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Music and Dance in Eastern Africa

Kahithe Kiiru
Maina wa Mũtonya


Maina wa Mũtonya et Kahithe Kiiru

Texte intégral

Music, Dance and Social Change in Eastern Africa

1Societies are always in a continuous mode of change, from all aspects that define life. The Eastern African region is a community in flux, and has always been. With some countries emerging from internal strife, others have continually engaged in a search for a national identity that is complicated by competing ethnic interests. Historically, whether it’s the colonial government dictating and inscribing meaning onto natives’ performances, or the constant dialogue in attempt to understand the post-colonial nation and its complexities, or negotiating the question of gender, music and dance have been instrumental. As Barber is wont to remind us, it is “under conditions of pervasive political and economic change that music continues to play a crucial role as a medium of symbolic transaction and a means of forging and defending communities” (1987: 4). Music and dance have thus become avenues of confronting such socio-political realities.

2In this way, music and dance provide us with a crucial template for “processes through which identities are (per) formed both at personal and collective levels” (Connell and Gibson 2003: 117). As Wade (2000: 2) argues, “the way people think about identity and music is tied to the way they think about places”. This book therefore explores new avenues of rethinking the eastern African region through music and dance as well as understanding “ways in which music [and dance] can be used as a means of transcending the limitations of our own place in the world, of constructing trajectories rather than boundaries across space” (Stokes 1994: 4).

3Undoubtedly, the fact that music and dance form part of our everyday experience is justification for engaging in research that revolves around these variables. If Mbiti (1969) characterized Africans as “notoriously religious”, it also becomes important to underline that music and its performance is the “most widely appreciated art form in the continent” (Allen 2004: 1). Whereas this book project does not tackle the theme of religion, it emphasizes the notion that the study of music and dance explores different paths of approaching other thematic concerns. Agawu (2001: 8) has averred that African music and dance can be designated as text because the varieties ‘constitute complex messages rooted in specific cultural practices’. But because of its fluid nature, ‘music refuses to provide a uniform or static text to manipulate or deconstruct’ (Connell and Gibson 2003: 3).

4In a wider context, adjectives such as universal, essential and social are used to describe music and dance and their place within the human experience. These words attest to the awareness of the relevance of structured sound and movement in human societies across geo-cultural contexts. Although the establishment of separate disciplines with exclusive focus on music and dance within social and cultural studies can be dated to mid-20th century, their symbolic, interpretive and permeable nature has appealed to scholars since the late 19th century.

5Early anthropologists and historians examined music and dance as cultural expressions in relation to their ability to translate, into composition and into performance, the values, mores, principles and predominant social relations of a given society. From the idea of a “comparative musicology” studying elements and structures of non-Western musics and the establishment of folklore studies in the late 19th century Europe; through Merriam’s emphasis on the anthropological component of music (1964) and Blacking’s theory on the nature of musicality (1973); to linguistics and phenomenology inspired analysis of both sound and movement, music and dance have in the 21st century overcome disciplinary barriers and been integrated in a large variety of thematic concerns of contemporary social sciences and humanities.

6Regardless of disciplinary labels, scholars today agree on one major point - music and dance not only reflect but also shape historical and contemporary realities of our diverse communities. This is true in Africa as much as it is elsewhere. This important role of musical and dance practices cannot be overemphasized. As Allen (2004) argues, music, through its creation, performance or consumption potentially provides a revealing window into Africa people’s experiences.

7Having established the important place that music and dance occupy in the everyday lives of Africans, the development of a solid academic and research community on the topic in Africa still presents major challenges. Whereas there is a growing number of scholars dedicated to the study of music and dance in Africa, most of this research is undertaken in Western institutions. On the continent, few universities have incorporated disciplines of ethnomusicology, anthropology of dance and cultural studies in their academic programs.

8This collection of articles stresses the importance of research projects and publications giving space to music and dance studies conducted by researchers on the continent, regardless of the discipline they stem from. However, it is important to note that there is a precedent of studies in this domain done on the eastern African region.

