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Music and Dance in Eastern Africa

Kahithe Kiiru
Maina wa Mũtonya

Part I: Dance and the Forming of a Nation in Colonial Kenya

Colonial Choreography: How the British Administration Shaped Dance Heritage in Kenya

Kahithe Kiiru


The study of progressive creation of dance heritage in Kenya reveals that the substrate of this set of practices originated in the colonial enterprises of staging and promoting communal dances of different communities, a process that began in the 1950s. Control over native populations was one of the main preoccupations of the British administration in the settler context of Kenya Colony. Yet, following a long period of restriction and prohibition, different forms of control over dance events and celebrations translated into a form of “choreography”. This was a case of distinct use of folklorization as a tool of partial censorship.
In this chapter we discuss the processes and institutions put in place, intentionally or unconsciously, by the colonial administration in the “native dances” department, including the negotiation and disagreement inherent to their establishment. We also argue that some of these institutions were built on and around the nature of pre-colonial cultural practices and the dynamics between pre-colonial conflicts and social consensus.
Finally, examples from current research confirm that the impact of what I hereby call “colonial choreography” extends to the perception of “traditional” dance in Kenya, as it also resonates with relevant questions of valorisation and (self) representation.

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1In the last few decades, the layeredness of dance has inspired numerous studies on the relationship and the dialogue between culture - body and movement – and politics. The simultaneous expression of power and of resistance, as well as the negotiation and creation of identities through and by dance is the theoretical rooting of the study from which this chapter stems. In line with Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995), we analyse dance heritage in contemporary Kenya in terms of processes rather than immutable products. These heritage making processes are thought as both ongoing and rooted in various historical developments. They are also observed from the perspective of continuous circulation between two interdependent levels - the local and the national.

2Our dynamist approach to choreographic knowledge takes into account the historical and social evolution of “traditional” dance in Kenya and attempts to leave the academic burden of the authentic behind us. As we analyse transformations of dance vocabularies, of choreographic strategies, of dance imaginaries and representations, we do not perpetuate established “normative expectations” (Schechner 1990) for “unadulterated” traditional performances. On the contrary, we consider dance heritage to be a dialogue between tradition and historicity of practices on one hand and individual creativity and artistic input on the other.

3In our attempt to respond to all of the above intentions, we have complemented data collected “in the field”, through participant observation and a myriad of interviews, with archival research. This has proven to be both a challenging and a rewarding approach, as archives on “traditional” music and dance in Kenya are scarce and neglected. Yet, in this process, the colonial archive was possibly the most valuable source of information on the effects which external historical developments can have on dance. Our previous interest in this historical period was confirmed when, perhaps naively, we started our search by using the keyword “dance” and discovered that a large number of entries in the collection of the National Archives (NADS) headquarters in Nairobi dated from the pre-independence era. Since one of the most frequent terms associated with “dance” was that of a “permit”, our follow-up focused on dating and analysing the various legislative measures concerning dance set in place by the British colonial administration in different historical periods.

4Progressively, we have become aware of the complexity of those measures, as well as of the disagreements and negotiations they entailed. In order to gain access to different layers of British attitudes towards native dances in Kenya Colony, we enlarged our search and added to the formative legislative documents (such as minutes and orders), correspondence exchanged between administrators and other actors involved (missionaries, settlers), reports from meetings and anecdotes concerning dance events noted in different districts of the colony. The hypotheses presented in this chapter are a fruit of analysis of these documents. We introduce them with caution and remain aware of the possible defaults they may have, resulting from the difficulties in accessing colonial archives in Kenya and from the apparent fact of an important percentage of the archive being kept in the United Kingdom.

5Before introducing the central argument of this chapter, we believe we owe the readership a clarification of the terminology they are about to encounter. In place of problematic prefixes of traditional, indigenous or folk dances, which all have a well-known history of contestation, we opt here for essentially two terms. The first one is that of “cultural dances of Kenya.” This is synonymous to dance heritage and defined as a set of traditional practices reinvented and re-contextualized for a stage experience and a contemporary social use (Kiiru 2017). The term itself was reported from interviews with institution representatives as well as with artists and practitioners in the field. We have found it particularly relevant because of its reference to the notion of “culture”, as opposed to “tradition”. According to source informants, “culture” in this sense describes better the dynamic and evolving character of the practices in question (Kiiru 2014).

6The second term used in this chapter is that of “native dances”. This has been intentionally replicated from the colonial archives for mainly two reasons. Firstly, it creates a tangible connection to the legislative terminology and to the category of “Native Affairs” under which all laws, issues and discussions regarding the relationship the colonial government had to local African populations was filed. Secondly, it encompasses a double reference to birth right citizenship (jus soli) and to indigeneity defined in terms of specific rights based on a historical tie to the territory, both of which have paradoxical implications for the Kenyan settler colonial experience.

7Thus, this chapter will focus on what we call “colonial choreography”, a term which refers to the historical impact British colonial administration had on the progressive constitution of dance heritage in Kenya, as well as on its perception. It will entail an analysis of the evolution of colonial legislation and regulation towards native dances in Kenya Colony with a special focus on the orchestration and staging of native dances commenced in the late colonial period, notably the 1950s. Subsequently, we shall discuss the impact these legislative, normative and empirical procedures have had on dance perceptions, imaginaries and vocabularies in Kenya, using examples from the field.

