Abdullahi and the Gurmi: An Encounter With an Itinerant Folk Musician

Abdullahi Useni plays the Gurmi, a traditional musical instrument in Nigeria’s northern region. “We call it the Hausa guitar and it’s made from just a stick and a calabash,” he says when we meet in the Garki Area of Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital. “But I also play the kalangu (talking drum) and I have all other types of instruments that my band uses at our performances.”

“We call it the Hausa guitar and it’s made from just a stick and a calabash.”

Abdullahi and his band perform as the Concept Music of Nigeria; its ID card hangs on their chests, at many social events, including at wedding ceremonies, which is where I meet him. He can’t recall exactly when he started to sing Hausa folk music but he can reference the period. “You know when Shehu Shagari was president?” he asks, and I nod. “I was too young then but that was when I started out in Kano.”

Abdullahi and his band. Image credit: Pelu Awofeso

President Shagari was in power between 1979 and 1985. Give or take, Abdullahi must have been on the job for about 30 odd years. The Kano native (Gabasawa LGA) has come a long way since then, travelling around Nigeria and in Africa. “I have been to Ghana, Benin Republic, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Niger Republic and a few other countries. In Nigeria, I have travelled far and wide—in the southwest, southeast, name it.”

Many years as an itinerant musician have meant that Abdullahi has had to learn to entertain his listeners in languages other than his mother tongue of Hausa. It is, to use a marketing term, his unique selling point and the reason he is able to appeal to audiences who cut across different cultures.

“I can sing in Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Igala, Gbagi, and some other Nigerian languages,” he says with a wide grin. “I travel often and I have been booked to perform at weddings, birthdays and burial ceremonies in places like Anambra, Abia, Enugu, Imo States and more. As a matter of fact, any occasion at all that requires an artiste I can be invited.”

Gurmi music is one of the key identities of Hausa musical heritage.”

But when he is not travelling to far-flung destinations, Abdullahi performs on weekends at a relaxation garden in the Garki area. On occasion, he crashes wedding venues, where he serenades guests with a few members of his band. “I can sing slow tunes and I can easily switch to a fast tempo. Whatever style or form my listeners want, I give it to them,” he says at the marriage registry in Area 10, where we meet.

Gurmi music is one of the key identities of Hausa musical heritage. According to Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, an authority on the subject, “standard traditional Hausa music is basically about the voice and praise-singing” that treats the listeners to “the beauty of the musical instrument and the creative genius of the player”.

Abdullahi and his band who have recorded two albums — ‘Concept’ and ‘Authentic’ – demonstrate these qualities without question. To his credit, he has also mentored dozens of younger Gurmi musicians like himself. “In fact, I have lost count of how many they are. I have trained artistes in Jigawa, Kano, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Abuja even. They are in so many cities in the north.”

I am curious to know if, after three decades of singing and travelling, Abdullahi has made money from his art. His response is immediate and affirmative. “Yes, I have. I have been able to marry, raise a family, built houses and invest in the basic things that makes one live comfortably.”

This article was previously published on wakaabout.wordpress.com

About the Author

Pelu Awofeso is a winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards in the tourism reporting category. He has travelled widely around Nigeria—32 states at the last count—documenting several indigenous festivals and carnivals; his other travel interests include museums, monuments, nature and functional crafts.


This article is published as part of Music (That) Matters, an initiative of Goethe-Institut Lagos in commemoration of the 2017 World Music Day. The series is aimed at documenting personal memories and social histories relating to the power of music. All rights reserved by the author.

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