9While acknowledging the colonial root of ethnography and its attendant baggage, there is a deliberate attempt to exclude from this brief historical overview the early writings on music and dance in the region by British administrators and missionaries with ethnographic ambitions. Therefore, the historically pioneering work becomes undoubtedly that of Terence Ranger (1975) who first drew attention to competitive dance practices in East Africa and defined the coastal Beni Ngoma ensembles as musical and social products of cultural contact. In 1985, Paul Spencer edited the first collective book in British anthropology devoted entirely to dance. In his unique analysis of Samburu rites, Spencer (1985) interprets dance as a channel for expression of discontent with social inequalities, an antithesis to predominant discourse expressed in the ritual setting. These two books are seminal works that opened avenues for future research in the region.

10Thus, several authors pursued and developed the topic of East African competitive music traditions, e.g. Gearhart (1998), some of which was brought together in Mashindano!, edited by Gunderson & Barz in 2000. The subject of competitions and its impact on musical practices within the modern East African context continues to nourish contemporary research; Nannyonga-Tamusuza (2003) studies competitions in Uganda, Gearhart (2005) in Tanzania and Kiiru (2017) in Kenya.

11Another important focus has been that of music in relation to nation building and creation of national identity. Kelly Askew (2002) explores the relations between musical practice, political ideology, and economic change in Tanzania. In their book Songs and Politics in Eastern Africa, Njogu & Maupeu (2007) focus on instances where music and performing artists contested, supported or countered power structures in the Eastern African region.

12Early ethnomusicology classics giving an overview of traditional music genres and instruments (Hyslop 1958; Kubik 1967; Wachsmann, 1971; Senoga-Zake, 1986) have spurred further research on different traditional music and dance expressions, for example in Darkwa (1991) and Nyakiti (1997), as well as more recent research focusing on the invented and dynamic character of these traditions e.g. Wanyama (2012), Kiiru (2014) and Bushidi (2015).

13Religious music and its fusion with elements of various traditional sounds has equally attracted research interest. Publications by Kidula (2010, 2013) and Katuli (2013) in Kenya; and Cooke (2000) and Ssempijja (2012) in Uganda are some of the examples that handle the aspect of gospel music.

14There have been studies dedicated to the issues of gender in music and dance performances, notably Fair (1996) who studied dances of female initiation rituals in Zanzibar and their power to mediate ethnic and cultural boundaries between different segments of the island’s Muslim populations; and Nannyonga-Tamasuza (2005) who did an historical, theoretical and spatial analysis of gender construction and performance in Bakisimba traditional music of the Buganda community in Uganda.

15Recently, in popular culture studies, we have seen a number of oeuvres on popular and urban music and dance genres of East Africa. Nyairo & Ogude (2003; 2005) analyze a popular Kenyan song in relation to the first multi-party general elections in the country, a recurrent theme in their subsequent publications, Nyairo (2004) and Ogude (2012). Other examples include Barz’s (2001) analysis of the meaning in benga music of Western Kenya; Mũtonya’s (2013; 2014) work on Gĩkũyũ popular music in Central Kenya; as well as several diverse analyses of hip hop music in the region e.g. Ntarangwi’s (2009) and Eisenberg (2012), and Sanga’s (2013) approach to Tanzanian bongo fleva genre. Rosenberg’s (2011) research is a comparative effort that looks at the relationship between songs and the literatures in the Eastern African region.

16Others include Gunderson’s (2010) research on Sukuma labour songs in Tanzania; Edmondson’s (2001) analysis of the eroticization of traditional ngoma in the same country; Mwangi’s (2006) retracing of music censorship in colonial and post-colonial Kenya; and Marmone’s (2017) recently published analysis of social change in the Samburu community of Northern Kenya through music.

