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Music and Dance in Eastern Africa

Kahithe Kiiru
Maina wa Mũtonya

Part III: Music and the Politics of Love and Gender

Engendering Music: Changing Trends of Music Performance and Dance in Luo Nyanza

Gordon Onyango Omenya


Just like politics, music also provides major sites where gender and sexuality are culturally negotiated, constructed and contested. This cultural construction of gender thus informs and redefines our conceptions of gender. While the term “gender” can indicate a shift away from identity politics and positions, it more frequently represents an attempt at a more inclusive or nuanced set of identities. McClary (2000) describes music as essentially “a gendered discourse” and the history of musical form as “a heavily gendered legacy”, and considers that “classical music—no less than pop—is bound up with issues of gender”. In such a cross-contextual field, musical instruments continue to be a site through which gender is affirmed and performed with many individuals drawn to particular instruments on the basis of their affordances in terms of gender and sexuality (Halstead and Rolvsjord 2015). This chapter explores, the changes that have characterized music performance and dance in Luo music and brings forth the engendered changes within a social space that was dominated by men. The chapter argues that, with modernity, urbanization and globalization, Luo music as a popular culture, has transformed and has provided an avenue for both men and women to express themselves and to complement each other in the performance of Luo music.

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1Halstead and Rolvsjord (2015), argue that issues of gender music and sexual identity have become routinely associated with the instrument through personal and cultural narratives, discourse, instrument design and the performative practices of playing. A myriad of studies, for example, Koskoff (1987); Bowers & Tick (1987); Marcia (1990); Maus (2011) and Whiteley (2000) among many others have advanced this approach by exploring musical roles of women using both ethnographic and historical analysis. Although these studies have explored gender issues in music, especially in the composition of music, they have failed to address the issue of gender dynamics and transformation trends in performance and dance.

2However, my research is in tandem with Bjorck’s (2011) postulation that:

[T] he significance of gender in music performance and dance is evident in a number of areas: for the construction of popular music history; the perceived masculine or feminine nature of particular genres/ styles; audiences, fandom, and record-collecting; occupation of various roles within the music industry; youth subcultures; and gender stereotyping in song lyrics and music videos (Bjorck’s 2011: 84)

3This buttresses McClary’s (2000) argument of music as essentially “a gendered discourse”. It is this gendered contestation and analysis that informs the exploration of the gender dynamics and changing trends in dance and performance of Luo music in Kenya’s Nyanza province.

4The musical forms have undergone a lot of transformation in the face of powerful influences from the West enhanced by the new wave of urbanization and globalization. The traditional context of performance, institutional roles, and utilitarian objectives are some of the ideas and concepts that inform traditional genres. These are increasingly being eroded by modern and changing trends in the society.

5Due to these changes, as Ojaide (2001: 71) argues, “new” idioms and forms of music have evolved. The new musical forms have elements and characteristics that casually resemble the music tradition of the past, but defy the traditional context of performance thereby transforming the traditional music from its traditionalism into modernity. Some traditional music types have, therefore, lost their institutional roles and contextual implications, thus changing their original musicological meaning. Many have compromised their traditional usage hence compromising the context specified and utilitarian foundation of traditional music in the society.

6The Luo are among the many Kenyan communities that have been adversely affected by the new developments. Traditionally, the performances of music and dance by the Luo were restricted to specific occasions, events or ceremonies. The music was performed to culturally homogeneous audiences. Performances were also gender specific and also prescribed in terms of age (Ongati 2005). On some occasions, everyone would participate but in other instances, participation was restricted to particular social groups. The context of performance therefore, dictated the content, venue and participants of a particular musical genre in the Luo traditional society. However, we learn that these changes would later allow for the transformation or flexibility of social role. Butler’s theory of performative gender envisions social existence in itself as a staging of the self. To claim space on the popular music scene entails being seen and being heard in the strongest sense of the phrase (Bjorck 2011).

