Interpretation of music in Zambia: Chibale

Interpretation of music in Chibale, Zambia. How does the interpretation of music work? Particularly: how do people in Chibale find meaning in music and what is their (emotional) engagement with music?1The research for the articles on the interpretation of music is presented in Ways of working for uncovering underlying principles.

In the articles about the interpretation of music in Chibale, we focus on three important themes.

The first theme is the relation between mental and bodily experiences and the (emotional) engagement with music.

The local and possession cults as well as the christian denominations regard song text as the most important factor in the interpretation of music. Therefore, we devote the second and the third themes to this.

The second theme is the interpretations of song texts by exegetes and by the ‘general public’. Are all texts understood by everyone? Do all hear the same meaning(s) in the texts? The answers, of course, is ‘no’ but the variation in interpretation of the same song texts is intriguing.

And the third theme is the importance of song text for ritual. Each ritual, or ceremony, with music has its particularity. What they share is the importance of the song texts that string together during their course. We also use this theme to interpret these song texts in context.

Proverb 11

Umweo wa muntu walala mu matwi
The life of a person resides in the ears

The ability to listen and understand keeps a person alive.

Guided tour

Interpretation of music in Chibale, Zambia. For a guided tour of the interpretation of music in Chibale, here are the links to follow from top to bottom.


Experiencing musical meaning

People in Chibale, quite generally accept that nearness of music heightens its effectiveness and that of the occasion where that music sounds.

A central concept in Chibale life is maka, the physical and spiritual strength to do something difficult or to overcome trouble. How does this relate to music and the experience of music?

Two other central concepts: mano and mutima, wisdom and heart, also relate to the performance and experience of music.

Sorrow and joy are the only two kinds of feelings experienced while listening to music in Chibale. What is behind this limitation to only two kinds of feelings?

Song text interpretation

Interpretation of music in Chibale, Zambia. For the interpretation of music, the local and possession cults as well as the christian denominations consider song text most important. The christian and the possession cults consider song texts to come from outside the local and the human domain respectively. They contain and transfer wisdom (mano) deriving from these external domains. Songs do not lie.

Some song texts are difficult, for instance that of Song 1 which contains clues about the principles underlying music. Do only exegetes understand these texts or can the general public in Chibale also make sense of them? Moreover, what variation is there in the interpretation of a particular song text by ‘the general public’? We studied the interpretation of song texts by the general public in the surveys of 1987 and 2004. We look into the results in five articles, presenting the interpretations and comparing them with the interpretations given by exegetes.

Start with the series of articles about variation in song text interpretation by ‘the general public’ and exegetes.

Photo 104 ∵ Spell-bound

Song texts are most important when interpreting music in Chibale, Zambia.The ing’omba Kansenkele (in the foreground) continues to captivate the audience after a night of new song texts and dance. They are entangled in the web he has been weaving: references to the local cults, the importance of text and the good performance of music, personal issues and criticism of the ritual, the influence of Mwami and the main concerns of the time.

The role of song texts in rituals and ceremonies

Interpretation of music in Chibale, Zambia. Within the Kaonde-Lamba-Lenje-Lala area, the Lala region is special for its emphasis on the generation of new song texts. These texts closely relate to the ritual and its context, sometimes being the major driver for its progress.
Therefore, to make the latter rather unique situation clear, we present and interpret-in-context all song texts brought at one ritual, an Ipupo held in December 1987. Follow the link to the series of articles called Fighting with songs. If you have the stamina to go through all articles in this series, you will realise that the song texts are a major driver of the progress of the ritual.


IJzermans, Jan J. (2024) Amalimba. Music and related dance, text and ritual in a single area in Africa.