The Colonial Experience in Kenya

8Any researcher in social studies or humanities dealing with historical developments in Africa cannot avoid the question of “traditional Africa’s” violent encounter with the Europeans, nor of the impact of repressive colonisation politics. This impact was especially significant in Kenya, because of the specific nature of the British rule. According to Ochieng:

“The most important single element which was to determine the nature of Kenya’s future political economy was the decision by the British Commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, in 1902 to invite settlers to the country...” (Ochieng 1985: 219)

  • 1 Administratively the term “Colony of Kenya” referred to the interior lands, whereas the “Protectora (...)

9The occupation of natives’ lands, which were declared void, unclaimed and economically neglected, was considered as inevitable as was the mission of their salvation from a primitive state of being. Hence, in order to protect British interests, in 1920 the territories of former East Africa Protectorate (also known as British East Africa) were annexed and the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya were officially established.1

  • 2 By 1928 the number of European settlers in Kenya Colony was estimated to 12 000 (Buell 1928) and in (...)

10European immigrants to the Colony were attracted by such real-life factors as fertile soil and good farming conditions, business prospects and investment speculations, as well as by a romantic idea of adventure and new beginnings, spread among others by the ‘Kenya Novel’ literary phenomenon (Duder 1991). Yet, White settlement in Kenya2 did not elude controversy, as both its critics and supporters attempted to influence public opinion in Britain. Kenya’s unique status of a Crown Colony under direct control of the Colonial Office in London was a source of numerous conflicts (Wasserman 1974). This fact, and the constant negotiation between settlers’ demands and the Crown’s interests it brought about, will reflect in several domains of everyday life in the Kenya Colony. Among them, “Native Affairs” were a pivotal issue.

11Settler colonialism was conceived and implemented as “a structure rather than an event” (Wolfe 2006: 390), a political form that combined structural and ideological elements. Life in the colony was thus characterised by “pervasive inequalities, usually codified in law” (Elkins & Pedersen 2005: 8), while the mere fact of European settlers’ cohabitation with African populations led to a particular attention to their customs and behaviours. This interest progressively translated into an elaborate system of regulation and control over the Natives’ everyday lives. In the quest for information and understanding of “tribal societies and cultures”, early colonial administrators and missionaries with ethnographical ambition (Hobley 1903, 1922; Cagnolo 1933), who thoughtlessly reflected European racial prejudices, were succeeded by detached scientific observers (Lindblom 1920; Wagner 1949), who “rarely questioned their ‘laboratory condition’” (Lewis 1973: 582).

  • 3 Baker Beall, 1932, District Commissioner of Southern Turkana, Notes on Native Tribes and Their Cust (...)

12In these early writings on cultures of Kenya Colony, references to musical and dance practices were both scarce and racially biased. Some examples include the following: “There is little to say regarding Turkana dances as they consist almost entirely of a large number of men walking about, stamping their feet.” (Baker Beall 1932);3 “Music amongst civilized nations represents the soul of a people but with the Akikuyu it expresses merely their present feelings” (Cagnolo 1933: 161), and so on.

13When they did not openly pass judgment, the short descriptions of music and dance within small or big monographic volumes on a specific tribe, considered them, without exception, as irrelevant entertainment, which does not seem to carry out any significant role (Leakey 1930).

14In this historical and political context, local dances were not spared from interference. On the contrary, they were, since the 1910s, strongly criticised by the colonial administration. Their suppression, prohibition and regulation are “an index of the significance of dance as a site of considerable political and moral anxiety” (Reed 1998: 506).

15Added to the specific nature of settler colonialism, one ofthe key reasons of such an interest in local populations’ dances lies in the very nature of dance events. Festive gatherings, ceremonies or rituals, which were also opportunities for dance and song sessions, were often judged by the colonial authorities as dangerous and conducive for riots. They involved more risks than just the gathering of otherwise fragmented and dispersed tribal units, the consumption of alcohol and other celebratory practices. In general, dance reinforces the sensorimotor experience of the ritual event and promotes emotional involvement of the participants (Houseman 2006). While shared, extraordinary bodily experience is lived, emotions and spirits rise high and opportunity for expressing latent or repressed feelings of discontent and anger may be taken. The colonial observer (s) appraised this phenomenon which was particularly threatening in situations where dance was a site of male collective performance (Hanna 1977; Reed 1998).

16Additionally, many of the musical and dance practices in East Africa were historically linked to traditional forms of power and integrated into the age-set systems of societies (Peatrik 1995). Once the colonial pacification process abated the need for war dances as physical and psychological preparation for combat, their benefit and functionality for the local populations transmuted into a form of assertion of traditional independence and of symbolic resistance. Thus, to the colonial administration, the control and regulation of these polymorphic practices presented itself as a requisite for successful government.

