The Tennet people live in Southern Sudan, in the northern part of the Lopit hills (sometimes called “Lafit”), about 65 kilometers northeast of Torit, which is east of Juba.
(The map of the Lopit area is from the southeast corner of a Juba area map by the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, via the University of Texas at Austin.)
Tennet is a member of the Surmic language family, which also includes Murle, Didinga, and Narim in Sudan, as well as several languages in Ethiopia.
Tennet culture was once pastoral, but now it is almost identical to that of their agriculturalist neighbors, the Lopit. The Tennet still keep cattle, but their staple food is the sorghum and millet they now grow. They prepare food by grinding the grain into a fine powder, and then boiling it in water to make a thick mush that is similar to grits in the southern U.S., but drier.
Music is one aspect of Tennet culture that hasn’t been borrowed from the Lopit. Tennet music is based on the pentatonic scale, as is common throughout eastern Africa, and in many songs the time signature changes frequently. The most common Tennet instrument is a notched wooden flute. The kalimba is occasionally used as well, although it’s probably not native to Tennet.
Probably the most popular genre in Tennet music is the insult song. When I suggested that we start a demonstration poultry project in one of the villages, one of my Tennet colleagues observed, “If you build a house for chickens, people will sing about you.” One musical characteristic that all insult songs share is a sudden increase in tempo during the final “punchline”. It’s almost as if the singer is pretending to downplay the joke by rushing through it, or perhaps hurrying to finish so that he’ll have time to escape before the object of his joke can catch him.
I’ve included midi renditions of two Tennet songs below. Click on a title to listen or download. The first is an insult song composed by one of two rival suitors. He’s singing about how his beloved will feel later if she chooses his rival. Here’s a rough translation:
Hey, girls, my father gave me a man
Hey, women of Chaluwai (her age set), my father gave me a man
He showed me this man
Look, Dad, I tried to kiss him
Look, Mom, my heart is vomiting.
The second song is an example of a bull song. As part of manhood initiation, a young man chooses a bull from his herd and formulates a secret name for himself, based on some characteristic of the bull’s coloring or horn configuration. The name is usually a subtle and elaborate riddle, and to make it even more mysterious, it’s translated into a language that only the elders remember. He also composes a special bull song, usually praising his bull’s virtues and praising himself. Although the next song doesn’t explicitly mention a bull, it is an example of a bull song. It refers to the singer’s valor in cattle raiding.
I’m spearing and spearing
I’m spearing, you guys
I’m spearing, oh yeah
For the women of Burren ci Omogu (an age set)
I’m spearing, you guys
We’re not yet finished
The children of our village know it.
Photos from Lopit
The road to Lopit
A road near Lopit
A compound near the largest village
A Tennet-style dance
A Tennet elder
A Tennet mountain field
A Tennet meal