Music of the Anywaa People

We have written about Anywaa music quite extensively in the research blog, but I decided to create this page as an introductory summary of the rich musical traditions of the Anywaa people.

The Anywaa people (also spelled Anuak or Anyuak, but the Anywaa themselves prefer “Anywaa”) are indigenous to the Gambella region of western Ethiopia (with some residing across the border in South Sudan).


Gambella region (highlighted)

“Nyuak” means something like “sharing” or “togetherness,” referring to their communal way of life and generosity with one another. The Anywaa speak a Nilotic language and have traditionally lived as cultivators along the riverbanks. Unlike many of their Nilotic neighbors, they are not pastoralists and have a system of kingships and chiefs as their traditional mode of governance.


The Upeno River in Gambella town (labeled “Baro” on most maps, but Upeno is the older, Anywaa name for it)

Currently, not much is known about Anywaa music outside of the Anywaa communities themselves. There is a dissertation based on research in the 1970s by a David Conrad Osterlund that deals quite extensively with Anywaa music, but, unfortunately, I have not been able to track down the recordings. (Incidentally, in the quite unlikely scenario that anyone reading this knows where I might be able to contact this gentleman and request access to them, please let me know). As far as I know, no other research has been conducted before or after this particular dissertation. Of course, we’re hoping to change that. The Anywaa are rich in musical traditions, and the rest of the world should absolutely know more about them.


The most ubiquitous instruments I encountered during my fieldwork are the drums, called buul. Generally made from wood and animal hide, the Anywaa specify three different sizes of buul: the small one, called aneedo; the medium-sized drum, called odoola; and the big one, which is also called buul. (So, buul might refer to drums in general or specifically to the big drum). Typically, the smaller drums are played with sticks, while the buul is played with the stick in the right hand and the palm of the left hand. Players may also utilize their forearms and elbows.

The other instruments the Anywaa use are called thoom (may also be spelled thom, tom, or toom). They are found mainly in the rural areas and villages. There are two types of thoom: a lamellophone (you may have heard this called “thumb piano”), pictured below, and the five-stringed lyre. The lamellophone may be specified by calling it thoom Otieno. It was named after a man called Otieno, who lived many years ago in the Pochalla area. In the Anywaa kingdom, he was well-known for his metal working, and, of course, good metal-working is necessary to make the metal keys for the thoom. “Otieno” means “spider,” which denotes a crafty guy: spiders are good at spinning webs, as Otieno was good at metal working.


There are many variants of the lamellophone in East Africa, with different names depending on the language of the group who utilizes it (e.g. kalimba, sanza, mbira, likembe). One of our interviewees, Anywaa composer Okwori Ojullu, plays the thoom.


Okwori with his thoom

Hear him singing some of his original songs while accompanying himself on the thoom in the following audio clip:

The other type of thoom is the five-stringed lyre. Ochan Roman, who lives in Pinyudo, demonstrates this instrument for us while singing a song about the virtues of working (more about Ochan and the five-stringed lyre here):


The Anywaa have several genres that they consider traditional as well as “regular” songs, called dudi moa thero (“small song”), which are composed outside of the traditional genre frameworks.

The two most prominent traditional genres are the obeero and the agwaa-ga. Originally, the obeero and agwaa-ga were secular. The lyrics were often used to praise the chief or advise the community. The agwaa-ga were often songs of war: extolling past deeds, warning neighboring villages, et cetera. Now, these songs are often on religious topics, as Anywaa composers began adapting them for the church following the arrival of American missionaries in the 1950s. It is not too difficult to see how they could be adapted for religious purposes: lyrics praise God instead of the chiefs, advise communities to live a Christian lifestyle, and declare war against the devil instead of against neighboring villages. These songs serve an important function in the church, as they are often used to advise the congregation and teach theological concepts. Church composer Samson Ojullu Amer said, “Our people, most of the time, when they come to church, they focus on the music, the songs themselves…when time for the Bible preaching comes, most of the people, they sleep. In our culture, the very best way to preach is through song.”

Here’s an example of an obeero sung at a church service in Addis Ababa:

Here’s an example of an agwaa-ga sung at a church service in Gambella town (led by the illustrious Ochati Ogatu):

You can read more about the obeero and agwaa-ga here and here. There are a number of religious obeero and agwaa-ga texts written down in a songbook (42 obeero and 57 agwaa-ga, to be exact), and Ojho and I managed to record most of them from Pastor Ochati Ogatu and composer Okwori Ojullu. You can listen to them here.