From Prohibition to Orchestration: The Progressive Development of British Native Dance Policies

17As in many other colonial arenas, in Kenya Colony “dance tended to generate multiple and contradictory policies and attitudes” (Reed 1998: 506). This fact is partly explained by the complex nature of the indirect rule system set in place. On the ground, officially protective of “the authority of ‘custom’” (Elkins & Pedersen 2005: 24), the British administration in Kenya transferred “the native question” to separate institutions – the Native Councils, established in different tribal “reserves”. These were to enforce their own customary law in matters of everyday life issues, “provided it is not repugnant to humanity, or in opposition to any ordinance” (Lugard 1922: 206). Yet, the British administration seemed to have difficulty deciding whether musical and dance practices fall under the jurisdiction of these councils. Resolutions and other legal documents concerning dances could be issued by both the central colonial authority and by native councils, while traces of consultation and discussion between the two on the topic of dancing are surprisingly recurrent.

18The most radical approach to control during colonial era in Kenya would be the legal prohibition of specific musical and dance practices. Traces of these extreme measures can be found in the form of lists of prohibited dances in a specific locality, area or district at a given time. The cited reasons for prohibition of certain dances are essentially of two types: moral and political.

19When it comes to questions of morality, the most common phrases used to describe “dangerous” dances, those considered for prohibition or already prohibited, are such as “of an indecent or immoral character” and/or “likely to lead to immorality or a breach of peace.” The definition of levels of immorality, and consequently controversy, of a dance form stems evidently from the Christian Western European viewpoint and evokes the strong influence of missionary stations in the region.

20Several authors have commented on the usage of dance scenes in early missionaries’ and explorers’ works for the purpose of supporting the assertion that Africans possessed an immoral nature, which was evident in their dance vocabulary and their relationship to individual and mutual bodies. The tradition of depicting Africa as a place with “human sacrifice, highly sexual religious ceremonies, wicked excess of polygamy, and lascivious dances with a childlike ignorance” (Curtin 1964: 327) fuelled missionaries’ desire to convert the native populations. Yet, such encounters and their oral or written descriptions reveal a bizarre mixture of disgust and judgement on the one hand, and dance as a site of sexual desire on the other (Thompson 2012). As Father Cagnolo wrote, in 1933, on Kikuyu songs and dances: “When we began to take interest in their music we discovered that native song is an occasion of great corruption, bringing men down to the level of the beasts and blinding them to things of the spirit. It became therefore logical duty to study the causes of this corruption, in order to find a remedy…” (Cagnolo 1933: 173-174).

21The impact of early Christian missions, which entered different regions of the Colony at different historical periods (between 1840s and 1920s) is a topic that would merit a separate chapter. According to testimonies collected in the field, we conclude that missionaries’ opinions and practical reactions to music and dance practices of the Natives varied on the basis of two essential factors – the Church denomination involved and the (perception of) native beliefs associated to the concerned dance form.

  • 4 Isukuti is a traditional dance of Isukha and Idakho Luhya communities of Western Kenya characterise (...)
  • 5 Personal interview conducted with Elder Joseph Lubulela (born 1928) conducted on December 16th 2015 (...)

22Examples from Western Kenya, notably from Shinyalu constituency - the home of isukuti dance,4 testify to an interesting discrepancy. Whereas the general impression early Christians – largely Quaker Protestants, left in this region is that of opposition to traditional music, frequently associated with confiscation and destruction of drums, the Catholic mission established in 1906 in Mukumu village in reality favoured the development of isukuti dance genre. Father Withlock, who headed the Mukumu mission in its’ early days, used to organise the local youth for dance and wrestling sessions on Sundays, after the service. The impact of these dance sessions was so significant that the community elders state “isukuti started there.”5

  • 6 On the topic of incorporating traditional music of different Kenyan populations into contemporary w (...)
  • 7 Recurrent in the East African region, ngoma is a term which can have different meanings. We can ass (...)
  • 8 District Commissioner of North Kavirondo (signature illegible), 1934, a letter to the Provincial Co (...)

23This case can only partly be explained with a specific priest’s personal liking for isukuti dance or with the Catholic Church’s more inclusive approach to worship6. It is our hypothesis that the missions were permissive of isukuti mainly because it was considered an entertainment form. Even though the White administration and the clergy were aware of isukuti being played at burials, its’ connection to the spiritual life of the natives and consequently to their potential spiritual corruption was not judged central. Thus, when in March 1934 Mrs Ingels, a British lady living within the native reserve in the region of Kakamega, approaches the authorities concerning an incident in which a large number of natives following a funeral ngoma7 sought shelter from the rain under her veranda, the District Commissioner does not take action but rather expresses the opinion that prohibiting native ngomas “will merely intensify the idea that the Reserve is theirs no longer” (North Kavirondo DC 1934).8

  • 9 Personal interview conducted with Chengo Emmanuel Munyaya, Chairman of the Malindi Cultural Associa (...)

24Contrary to isukuti which is nowadays, in a somewhat lighter form, integrated into Christian worship, the gonda dance of Giriama Mijikenda populations, who inhabit the coastal and the interior coast regions of Kenya, has never been accepted by the Christian Churches. We argue that the reasons for prosecution of traditional music and dance practices of the Mijikenda is essentially their manifest connection to traditional worship of ancestor spirits, regularly interpreted as or associated with witchcraft (Brantley 1979). Even in the 21st century, one excludes the other – “Either you are a Christian or you do gonda.”9

  • 10 Vicar Apostolic of Kisumu, 1942, a letter to the Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza, Kenya National (...)