17These are just some of the works dedicated to the topic of music and dance in the eastern African region. The references above are by no means exhaustive. As a resurgent practice both in the academia and among other stakeholders, it has become clear that there is growing interest in studies on music and dance and this publication is just an addition to the growing list. Connell and Gibson (2001) argue that the academic world has, in many respects, shifted in ways that make it possible to take music and dance seriously. “The move away from the rigid theories of society and economy towards studies of social diversity and heterogeneity has illuminated the complexities of how members of communities create meanings and identities for themselves”. (Connell and Gibson 2001: 2)

18This book is a product of a regional conference on Music and Dance Research in East Africa organized in October 2016 by The French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA, Nairobi) and the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), with the support of the African Music Development Program (IMC & EU). The general framework for the conference was the inclusion of music and/or dance in the widely studied topics in social sciences, such as the construction of the state, national and ethnic identities, political and social activism, heritage creation and preservation, cultural tourism and development studies, gender and generational issues, etc. The chapters of this book are reviewed papers presented at the 2016 conference, which had assembled researchers from the region and beyond, critically interrogating issues concerning creation, tradition, innovation, and appropriation in music and dance.

19With this project, the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA, Nairobi) asserts its commitment to assisting and advocating for research enquiry into music and dance in the regional academic landscape, as seen in an earlier publication mentioned above by Njogu & Maupeu (2007) that centered on the relationship between music and politics.

20The first two sections of this book resonate with the theme of politics, whether in view of the shaping of music for and through historically diverse political agendas or the contestation of power structures in place via musical performance. The historical background of the first part is set in late colonial Kenya, where the political and social friction between the settler and the native communities is reflected in both rural and urban musical and dance expressions. As the British colonial administration regulates native dances and translates them into commercial performance scenarios (Kiiru), the African dwellers of rapidly expanding Nairobi town engage in ballroom dancing competitions and use dance as means for creating an urban identity (Ng’weno).

21While considering the performance of local politics and national identities, the second part of the book begins by exploring the evolution of nationalist discourses in the Somali Horn (Hassan), through the artistic expression of several actors, notably Somali musicians, poets and a Djiboutian band. The emphasis here is on the transnational circulation of sounds and ideas and their impact on local historical developments. In the succeeding chapter Kochore, looks at the ways in which the Boran community of Marsabit in Northern Kenya use the reference to their traditional institution gada in contemporary political campaign songs in order to make sense of the Kenyan political system and position themselves in it.

22The third part of the book assembles the themes of gender and gender relations. The live performance of love songs in a unique venue in Hargeysa, Somaliland is implicated in the shaping of post-war publics (Woolner), who celebrate “traditional” Somali identity, while simultaneously pushing the limits of everyday social conventions between genders. In the Kenyan context, Mũtonya unravels the stereotypes derived from the intricate power play in marital relationships and their echo in Gĩkũyũ popular songs, while Omenya interrogates the changing trends of gender participation in Luo music.

23In part four, Brinkman offers a unique approach to the study of music through literature, more specifically looking at memories of music and representation of performance in autobiographical writing of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Binyavanga Wainaina. This intertextual reference points to how music and other disciplines constantly talk to each other.

24Finally, the collection of articles presented here tackle a large number of themes and cover different historical periods, as authors approach music and dance from an interdisciplinary perspective. It is hoped that it shall provide innovative insights and make a relevant contribution to the recurrent dialogue towards emphasizing the relevance of music and dance studies in the larger context of humanities and social sciences.



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A senior lecturer in Pwani University holds a Ph.D. in African Literature from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He writes largely on literature, popular culture and politics in Africa. He has taught in Mexico, South Africa and Kenya. His research interests include the performance of power in post-independence Africa and identity formation in popular culture in Africa and the African Diaspora. His latest book, La Política de la Vida Cotidiana en la Música Popular Gĩkũyũ de Kenia (2017) talks about the interaction between culture, politics and popular music in postcolonial Kenya. Mũtonya is currently working on migration in Africa and the Caribbean as well as the Afromexican identities and representation of blackness in Mexico.

Is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University Paris Nanterre, attached to the Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (LESC). She got her master’s degree (MPhil) at the same university, with a specialization in Ethnomusicology and Dance anthropology. She is also a dancer, dance educator and choreographer. Since 2011, she has been doing research on traditional dances in Kenya and is currently writing her PhD dissertation. In her research, she examines the constitution of dance heritage in Kenya from the perspective of continuous circulation of individual and institutional actors, choreographic and identity strategies, and dance forms and vocabularies between the local and the national level.

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