Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania

    -- Kelly Askew, University of Chicago Press. 2002. 417 pages + CD

The concept of “performing the nation” is first introduced through vignettes about a border patrol, a presidential visit, and a brilliant way to circumvent curfew.* The author then uses a “performative analysis” to help understand the state of Tanzania, legally created 40 years ago from two separate republics. This post-colonial entity has never been a single, unified nation, and has over 120 ethnic groups.

Askew’s theoretical discussions are interspersed with many intriguing personal experiences from fieldwork she did off and on for a decade. Based on her experience, she has worked out a highly technical theory of the politics of performance, emphasizing the power of musical performance to “generate a national culture.”

On page 23 she introduces her model of performance, drawing from earlier scholars such as Richard Bauman and Victor Turner. The model has too many elements to list in this review, but it is worth serious perusal. She demonstrates that “performance constitutes a forum for reconfiguring social relations,” actively creating social reality. She also convincingly shows that performance is “a process actively engaged in by everyone in attendance as opposed to a product somehow owned by performers and transmitted for audience reception.”

Chapter 3 offers a partial musical ethnography of the country, introducing the genres of ngoma (traditional dance), dansi (urban popular music), and taraab (sung Swahili poetry). For each of these genres, she outlines its history, describes its current performance practices, and relates these to the “active construction of social and political realities.” All three musical genres are strongly linked with examples to “the internal dynamics of nationalism and the maintenance of state power.”

She argues that ngoma (rural roots) and dansi (urban roots) are not polar opposites but two points on a spectrum. In support of this view, she gives a long list of shared elements. Among them, “the fundamental goal is to incite audience members into joining the dance. The extent to which this goal is achieved constitutes the standard for evaluating the success of any given performance” in both genres.

The author was a keyboardist for 2 bands, one taraab and one dansi, and found that many invaluable insights came through her participation in the bands. Within moments after first performing some of “her” music, differing assumptions rose to the fore. “Contrary to popular belief in ‘music as a universal language,’ it was immediately obvious that we approached music-making from fundamentally different perspectives.”

She discovered interesting gender issues as a band member. She was given the uniform that marked her as an instrumentalist. It turned out to be a uniform for a man because instruments were only played by men. When she later learned enough to also sing in the band, she received the uniform worn by the female singers. She went on to perform nearly 300 times with taraab bands.

To connect the power of musical performance to politics in Tanzania, Askew relates the country’s history of colonialism, nationalism, socialism, and liberalization. Then she describes the Tanzanian “soundscape” of ngoma, dansi, and taarab performed by musical clubs and bands. She illustrates how the taarab “constitutes a powerfully effective mode of dispute negotiation.” One full chapter is given to the history of the Tanzanian Ministry of Culture with special attention to its purpose of unifying the nation. Another chapter is devoted to the National Arts and Language Competitions. Then she relates the history of two popular taarab bands and their relationships to state policy.

One of her bands had been invited to perform for a Presidential visit. A local government official literally pulled the plug out of the wall on the third song because of political references he didn’t like.

Two song texts from the CD illustrate the effort by songwriters to influence politics. “Tanzanian Yetu” says “Our Tanzania is a country worthy of praise. Throughout the world everyone recognizes this.” “Nahodha,” performed by the Tanzanian National Service Army taarab orchestra, says, “Vehicles for travel normally move forward. We hope that the captain will be in front to steer.”

She concludes that “musical performance more than print media proves to be the dominant vehicle for the elaboration [of Tanzanian nationalism (national culture)] from colonial times to the present.”

This book is as scholarly as any professional ethnomusicologist could desire; yet it has many practical aspects. The most stunning of these is the accompanying high-quality CD that offers fascinating listening, even independent of the book. Each of the eleven tracks is fully described in an appendix, and there are full song texts and translations of the songs on the CD and also of all the other songs referred to in the book

The book has a short Swahili glossary. It also contains an exhaustive discography for the three music genres discussed in the book, totaling more than 700 recordings, and is invaluable for the study of East African musics.

    --reviewed by Phil Perrin, Professor of Church Music, International Baptist Seminary, Arusha, Tanzania with Paul Neeley

* Have your group of late-night travelers in the back of a truck pretend to be a group of wailing mourners with a willing “corpse” covered with a cloth.

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony