Nama Music And Dance Included On Unesco Heritage List

26 Feb 2021

Brigitte Weidlich

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, (UNESCO) has recently inscribed traditional music and dance of the Nama-speaking community in Namibia on the ‘List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding’.

This major achievement was announced by UNESCO in December 2020; which added the aixan /gâna/ôb ǂans tsî //khasigu (Nama: ancestral musical sound knowledge and skills) to its list.

The Nama stap is performed in Lokgwabe, Botswana Photo: Brigitte Weidlich

Namibia’s National Heritage Council had submitted an application in 2019 after initial preparations and research started around 2015. The urgent safeguarding stems from the realisation that only a few Nama elders still know this music and can play the traditional instruments. Modern instruments like electronic keyboards are threatening the use of ancient instruments.

The Nama language group in Namibia originally emigrated from South Africa over 200 years ago and mainly live in the Karas, Hardap and Erongo Regions, and a few groups near Fransfontein in the Kunene Region. Their clans like the Witbooi, Orlam, Kooper, Swartbooi, Afrikaner, Topnaar and Anan have traditional chiefs. There are also Nama communities living in Botswana and South Africa. All these Nama communities still dance the traditional ‘Nama stap’. However, only the Namibian Nama are now on the UNESCO list.

Special characteristics of Nama music

Nama ancestral music involves the use of traditional instruments and is characterised by a specific sound, texture and rhythm, consisting of a leading melody and rhythm accompanied by a systematic harmony. The music is also complemented by dances known as Nama-stap.


A boy is playing a ramkie. Photo: P.R. Kirby
A boy is playing a ramkie. Photo: P.R. Kirby

The bow (khab) can also be played by women. Players pluck the bow string with their fingers and use a stick to touch it for a sound effect. Sometimes the lower end of the bow is placed on an old rectangular oil tin for resonance.

The ‘oguitsib’ or ‘ramkie’ is a self-made guitar with a rectangular empty oil tin as resonance body, and a wooden plank with carved wooden pegs for the strings.

“In the past, the music connected entire communities and villages, but it now faces many threats and only a few elders still practise the tradition and possess the related knowledge and skills,” the Namibian government noted in its submission.

The music is accompanied by dances commonly known as ‘Nama-stap’, meaning the dancing steps of the Nama people. The music delivers entertainment during key social events like weddings, rain-dances, birthdays and a girl's passage to adulthood, but, more significantly it is also utilised to educate and instruct members of the community, for example concerning environmental awareness.

UNESCO provided some funding for the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture to conduct workshops with the elders of the various different Nama traditional authorities, after the chiefs gave their consent. The research was necessary to assess the extent of the threats the old melodies and songs face and also to record the playing skills of individuals and how many community members still have the ability to play.

Two Nama women are tuning a guitar. Photo: Ministry of Education Namibia

The ability to identify rhythms and harmonies is essential for a traditional Nama musician, as well as the ability to respond harmoniously to other rhythms in order to create a balanced performance. All this is slowly disappearing. 

It was found that very few persons still have knowledge and skills, also to repair existing instruments or build new ones like the bow and the ramkie (oguitsib). Most musicians are over seventy years or even over eighty years old.

Due to modern developments, traditional instruments are slowly but surely being replaced by modern sound devices like electronic keyboards and sound systems.

While the ‘Nama stap’ is very popular in the Nama communities in all three countries, also among young people it is mainly danced to modern music and the original connection to the traditional music is lost.

UNESCO has pledged some funds for further research and recordings of aixan /gâna/ôb ǂans tsî //khasigu and workshops as well as transfer of these traditional skills to young people of the Nama community, to preserve this important part of their culture and traditions.

Background to the UNESCO heritage list

Elements inscribed in the UNESCO lists are regarded as significant bastions of humanity's intangible heritage, the highest honor for intangible heritage in the world. In 2003, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came into effect in 2006. By 2010, two lists were compiled. The longer, “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, comprises cultural practices and expressions that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.

The shorter list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding”, has inscribed those cultural elements that concerned communities and countries, consider in need of urgent measures to keep them alive.

In this way, international cooperation and assistance can be mobilised to strengthen the transmission of these cultural practices, in agreement with the concerned communities.

The inscription of the Nama music and dance is the second cultural element of Namibia on the UNESCO list, although the first one on the list for urgent safeguarding. In 2015, UNESCO inscribed the annual marula festival or Oshituthi shomagongo of the Oshiwambo-speaking groups in north-central Namibia on its list, reserved for those cultural elements that do not require urgent safeguarding.

Preparations are underway to have the Okuruuo, (holy fire) and the associated rituals of the Ovaherero language group also included on the UNESCO list.

A Nama woman is playing the traditional bow. Photo: Ministry of Education Namibia


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