7For Kirsten (2001: 3), traditional musical performances in many contexts could be seen as microcosms or models for the social structure of the community. Music in its performance also provides new perspectives and ways to study culture and in particular, gender within a cultural context. It is evidently seen, therefore, that changes in these performances offer a window into changing gender relations and identities in both the traditional and contemporary plural space of Luo Nyanza. This is because, we find women sometimes playing roles that were specifically meant for men while performing Luo music. Koskoff (1987) in her research on women and music writes,

... what is needed now is a deeper analysis of the relationship between a society’s gender structure, what ideologies surround gender, the nature of inter-gender relations, and how all these affect music behavior. Further, we must invert this question and ask how music behavior itself reflects and symbolizes gender behavior (Koskoff 1987: 4).

8He further notes that we must not only look at gender roles in society and how they affect musical performances, but also how musical performances reflect society’s gender roles. Moisala (1999) on the other hand states that:

“As we know, music is a specific part of expressive culture. Music marks time, place and space differently than any other spheres of culture. Therefore, music provides a unique site for the performances and negotiation of gender. It allows, or may even require, different gender roles than do other aspects of culture. Music is also a space where we can allow the possibility that gender can be seen in new ways” (Moisala 1999: 3).

9We see in Moisala’s statement that music is a specific part of expressive culture. If women play important roles in music, it allows them to take on expressive roles within the community. Similarly if art, according to Chernoff (1979: 32) reflects the social realities of its context, then through the study of Luo art of music, one can gain insight into the social realities of the community. Snipe (1998: 25) asserts that, Music, song, dance, and masks tell a story that relates to the daily lives and socio- political realities of the community, substantiating the concept that art is not superfluous in Africa. It is out of this knowledge that this chapter explores the changing trends of gender participation in Luo music brought about by either urbanization or westernization. It examines the evolution and development of Luo music while at the same time it looks at how gender is depicted in this kind of music. Basically, it gives insight into the gender roles during performance, the gendering of the musical instruments, as well as how age, sex, and culture have affected gender participation in Luo Music. Generally, profiles of popular Luo Music show clear patterns of age and gender based genre preferences. Teenagers, young people and even old men and women are a major audience for and consumer of this music.

Engendering Musical Space and Instruments in Luo Music

10Among the Luo culture, there was gender division of labour in music performance and dance. Even though there is no embracing term for music, there are many different types of music in Luo society and the performance of any given type of music is very often closely bond up with some specific occasions in the society (Omondi 1980). Musical groups were also formed voluntarily with the primary purpose of music performance and dancing, by invitation at ceremonial occasions. A number of such groups exist. For example, there are groups of girls called Jobodi who sing and dance to the accompaniment hand claps and a round metal bar onge’ngo, which is beaten on a box drum sanduk. There are also groups of men dancers, jomaranda and women dancers, josalu who specialize in circular dances and wear brightly coloured uniforms. The references to men and women here construct these groups as unitary and with essential voice qualities, obscuring the fact that individual voices vary within these two groups as well as between the groups (Bjorck 2011). There were other performing groups specific to men only called Ramogi who paint various parts of their bodies in different colours and wear traditional ceremonial dresses of ostrich feathers, hippo teeth, skins of wild animals such as leopards, while they sing and execute certain acrobatic dances for their spectacular appeal (Omondi 1980: 21).

11Ramogi dance performance is more masculine and is mostly done by men. The kind of regalia worn by Ramogi dancers during performance also demonstrates some form of brevity and physically fitness associated with masculinity, since this dance goes with acrobatic movements and gestures. The regalia worn while performing this dance and song also require killing of a leopard and a hippo, all fierce and dangerous animals in order to get their skin and teeth respectively for aesthetic purposes. On the other hand, Jobodi singers and dancers who are actually females do not need such regalia. Their performance only requires hand clapping and the use of metal bars Onge’ngo and skirts made of sisal fibre, locally known as owallo, which are easily available. In the words of Esi Sutherland-Addy (2006: 7), we see the feminine aesthetic of clapping being exemplified and how spaces are claimed within the Luo music soundscapes.