25The alliance between the Christian missions and the colonial government in controlling dance events is justified by more than just morality concerns. A frequently raised issue, which reappears in several districts of the Colony, is equally a health one. Overnight dances, originally related to communal ceremonies, but later recast for the sole purpose of entertainment, are reported on for being “harmful for the health of the people” (Vicar Apostolic of Kisumu 1942).10 The consumption of alcohol by youth (especially girls), sexual orgies, spread of venereal diseases and subsequently infertility are mentioned as principal risks of such occasions.

  • 11 Hunter, 1940, District Commissioner’s Recommendation, Minute 17/40 of a Meeting of the Central Kavi (...)

26The discussions of the connection between dance occasions and libertine behaviour among native youth are even more frequent in the 1940s with the appearance of couple dances. These are designated as “European types of dances” and their proliferation in different corners of the colony is investigated with fervour, concluding that these dances “not infrequently results in murder, seduction, adultery and assault, and it is considered essential in the interests of law and order to prohibit their use. The African is hot blooded, jealous and sensual, and close bodily contact with one of the opposite sex in the case of Africans is almost incapable of being confined to decent dancing” (Hunter 1940).11

27The political reasons for prohibition of certain songs and dances relate mostly to songs with lyrics that incite or question the existing colonial order and legislation. A historically famous example is that of Mũthĩrĩgũ song and dance in Kikuyu reserves in Central Kenya. In 1930, in a document entitled “Political Situation in the Province”, the Fort Hall District Commissioner reports to the Provincial Commissioner on “forbidding it”, as well as on twenty or thirty offenders which had received sentences of imprisonment. The Mũthĩrĩgũ had emerged as a popular protest song after the colonial government, in concert with missionaries and Churches established within the areas inhabited by the Kikuyu, declared war on the custom of female circumcision. However, the lyrics of these controversial songs reveal a much larger spectrum of concerns and “clearly show how a defence of sexual order became entangled with a revolt of younger Kikuyus against the British and their African collaborators and with a political protest against the loss of Kikuyu land.” (Pedersen 1991: 563)

28However, we argue that prohibition was, in fact, a mere fraction of the regulative system set in place by British colonial authorities towards “native dances” in Kenya. Regardless of its undoubtedly detrimental effect on certain practices, it was not necessarily the most significant effect of this historical era. When we confront legislative papers with testimonies of living informants, it is revealed that prohibition neither led to the extinction of targeted practices, nor is remembered as a primary trauma. We believe that other forms of regulation were even more influential in the process of heritagisation of dances – their progressive transformation into “cultural dances of Kenya”.

  • 12 District Commissioner of Kyambu (signature illegible), 1926, Re: Native Dances, report to Senior Co (...)

29The British colonial administration controlled native dances by reducing their duration and their attendance, as well as by dictating the calendar of their performance. One of the responses to reports on an increase in dances in native reserves is the idea that “… some of these dances can be shortened and circumcision ceremonies permitted only during a fixed period of the year, say two months” (District Commissioner of Kiambu 1926).12

30This type of ordering of music and dance events progressively led to a very elaborate section in the native control regulations. In 1926, the Chief Native Commissioner G.V. Maxwell proclaims:

  • 13 Maxwell, Chief Native Commissioner, 1926, Attorney General’s Office, 1926 Native Authority Ordinanc (...)

“… I hereby declare that any headman may from time to time issue orders to be obeyed by the natives residing within the local limits of his jurisdiction prohibiting or restricting excessive dancing by natives or the public performance of any native dance of indecent or immoral character or of such nature that it is likely to lead to immorality or a breach of the peace and determining the hours within which, the place or places at which, and the conditions under which any native dance may be publicly performed” (Maxwell 1926).13

31These interventions into traditional performance of music and dances made them not only easier to survey and control, but also corresponded to some of the requirements for their “staging” - for performance in front of an audience. The reconfiguration of time, space and number of participants originally conceived for reasons other than performance itself is an important part of what we fetchingly refer to as colonial choreography, a process that progressively modified not only dance forms and events, but also their perception in the minds of local population.

  • 14 Montgomery, Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza Province, 1934, a letter to the District Commissioner (...)
  • 15 District Commissioner of Embu, 1926, a report to Chief Native Commissioner on Dances in Native Rese (...)

32One of the paradoxes of Kenya’s colonial history was the fact that “the increasing scope and intensity of state intervention against the African population, in order to establish the viability of the settler sector, coincided with a rising level of conflict between the settlers and officials who were determined to defend African interests.” (Lonsdale & Berman 1979: 494) Agreement on native affairs policies was, thus, difficult to attain and in a state of continuous negotiation. In relation to native dances, some administrators did not agree with proposed or implemented repressive measures, but rather defended the opinion that “native customs which are not objectionable will not ordinarily be interfered with” (Montgomery 1934).14 Some recognised music and dance practices as central to local populations’ social universe (s), as “the chief amusement” which “affords exercise and contentment” and therefore does not have “any more evil effect on them than dancing has among Europeans” (DC of Embu 1926).15 Those are the opinions that progressively gained momentum, once negotiation gave place to a common policy in regards to native dances, a historical and political decision that can be explained by both internal and external factors.

