The Status of Dogon Visual Culture

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Dogon sistra at shelter near Songo, Mali, 1986. Photo by Mary Kujawski Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.


During Dogon male initiation, boys learn to play sistra—a Latin name for a kind of percussion instrument.  Dogon sistra are made from gourds cut into circles as seen in the lower portion of the instrument held by this young man. A whole gourd serves as a resonator, and as the wooden handle is shaken, the gourd circles clack against each other, producing a loud clapping rhythm. The songs accompanied by such instruments carry a long way when played in a highrock shelter such as the one at Songo, where this photograph was taken. People in the hamlets below can hear the music and through such a soundscape they can vicariously participate in the ritual process occurring beyond their gaze. Ritual paraphernalia are kept in caves such as this one, following centuries-old practices of Dogon and the Tellem peoples who preceded their occupation of this rocky land.