12More so, there are some gender disparities and exclusion in the performance of Luo Music, in the sense that the basic instruments in Luo music have been gendered in favour of men for example, the men have dominated the playing of Orutu and Thum/ Nyatiti. According to Ndeda (2005: 51) this exclusion of women is oppression and marginalization which may be structural (repressive cultural customs) or more personalized. It can be expressed externally and internalized by the oppressed. Externalised oppression, according to Ndeda (2005) is manifested through androcentrism, exclusion and subjection. It is important to note that although the men dominated over the playing of these instruments, their songs basically revolved around praising women. They sometimes also employed the use of female voices to express their love for the woman that a particular male musician was singing about. This characteristic thus shows some ambivalence and borrowing of traits which makes these particular male singers to operate within a space which Bhabha (1994) calls an indeterminate or hybrid zone of neither being male or female.

13By restricting women from playing Luo music instruments such as Nyatiti and Orutu, it means that men control the performance. When they are not there to perform, women cannot enjoy dancing leave alone leading in these performances. The third form of oppression is by subjection, which also has cultural forms. Clearly then, oppression has very concrete and damaging forms. These forms of oppression have one thing in common: Men in various categories of life impose them. Hence, all forms of oppression and marginalization can be encompassed under the rubric of patriarchy, literally the rule of fathers or men for the benefit of men (Ndeda 2005: 52). Bringing this discourse to the local scene, the mind of women in the Luo music had been colonized by the Luo culture to believe that only men were allowed to play Nyatiti and Orutu, to the extent that it was a taboo for a woman to play these instruments. In fact, it was unheard of. The question then is: why this exclusion of women from playing these instruments? I will concur with (Ndeda 2005), that the major reason for this is patriarchy. Although, the precise origins of patriarchy may be difficult to establish, its presence is notable in the persistent male domination current in all spheres of life. While vocalists and instrumentalists are both on display, they engender qualitatively different delineations, with consequences for perceived ability and authenticity. A female vocalist’s use of her own body as a source for sound making is in line with patriarchal definitions of femininity as in tune with nature, while a woman instrumentalist, in contrast, assumes the position of controlling an object, a technological position associated with masculinity (Clawson 1993; Green 1997; Lorentzen 2009).

14However, furthering the above discourse, I believe that the cultural forms of the Luo people have taken a great deal on the participation of women in Luo music through restriction in handling and playing of certain instruments. For instance, central to the performance of the Nyatiti is the man who has to compose a song and perform on the Nyatiti. Being a jathum was a specialized role in Luo society and the person who may or may not become one was first and foremost determined by sex. Not only were women barred from playing it but they were also forbidden to handle it particularly during their menstrual periods. The belief in women’s inherent sexuality, often expressed in terms of menstruation taboos, may, according to Koskoff (1987: 7), lead to a separation between women’s and men’s expressive domains and in some societies to restrictions imposed on certain women’s musical activity.

15There were only two traditional occasions when a woman could handle a Nyatiti/thum. First, if a young girl wished to be married to a jathum, she may demonstrate her desire by touching his thum/Nyatiti in public. Secondly, if a jathum dies, his widow may carry his instrument when lamenting his death. The society believed that if a woman handles a thum/ Nyatiti at any other time, she became barren while the thum she had touched would in turn ‘protest’ by refusing to sound properly, a state known as dinruok (Koskoff 1987; Omondi 1980: 150). This demonstrates that in the past, women’s’ role in music was closely linked with birth, initiation, marriage and work activities. The first event of birth was a function of womanhood.

16Even though performing on the thum, which literally translates as go thum was men’s occupation in the society, not any man could take it up. There were categories of men such as the twin brothers each of whom was barred from being jothum (player of thum/nyatiti). Then there were other traditional restrictions and beliefs connected with the determination of who may become a jathum that further delimited which males could become jothum. Could these men then be regarded as ‘women’? It therefore points to the fact that concepts as hybridity, which in postcolonial studies we have come to see, have always been intrinsic to African identity formation. In the African context, multiple and hybrid identities are part of the very fabric of the plural society.

Popular culture, dance and gender in Luo Music performance

17The Luo, like other African communities are renowned for their love for music. As Osadebey (1949) points out, we sing when we fight; we sing when we work, we sing when we make love, we sing when we hate, we sing when a child is born, we sing when death takes toll. Among the Luo community, this is reflected in the numerous songs, dances and musical instruments that are found in the community. The Luo music contains much teaching about norms and conventions of the community (Odaga 2008). Both socio-cultural events and ceremonies among the Luo are musically oriented. For example, beer parties, funerals, worship, storytelling and healing ceremonies are in most cases accompanied by songs and dances. The art of performance of music was engendered, hereditary and started from childhood (Omondi 1980: 156). It also informed the gender relations and division of labour which mostly characterized Luo musical activities. The process of music making and performance was thus seen to be more patriarchal than matriarchal. This is because the art could only be inherited by a man. That is, from a grandfather, father, maternal or paternal uncle, or any other relative. This inheritance has thus informed the kind of domination that men had in the Luo traditional music arena and the role that they played.

18Although it can be argued that Luo women were either marginalized or dominated as far as Luo music is concerned, this domination and marginalization did not deter them from expressing themselves in the society. Digolo (2003) argues that indigenous music forms like Dodo and thum/nyatiti songs served twofold communicative functions. While they continued as transmitters of indigenous cultural values and beliefs, they were also viewed as a means of propagating essential innovative messages. Among the Luo community, dodo songs and dances were exclusively performed by females. Previously dodo was a male genre, however, since late 1950s it has been adopted by Luo women as an orature. Henceforth, the Dodo has intersected with daily social expression and has provided a window to how Luo women view themselves and their society. During dodo dance a suspension rattle, which is called peke a relatively recent instrument which is made of bottle tops strung on a rigid metal rod and shaken by hand is used to accompany the women singers (jododo) at beer parties. Interestingly too, women performing the dodo songs do praise men mostly in their songs. In most recent times, dodo songs have been used by women during their merry go round sessions as they raise money and deliberate on issues affecting them.

19Luo music goes hand in hand with dancing. It is therefore important to look at the participation of men and women during the thum/nyatiti performance. The idea of using girls as regular dancers in thum performance as a form of visual entertainment was possibly inspired by a procedure employed in guitar performances, in which young girls sometimes briefly display steps in a practice which was known as mboko or panj (Omondi 1980: 75). Here we see major changes as women are now getting into men’s role as far as dancing and performance of nyatiti music is concerned. Certainly, a people’s popular artistic creations and heritage provide some leeway to understanding their history, norms, values as well as those things that make them human and unique – their identity. In broad terms, the performing arts are characterized by spontaneous and dynamic interactions between audience and performer within a given space and time.

20The dance styles in the Luo traditional music were elegant and graceful. They involved either the movement of one leg in the opposite direction with the waist in step with syncopated beats of the music or the shaking of the shoulders vigorously usually to the tune of the nyatiti. Another characteristic in the Luo music was the introduction of a chant in the middle of the performance. The singing stops, the pitch of the instruments goes down and the dance becomes less vigorous as an individual takes performance in self-praise. This is referred to as Pakruok. There is also a kind of ululation –sigalagala from women that marks the climax of musical performance. The chief function of pakruok was to provide entertainment. But also, the heightening of the intensity of the performance also had both aesthetic and emotional functions as well. It was a communication forum in which members of the audience could disseminate knowledge amongst one another. It was also a forum for encouraging and elevating the society’s ideals and aspirations while functioning as a corrective measure by condemning the undesirable. The last function of pakruok was realized in its being a mechanism of emotional release, such was the case at a funeral, alongside teaching public expression. In this situation, sigalagala was the role of women during such performances. It is also noted that even though pakruok (self-praise) was open to all, it was men who dominated in this activity, owing to their socio-economic status in the society.

21Participation in the Orutu song and dance was restricted to middle aged energetic men and women, who danced in pairs, a male and a female holding each other at arm’s length. Other members of the clan not involved in the dance were allowed to watch and cheer the dancers, also helping in giving positions to the dancers in case of competition context (Omollo-Ongati 2005: 15). Orutu thus performed traditional, recreational and ritualistic functions. Blacking (1977) observes that music making is a symbolic expression of societal cultural organization, which reflects the value and the past and present ways of life of the human beings who create it. In its traditional context, Orutu music served the purpose of music making as advanced by Blacking (1977), being a symbolic expression of the Luo society and performed to express shared values. What, one may ask, are the gender dynamics in this situation? We see the venue of traditional Orutu performance being turned into a plural space and so to speak a ‘market’, where both men and women search for future husbands and wives. Nevertheless, we see women being depicted and used as a commodity for exchange, in the sense that women could easily be exchanged for the purpose of dancing even if not for sale.

Gender and Music

22As Moisala (1999: 3) states, music is a specific part of expressive culture. If women play important roles in music, it allows them to take on expressive roles within the community. Traditionally, in the Luo society, just like in West Africa, due to various influences, religious, patriarchal, cultural and colonial, women have been encouraged not to speak out or voice their opinions in many circumstances. Nevertheless, women took prominent roles as singers, dancers and performers. These areas provide important and unique sites for self-expression and exposure. However, within the realm of instrumentation, women are rarely seen or heard. This lack of women instrumentalists in the traditional Luo society is a result of various factors within the culture from which the music emerges. Some important factors affecting musical performances include; ethnicity (the unique history and customs of the people who create the music), the genre (the style, form and context of the music being played), and gender (the roles of men and women in the music and how they are expressed in the performance setting). The purpose of this chapter in this section is to bring to focus the shifting roles for women by looking at changing gender roles in the Luo music.

23In order to have a clear assessment of these changing roles, it is also important to bring into focus the functions of the Luo music and see the position of women in these performances. The social functions of the Thum nyatiti performance were ritual, social, and psychological ritual functions included marriage and death. In funerals, it was believed that without the performance of Nyatiti music the ghost of the dead person would be angry with the living relatives and would take vengeance on them by haunting them. As music often serves as a system in which we represent the world around us, the study of gender relations in musical performances serves as a window into the gender relations within that culture, and the different social roles they fill. Furthermore, when changes in gender roles in music are observed, often they can be traced back to changes in gender roles within the community. Moisala (1999: 2) observes that, cultural changes have affected gender organization and performance of gender in music. Koskoff writes of the important connection between music, gender and social standing in saying,

Indeed, musical performance provides one of the best contexts for observing and understanding the gender structure of any society. This may be so because in many societies the underlying conceptual frameworks of both gender and musical / social dynamics share an important structural feature; they both rely, to a great degree, on notions of power and control (Koskoff 1987: 10).

24Aronson argues that, the boundaries separating women and men’s art were clearly defined in the African society. Although there were these distinct roles for men and women, the knowledge of each other’s art was apparent. Through boundaries that female (and male) artist imposed, these spheres were kept divided. Nevertheless, it is equally true that women’s art could complement those of men; women could affect the arts that men did and, occasionally they could enter art profession that were traditionally dominated by men (Aronson 1992). Looking at the Luo community, and going by the above statement, Dodo dance and Josalu were purely performed by women. On the other hand, Orutu and nyatiti were men dominated fields. However, we find that women complemented the men dominated Luo music by participating as dancers, and singers. Later on, with the coming of guitar, which replaced Nyatiti, some of the Luo women in contemporary set up are playing guitar and composing songs as well as managing their own music troupes. As Nketia (1992) puts it, just as there were musical roles ascribed to women, so were roles that men could assume in certain contexts. There are situations in which these roles were played spontaneously by men who were not in any kind of associative or organized relationship: for instance, in societies where social life revolved around periodic brewing of millet or banana, beer drinking songs could be performed quite spontaneously.

25Among the Luo, love songs were sung by women, take for example the oigi lyrics. The Oigo were songs sung by young girls on their way to visit the young men they were courting. The girls walked to the hut where they were to be entertained by the men, by the light of the full moon. As they went, they sang these songs, individually or in groups taking it in turns to sing the whole way. Meanwhile, the young men were waiting, straining their ears for the first sounds of the song. When it was heard, one of them announced to the rest, at the top of his voice. The girls came and were welcomed with gifts. And then the evening’s entertainment proceeded with the men playing on reed flutes while the girls sang their oigo songs (Finnegan 1970: 257). In these songs a special picture of girlhood was represented. For a group of girls, the oigo was a means of announcing their presence and differentiating themselves from the older married women; for an individual, it was a way of expressing her idiosyncrasies. Clarke (2003: 4) however, argues that within the hybridized space of urban culture, battles over the interconnected questions of memory, identity and representation were being intensely fought. The emerging fluid cultural identities were thus contested and negotiated in the contemporary urban settings.

26Looking at women’s roles in communities where musical performance played a key role, Koskoff (1987: 10), argues that, one cannot ignore the representation of women within musical contexts. In this case, it is evident that among the Luo people of Kenya, the roles of women in music were of utmost importance, and by looking at how these roles originated and how they are changing, we can see how they suggest changing roles for women in the Luo society. The relationship between gender behaviors in the community and those in the musical expression of that community seem to be mutually dependent. That is, the music may affect social relations or behaviors of the community and the community’s social relations can affect musical expressions. That is why in the Nyatiti and orutu music performances, men play the instrument while women do the dancing. The importance of the interaction between the two is evident. The issue of gender division can also be seen. Some have termed them “strict” gender divisions, but “distinct” could be a better term, for they are divisions that are undergoing constant change and are allowing for significant flexibility. Changing gender roles in Luo music could suggest that women are beginning to express themselves in more powerful positions within the community. Looking at these instruments, we see masculine and feminine characteristics of the players. Nyatiti appears to be a clearly defined masculine instrument, perhaps because of its origin in the oral tradition of the Luo people or perhaps because it is an instrument that requires a certain amount of strength to carry and play with vigor, a reflection of men’s self-image as the stronger sex while women were viewed as a weaker sex.

Changing Trends and Gender participation in Music Performance and Dance

27It has been stated elsewhere in this chapter that in all spheres of culture, music undergoes constant transformation. Music is also a space where we can allow the possibility that gender can be seen in new ways. Not only can gender be seen or represented in new ways, but gender roles within music can also change. These changes are most often attributed to changing contexts within the community. Addressing changing roles in music among the Mande, Duran (2000: 41) asserts that, “With the growth of urban culture since independence (1960), music has undergone various transformations that have partly been determined by changing contexts. These changing contexts include women’s rights movements, education, communication, the influence of technology, as well as the influence of gender roles from outside communities. Besides these influences, music can also be affected by the influence of one musician or family (Kirsten 2001: 23).

28African art underwent some transformation during the colonial period. Wole Soyinka (1985) rightly observes this fact when he asserts that an entire people’s social organization, artistic and economic patterns were subjugated to strategies for maximum exploitation by outside interests. Nonetheless, the African art forms were affected by the European imports innovation and new inventions. The Europeans intrusion also penetrated music in form, structure and instruments. At the vanguard of these transformations were the missionaries, eager to proselytize and ‘civilize’, both of which were achieved not only through reading, writing and arithmetic but also through music in church and at schools (Adzeze 2002; Washmann 1971). However, of all the changes that have occurred in Africa throughout history, three in particular have had a great impact on the music of Africa and female roles: the introduction of foreign religions, acculturation from other areas (particularly from Europe and the United States), and urbanization. These three areas overlap to some extent (Stein Hunt 1993: 44).