33The 1950s were a period of profound restructuring of the British colonial policy. Although Britain and the Empire had emerged victorious from the Second World War, the effects of the conflict were profound, both in Europe and in the colonies. Anti-colonial movements, supported by the two new axes of world power, the United States and the Soviet Union, who both opposed European colonialism were becoming stronger and Britain progressively adopted a policy of disengagement. Simultaneously, the colonial administration expanded its efforts “to knit their African settler colonies more tightly into the metropolitan economy” (Elkins & Pedersen 2005: 2).

34These significant changes reflected, among other things, in an alteration of attitudes towards the native populations and towards their cultural expressions. The British were now seeking to ensure that the increasingly urbanised and modernised native populations maintained their “tribal identities” through traditional music and dance performances.

35Interestingly, the cited politically induced changes coincided with international developments in the field of folklore. In 1947. International Folk Music Council was founded and “preserving the performed cultures of African tribes” (Bushidi 2015: 13) was consistent with their declared objectives. In the same period, Hugh Tracey, famous ethnomusicologist and founder of the International Library of African Music (1954), toured Kenya Colony recording traditional music. In this research and documentation task Tracey was logistically assisted by British administration officials.

36Accordingly, proofs of early “professional” associations of music and dance in the colony can be noted in archival documents from the early 1950s. These groups are mentioned in documents referring to their movements around the territory of the Colony (and even outside it), where they perform on stages of festivals and agricultural or commercial fairs. Such native performances are still closely regulated and directed. Firstly, they are limited to a certain type of venues – the so-called Native Stadiums, existing in large urban centres. From this fact the term stadium dancing is derived. Secondly, performances of this kind are subject to permission by the District Commissioner’s office of the group’s respective location. Thirdly, if the permission is granted, native musicians and dancers are to be transported to and from location of performance, fed and, in the case of festivals and events longer than a day, accommodated by the organising body (in most cases Nairobi District, the Colony’s Agricultural Cabinet, etc.). Native musicians and dancers could be rewarded with an ox or a similar form of compensation (sugar, firewood), yet never paid. Any payment, if negotiated, was to be credited to locational funds and to the so-called African District Councils of their region of origin.

37A rare footage from this era shows stadium dancing by native groups at its best. In 1952, at the occasion of her historically famous visit to Kenya Colony, Princess Elisabeth is entertained with a showcase of tribal dances. Several teams of dancers are present, notably we can identify the Wakamba - who exhibit the acrobatic movements inherent to their traditional dances, and the Masaai - whose plain appearance and a run through the stadium stage seem to constitute sufficient attraction.

38The early initiatives of staging native dances generated several transformations. Among them, possibly the most important one is that of both spatial and mental separation of active participants – musicians and dancers themselves from passive observers - their audience. As Barber (1997) argued, these changes in ways of being an audience reflect much wider transformations in institutionalisation and economics of entertainment. They are equally related to “the degree to which performances are ‘embedded’ in other social forms” (Barber 1997: 347).

  • 16 Githuku R., for African Cabinet of Business and Entertainment, 1960, African Tribal Dancing, a lett (...)

39This consideration reminds us of another social practice the colonial administration commenced in the same historical period, a practice that would become crucial for the creation of dance heritage in the region. Building on the competitive nature inherent to a large number of musical and choreographic practices in East Africa (Ranger 1975; Gunderson & Barz 2000), the British proceeded to what we call the institutionalisation of competiveness (Kiiru 2017). “African Tribal Dance competitions” proliferated in most districts of the colony in the mid- 1950s, while the earliest found record of efforts to organize an “All Kenya” competition that would bring together teams of dancers from different communities dates from 1960. The African Cabinet of Business and Entertainment hopes that it might “… add to the standard of Kenya economics through such social activities whilst trying to make some of our people refrain from politics, worries, use of violence, etc.” (Githuku 1960).16

40An important role in the progressive establishment of colony-wide, and later nation-wide, competitive festivals, which live up to today, was played by the British musicologist and music educator Graham Hyslop. In 1957, in view of the administration’s new enthusiasm for music and performance arts, Hyslop was designated the Colony Music and Drama Officer whose duties included: “(1) Organisation of Music Courses…; (2) Choice of music for festivals; (3) Adjudication at festivals; [and] (4) Development and recording of African Music…;” etc. (Buttery 1957). His efforts in the promotion of what he considered African folk sensibilities, as well as his idea of the benefits a syncretism between those and European sensibilities, have left an undeniable trace on traditional music performance in Kenya. He prescribed the first reconfigurations of African folk songs and dances performed on competitive festival stages, and some of them are still retained in the contemporary system of national annual festivals (Kidula 1996; Omolo Ongati 2015).

  • 17 Stephens, Manager at Ker & Downey Safaris Ltd., 1957, a letter to the District Commissioner of Kitu (...)