Other traditional genres include the okaama and the awaa-wa, the latter of which is used for dancing. So far, I have not had the chance to witness or do any substantial research on these, but I hope to do so next year. Popular artist Omaan (“Tararangga”) uses the rhythm from okaama in one of this singles (aptly titled, “Okaama”):

The dudi moa thero are also abundant, encompassing anything from western hymns translated into the Anywaa language to new original songs by Anywaa composers. Here, for example, is a dudi moa thero by church composer Achan, called “Bung Gin Mor”:

“Bung Gin Mor” says, “There is nothing under the sun that can stop me from praising God.” Achan said about this song, “A lot of people are struggling with life. So I began to write this song to tell people not to go away, [not] to leave God. Because all this will stop one day.”

Here is another example of a dudi moa thero by another church composer and choir member, Rachel Okello, called “Ithwa amino”:

“Ithwa amino” is a praise song saying, “We are happy that you called your sheep to the kingdom of God.”

Different genres also have different rhythms attached to them. You can read more about the rhythms here.


I’m cautious to make any sweeping generalizations about stylistic characteristics based on the small sampling I have recorded. However, I can note some of my own observations along with those of Osterlund. While recording the obeeros and agwaa-gas, I noticed a frequently recurring melodic/dynamic shape: the singer starts on a high note, usually at a forte, and gradually descends down, often more than an octave. (This melodic shape is far less prominent in the dudi moa thero, as you’ve already heard if you listened to the above examples). Also, text is of great importance in Anywaa songs, as Samson noted above, and sometimes these are very quickly declaimed, almost arrhythmically, usually towards the ends of phrases or in middle portions of songs. You can hear these characteristics demonstrated in Okwori Ojulu’s composition “Jwok awuuo duu bang-wa”:

Melodies are predominantly pentatonic, although singers don’t always end on the “tonic” note, such as this song by Rachel:

Another aesthetic that I noticed in the Anywaa church in Addis Ababa is that songs usually begin quietly, without percussion. The drums enter, and the tempo and dynamic picks up, then the last phrase or so is sung quietly. You can hear this, for example, in this clip of a series of agwaa-gas being sung at an Anywaa church service in Addis Ababa:


So, what does music do in Anywaa society, what are its functions? “Function” is a rather old-fashioned ethnomusicological way of thinking about these things, but the intended purposes of these songs stuck out to me so prominently that I simply cannot bear to ignore them. Again, I do not want to make sweeping generalizations based on the limited amount of fieldwork that I’ve done, but some significant themes have popped up repeatedly that are worthy of pointing out.

The one thing that I noticed about the majority of these songs as that they advise the community. You’ll hear many songs (especially in the obeero and agwaa-ga) starting with “Dibwor” which can be translated, “Nation,” meaning, my people, the Anywaa people. It is calling their attention. One of the songs Medi Okello sang does this, opening with “Dibwor,” calling the people, then proceeds to advise them not to abandon their cultural dance. Modern songs advise, as well. Medi Okello composed “Wuuo” to advise people to peace and “Beta Ata” to advise people to work (you can read more about Medi’s music here).

Related to this is teaching. As Samson said, church members learn theology through songs. Osterlund noted this as well in his research, saying that Anywaa songs teach social norms, values, and recount the history of the village.

Osterlund and I are also 100% in agreement on the fact that songs function as personal fulfillment for the singers. Of course, this is hardly unique to the Anywaa: the vast majority of us use music in some manner to meet our emotional needs and enrich our lives. Achan, Rachel, Apay, Okwori, and Samson all disclosed that they compose and sing their songs to better their lives. Achan wrote her “Aani Alwaya Ki Ango Keet” to uplift herself when facing a difficult situation (and, in turn, uplift others who are facing similar challenges), and Apay said that there are some songs that he sings when he is feeling upset to help himself feel better. Samson sings his composition, “Oou Ubeet Ouu Wiguu Gin Caan Kiper Yesu,” to recall the time when he was stranded at the Sudanese border and life was particularly difficult, and singing this song reminds him of how his life has improved since then. Okwori sings his compositions when he is sick and says that he feels as though he is in heaven already when he is singing.

Composers such as Omaan are also creating songs for cultural and/or national pride. His song “Cii mari” is a call to raise the status of the Anywaa people, to remember their culture and restore their health as a community.

He also composed two songs for the Ethiopian Nation and Nationalities Day, an event which celebrates the entire nation and was held in Gambella last year [2015]. You can read more about Omaan’s work and listen to his songs here.

And that, friends, has been a whirlwind introduction to Anywaa music, which has barely scratched the surface of the richness of Anywaa traditions and the creativity and innovations being made by individual artists and composers. I hope we’ve piqued your curiosity, and, of course, you are more than welcome to contact us to find out more information!

As always, I’d like to give a special thanks to the many wonderful people who contributed to the research presented on this page, including Omaan, Okwori, Achan, Ariet, Samson, and Rachel. I want to especially thank my co-researchers, Ojho and Apay (and Apay is a talented composer and singer himself!), who coordinated all interviews and recording sessions, translated several songs, and provided invaluable insights into Anywaa culture.