating was mentioned. Another "R"aging post my dear!!! YAM xx

    1. Mary Beard is coming up for my S post :) funny you should mention the series. Thanks for your support this A-Z.

  3. quite fascinating as fossils keep being discovered. So much from rock paintings and formations. You cover history, music, etc. all so well. And safari! Love it

    1. The Naledi fossils were initially thought to be much older and the possibilities were mind boggling! Both remote and close past, and the present also, are fascinating in equal measure - so much to read/learn/see, so little time, my situation is quite desperate! :)
      Thank you for you support through this A-Z.

  4. Hi Nila - I preferred the Rmitti version ... but also enjoyed Laurika Rauch. Great teaching you're giving us here with all the back history of us - said two legged 'wonders' of the world ... and your safaris - such a great idea ... cheers Hilary

    1. They both have powerful and mesmerising voices, don't they? The evidence of our past is everywhere in Africa and I find it mind blowing! Thanks for being here.

  5. Ruff-N-Smooth have quite a pick-up line there :D I started not to give them a listen, expecting Rapp. Glad I did.

    I'm not surprised that humans since the very beginning have adorned themselves and their surroundings. I'm glad it's all coming out.

    1. Nigeria and Ghana I think are the most prolific producers of music in West Africa - both contemporary and past. Glad you enjoyed the clip. It's actually an exciting time for palaeontology and archaeology in Africa - every other year something new is being found and changing our understanding of our origins!

  6. I would like to thank you for stopping by yesterday. I'm running behind so I do apologize. Not that I understand the language because I don't, but your last tune has to be my favorite. It ran smooth and the voice was low and soothing & the tune was impeccable. I really liked it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh, I don't follow the lyrics either - don't speak any of the languages except some rudimentary phrases here and there. But that's the beauty of music isn't it? the melody is enough! Lyrics if understood are the cherry on the cake, of course.
      No need for apologies, thank you for visiting back.

  7. I love your videos. Love all of the rear views. It is heartbreaking that rhinos and others are poached. I am glad there are conservation efforts happening. Hopefully they will be successful.

    1. Sudan the last white northern male rhino died last month at Ol Pejeta - there are only two white females of the subspecies left now. Scientists hope to propagate through IVF, Sudan's sperm I believe has been kept back, but it's a very long shot. And a crying shame. Hopefully the others can be saved.

  8. This series has been an educational delight in every way, but I have to say the archaeological/anthropological discussions are lighting my brain on fire, and no doubt will be heading me off for some serious further study when April wraps up. So much to explore!!!

    1. The human origins stories and the fossil research fascinate me too! Totally mind blowing.