41As processes of staging traditional dances of Kenyan communities in the late colonial period resume, their presence can be noted in more and more diverse contexts. Soon groups of dancers are being hired for private parties by the settlers and recruited on occasions of tourists’ safari visits to the Colony. Like so, in 1957 a safari tour company that specialises in “big game hunting and photographic expeditions” writes to the District Commissioner of Kitui with a requests for permission to bring to one of the locations under his jurisdiction a party of three British citizens, stating that they “are mainly interested in taking photographs of a Wakamba dance” (Stephens 1957).17

42In the following years, administrators discuss frequent requests for tribal dance displays closer to Nairobi, in order to satisfy the demand of both tourists and urban populations. Such displays are occasionally organised at the Kaloleni Native Stadium, while a project of forming a permanent dance troupe in Ngong area of Nairobi is in the pipelines. Minute number 31/58 from the District Commissioners’ meeting reports the following on the topic of tribal dance displays:

  • 18 Mackley was the Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Common Services at the time.
  • 19 Minute 31/58 , 1958, Tribal Dancing Displays, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Na (...)

“Mr. Mackley18 explained that it was the policy of his Ministry that Africans should receive a greater share of growing profitsofthe touristindustryandthatthe wayto achieve this wastocommercialiseall themorecolourful aspects of tribal life, in particular tribal dancing. The difficulty at present was that such dancing as there was in the reserves took place too far away from Nairobi to be of any use to overnight visitors and it was hoped to establish regular dancing displays nearer to the City. An attempt to hold a dancing contest for urban Africans in the Nairobi stadium on the Johannesburg lines had been unsuccessful as it had ended in pitched battle; but it was suggested that a permanent dancing team might be set up in the Ngong area which was ideal setting.”19

43However, the putting in place of rudiments of cultural tourism during the colonial era did not circumvent the controversy of commercialisation, associated to folklore ventures worldwide. Certain administrators were concerned with the effects ongoing processes would have on native populations and considered commercialising native dances “distasteful”. Yet, the progressive process of folklorisation, defined as the processes of selecting the most visible cultural particularities of a community (tribe) for its “promotion”, was under way and could not be stopped or slowed down. On the contrary, it exemplifies the characteristic continuity of a great number of institutions and usages imported from the colonial Empire into the new Independent State, which became in 1963 Kenya.

Cultural Dances of Kenya, their Perceptions, Imageries and Vocabularies

44Aside from reshaping dance forms and events, what are the long-lasting effects colonial prohibition, regulation and orchestration had on the dance practice and on the perception of dance heritage in Kenya? Based on observations made in the contemporary research context, we shall now explore some of the more complex and latent effects of the described historical developments.

  • 20 Githuku, 1960, op.cit.. (DC/KMG/2/1/130)

45The first invention of the colonial dance heritage tentative is not in its essence specifically Kenyan, but common to heritage ventures on the continent (Andrieu 2010; Castaldi 2006; Djebbari 2011, etc.) and, in a somewhat different form, around the world (Shay 2002; Trebinjac 2008, etc.). In discourse, as well as in folklore practices of the late colonial period, diversity appears as an ideal and an important motivator for all ventures. Thus, where the colonial administration openly expresses the wish to “keep alive the Traditional dances of all tribes” (Githuku 1960),20 we discern the germs of orchestrated cultural diversity. Simultaneously, the aspiration to present, preserve and promote all music and all dances of all tribes of the colony reveals an intriguing paradox. In order to paint the picture of diversity, one must start by identifying the differences. This process of identity construction, also referred to as ethnic essentialization, is characteristic of colonial rule all over Africa, and is echoed in most folkloristic projects. The “will to distinguish sets of homogeneous populations that are characterized by a specific type of musical and choreographic culture” (Djebbari 2011: 198) was inherited and further pursued by most newly independent states in the 1960s. Kenya was no exception to this rule.

  • 21 Martin, 1966, District Commissioner Nairobi Area, Formation of National Troupe, a letter to the Per (...)

46Our previous research on the Kenyan equivalent of a national troupe – Bomas Harambee Dancers (Kiiru 2014) has now revealed its rooting in pre-independence developments. Although the troupe’s official date of establishment (1973) defines it as a late nation-building project, when compared to similar projects by other African states, we had previously identified the seed of the idea of “formation of a national troupe” in archival documents as early as 1966 (Martin 1966).21 With the analysis of pre-Independence folklorisation processes, we can now state that it was indeed a project long time in the making. If we remember the late 1950s discussions of “tribal dance displays” closer to Nairobi and the suggestion of its location in Ngong area, and addition that fact of orchestration of cultural diversity, we can extend the argument to stating Bomas of Kenya was in fact an idea of the colonial government. Nevertheless, the idea was subsequently reshaped to correspond to the national agenda with a characteristic use of music and dance as preferred media for identity creation.

  • 22 Kelly, District Commissioner of Kitui, 1948, Kitui Dancers - Kanziko Location, Kenya National Archi (...)

47The second residue of colonial cultural policies we wish to discuss is the unequal representation of different tribes, which were after Independence renamed as different “ethnic communities”. The process of commercialisation of native dances commenced by the colonial administration included an important judgement of value. This judgement was based on Eurocentric definitions of what “entertaining”, “exciting”, “authentic”, “unique” or “original” is. For example, in 1948. The Kitui District Commissioner writes: “As you may know, Akamba dancing is first class entertainment – it is the only good tribal dancing in Kenya (except perhaps the Turkana)” (Kelly 1948).22

48This and similar judgements of value translated into favouritism for certain traditions and their prominence in the colonial cultural tourism endeavours. Thus, the most popular dance performances were that of the Akamba, with their spectacular acrobatic elements; the Luyia isukuti dancers, notably a famous group led by Chief Shivachi from Iguhu location in Ikolomani area; and, of course, the Maasai, whose warrior jumping dances had already become internationally known symbols of East Africa.

  • 23 This chapter presents some of the findings of an extensive research conducted on both national poli (...)

49Our research23 revealed that some of these preferences and prejudice remained imprinted into the national consciousness even after Independence and partake in the stereotypes Kenyan have of the musical and choreographic traditions of their country up to date. As such they are reflected on various levels of representation: the presence, frequency, quality and type of representation of specific traditions in the national repertoire; their valorisation, which can lead to specific preservation and promotion initiatives; their track record in cultural dance competitions; their acceptance and knowledge in everyday life of contemporary Kenyans; etc.

50Lastly, the topic of representation guides us to another reminder of the colonial era in the context of Kenyan dance heritage creation processes. We wish to tackle the sensitive issue of self-representation, often associated to tourist destined performances. Essentially, the colonial narrative and the performance scenario inspired by it staged images and sounds of “old Africa”. “Tribal” or “native” dance performances were conceived and presented so as to be as authentic as possible, and in this context, authenticity translated into timeless, ahistorical images of natural and primitive Africans whose practices are unpolluted by modernity. These representations extended into the era of tourist realism which gave “tribalism and colonialism a second life by bringing them back as representations of themselves and circulating them within an economy of performance” (Brüner & Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1994: 435) Thus, what is interesting to observe here are elements of tourist realism in a contemporary performance context, as, since the second half of the 20th century, “we have replaced the stage (for the African Other), but left the format of the imagery intact” (Wels 2002: 64).

51At the present day and age, the old image of a native “undergoing” in a way his own “tourismification” without possibility to resist it, is a matter of the past. Local people are no longer theorized as passive objects of the tourist gaze, but as active subjects who consciously build representations of their culture for tourists (Cousin 2008). Or, as Brüner had put it: “Identities are not given, they are performed by people with agency who have choices.” (Brüner 2001: 895) At the same time, the representations they build are based both on their own system of references and on their interpretation of tourists’ expectations.

  • 24 Ugali is a dish made of maize flour. It’s considered a national dish in Kenya.
  • 25 The historical presence of Italians in Malindi town and surrounding areas of the Kenyan coast progr (...)

52In the Kenyan, and more widely African context, these circumstances of creation often leads to auto-exotisation. Music and dance performers frequently paint images of their own culture from the perspective of a past, no longer existing state. Their self-representation echoes some of those same stereotypes and colonial images of African “tribal” dance. In the 21st century Kenya, this fact can be easily traceable in the wide-spread scenes of enactment of different aspects of tribal life as well as in the discourse that accompanies cultural dance performances. When in September 2016, we attend a cultural dance show on the terrace of one of Malindi’s largest hotel resort, we are struck as much by the representations of “the Giriama tribe”, as by the discourse that accompanies dance pieces. As the master of ceremony announces a piece with an explanation of how the Giriama “always have a lot of kids because they love ugali24 and somebody needs to dig the soil for the maize to grow”, or how “here, at our place we don’t just fall in love, questo es cultura europeana25…”, the “ancient” layers of representation are revived.

  • 26 The use of singular is here intentional to refer to the idea of a certain homogeneity in characteri (...)

53The group’s artistic direction relies on their own interpretation of the audience’s expectation up to the point of preferring spectacular misinformation to historical or cultural accuracy. Following such reasoning, another angle of staging emerges and the “exotic” nature of gestural, choreographic and musical traits becomes crucial. And so, within their “Giriama show”, the members of the group in question introduce elements from Tanzania, Congo and build extensively on the Western conception of “African dance”26 (Wierre-Gore 2001).

54Liberated from repressive politics of the colonial government, Kenyan creative dance responses are not entirely relieved of the effects colonial staging and orchestration of native dances had on the forms themselves or on their mental perceptions.


55We believe that dance, as a social and political practice, serves as an excellent media to further the academic investigation of “the full meaning for Africans of the incorporation of their societies into the colonial state” (Lonsdale & Berman 1979: 493), since it cuts across two crucial domains of native populations’ lives – their leisure and their ceremonial practices.

56A general consideration of the impact British colonial administration’s regulations and policies had on music and dance practices in Kenya Colony reveals complex and continuous negotiations between several actors. Extreme repressive politics, such as the prohibition of certain practices, were just a part of a much more elaborate system of regulation that had more than just an adverse effect. Some of the regulatory laws and procedures put in place during those times favoured the creation of dance heritage. By limiting and controlling attendance, forms of participation, duration and timeline, as well as by conditioning dance events to previous permission, the British unconsciously and unintentionally facilitated the staging of local dances. They advanced the idea of performance for an audience and in front of an audience and all the dance material transformations that accompany such ideas. This is a particular use of spectacularization and folklorization, in which choreography is a tool of partial censorship.

57In the 1940s and 1950s, the same administration championed cultural tourism by adding to the safari big game hunting experience of the Colony the offer of “spectacular native dances”. And, as in many of their endeavours, the British made use of the pre-colonial practices and uses, notably the competitive character of many musical practices in the region, and staged competitions all over the Colony. By the time Kenya was gaining Independence, a solid colony-wide system of stages/stadiums for performance, festivals and competitions was already in place. The new nation-state took it over with major agenda adjustments, but did not go far in challenging some of the existing formats.

58These interventions, referred to as “colonial choreography”, progressively modified not only dance forms themselves, but also their perceptions, imagery and vocabulary. It is relevant to observe traces of these transformations in contemporary Kenyan “cultural dance” repertoires, as the polysemy and the intertextuality of staged dance products makes them particularly fertile reading ground. The study of these transformations has the ability to teach us about representations of self and of others we maintain and perpetuate for different reasons in a much larger global context.



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1 Administratively the term “Colony of Kenya” referred to the interior lands, whereas the “Protectorate of Kenya” designated the 16 km coastal strip together with several islands which remained under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

2 By 1928 the number of European settlers in Kenya Colony was estimated to 12 000 (Buell 1928) and in the 1960s there were some 61,000 Europeans, which still made up for less than one per cent of the Kenyan population (Wasserman 1974).

3 Baker Beall, 1932, District Commissioner of Southern Turkana, Notes on Native Tribes and Their Customs, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (GF 572 KEN)

4 Isukuti is a traditional dance of Isukha and Idakho Luhya communities of Western Kenya characterised by vigorous dancing to a set of percussion and its processional nature (Kiiru 2014).

5 Personal interview conducted with Elder Joseph Lubulela (born 1928) conducted on December 16th 2015 at his brother’s home in Shibuye village (Shinyalu, Kakamega County).

6 On the topic of incorporating traditional music of different Kenyan populations into contemporary worship see Katuli (1998), Miya (2004), Kidula (2010) and others.

7 Recurrent in the East African region, ngoma is a term which can have different meanings. We can assume that the initial meaning was the designation of a particular percussive instrument, then, by extension, it evolved to designate a musical/dance event, and even music and dance in a broad sense of the word. Yet the linguistic path might have followed the opposite direction, from generality to particular instrument designation.

8 District Commissioner of North Kavirondo (signature illegible), 1934, a letter to the Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (PC NZA 2 1 68)

9 Personal interview conducted with Chengo Emmanuel Munyaya, Chairman of the Malindi Cultural Association, conducted on April 8th 2016 at Mekatilili wa Menza Centre (Malindi town, Kilifi County)

10 Vicar Apostolic of Kisumu, 1942, a letter to the Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (PC NZA 2 1 68)

11 Hunter, 1940, District Commissioner’s Recommendation, Minute 17/40 of a Meeting of the Central Kavirondo Local Native Council held on 5th & 6th February 1940, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (PC/ NZA/2/1/68)

12 District Commissioner of Kyambu (signature illegible), 1926, Re: Native Dances, report to Senior Commissioner, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (PC/CP /6/4/5)

13 Maxwell, Chief Native Commissioner, 1926, Attorney General’s Office, 1926 Native Authority Ordinance, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (AG/25/18)

14 Montgomery, Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza Province, 1934, a letter to the District Commissioner of North Kavirondo, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (PC/NZA /2/1/68)

15 District Commissioner of Embu, 1926, a report to Chief Native Commissioner on Dances in Native Reserves, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (PC/CP/6/4/5)

16 Githuku R., for African Cabinet of Business and Entertainment, 1960, African Tribal Dancing, a letter to District Commissioner of Kakamega, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (DC/KMG/2/1/130)

17 Stephens, Manager at Ker & Downey Safaris Ltd., 1957, a letter to the District Commissioner of Kitui, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (DC/KTI/3/1/48)

18 Mackley was the Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Common Services at the time.

19 Minute 31/58 , 1958, Tribal Dancing Displays, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, Nairobi (DC/ KTI/3/1/48)

20 Githuku, 1960, op.cit.. (DC/KMG/2/1/130)

21 Martin, 1966, District Commissioner Nairobi Area, Formation of National Troupe, a letter to the Permanenrt Secretary, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service (KNADS), Nairobi (PC/EST/2/21/2)

22 Kelly, District Commissioner of Kitui, 1948, Kitui Dancers - Kanziko Location, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service, (DC/KTI/3/1/48)

23 This chapter presents some of the findings of an extensive research conducted on both national policies evolution and on national cultural dance performance events since Kenya’s Independence, as well as on the presence, history and current forms of existence of dance practices in different communities of the country.

24 Ugali is a dish made of maize flour. It’s considered a national dish in Kenya.

25 The historical presence of Italians in Malindi town and surrounding areas of the Kenyan coast progressively made Italian language a sort of a lingua franca which a large majority of Kenyans employed in the tourism industry speak and attempt interacting with any European visitor in.

26 The use of singular is here intentional to refer to the idea of a certain homogeneity in characteristics of all dances of the African continent, built on the premise of a common aesthetic, settled in popular consciousness and strengthened by research and scientific theories from the 1960s and 1970s (ex. Farris-Thompson 1974).


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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