29In the Luo society these changes in musical performances have drawn sharp reactions from two schools of thought: that is the traditionalist and the modernist. The traditionalist school of thought views the developments in traditional Luo music as an ‘adulteration of the authentic musical genre’. It is believed that traditional music is facing a serious threat of decline and will eventually be subsumed by the neo-traditional musical forms. This school of thought, therefore, sees a significant change in the traditional Luo musical system and practice hence musical change. The modernist on the other hand, looks at the new developments as a way of preserving the traditional music through performance in ‘New’ context. It is argued that, traditional music and dances that did not lend themselves to such creative forces and innovations are either extinct or are in the process of fading away (Achieng 2006; Ongati 2005). The modernist therefore views the new developments as a form of innovative continuity, hence an extension of the traditional genre in the contemporary society.

30The year 1950 was a turning point for the Luo music, and it was also significant to the changes in gender roles during music performance. During this period, the dodo dance, which was previously a male genre, was adopted by Luo women as a folksong (Digolo 2003). As regards the Thum/nyatiti, Western culture affected the development of this instrument and its performance styles from two closely related viewpoints that is Christianity and western education. Thum/nyatiti was viewed as ‘primitive’ compared to foreign musical instruments such as the accordion, kinanda, the guitar, gita and later the gramophone, thum san. Christian teaching helped reinforce whatever prejudices existed by outrightly condemning thum/ nyatiti playing as satanic (Omondi 1980: 70). The same period witnessed the replacement of the nyatiti, the string instrument with the guitar, as the Luo started to adopt the benga style of music with Luo musicians trying to adapt their traditional dance rhythms to Western instruments, an evidence of some form of hybridization.1 Luo guitar music developed its compositional practice to be more in line with other Luo genres such as orutu and dodo.2 Among the Luo of Kenya, the ‘modern traditional’ popular musicians have also adapted the Nyatiti, an indigenous instrument, into modern compositions. In fact, many studies of Kenyan popular music document the entry of modern instruments such as the acoustic guitar and the accordion and detail the growth of expertise with these instruments through contact with Christian music and military brass bands as well as the effects of cross-cultural contact particularly with musicians from Congo, Malawi and South Africa (Low 1982; Stapleton & May 1989; Martin 1991). Many of these studies note the influence of traditional instruments on the technique and style of the pioneer guitar players. Indeed, they all mark out the rise of Benga style, a variant of traditional Luo dance-music, as the highest point in the development of a modern traditional and unique Kenyan urban music form (Ogude & Nyairo 2007).

31The Western influence caused a musical polarization in which the ‘civilized’ middle-aged people took to the accordion, and the ‘civilized’ youngsters took to the guitar thus leaving the thum to the old the ‘primitive’ and the ‘pagan.’ The younger alienated people began to substitute foreign instruments for the thum/nyatiti at some events such as funerals. They went to great lengths to deride and discredit the thum calling it such names as thum atielo ‘the instrument of the foot” thum arin’go ‘the instrument of meat, thum nyatiti ‘the instrument which merely says titi, a derogatory onomatopoeic reference to the sound that were produced by the two highest string of the thum. However, thum nyatiti was modified with this challenge from Christianity. Further visual appeal in the practice of go thum (playing Nyatiti) was achieved in dancing, which took place.

32As we have seen above, things are changing; some traditional ways are being modified by foreign influence. Women have become involved with the idea of ‘liberation’ and are taking advantage of the new opportunities open to them. In the words of Stein Hunt (1993: 46), it certainly seems that the roles of women in Africa are ‘modernizing’ or ‘progressing’. Currently, among the Luo, there are women singers like Achieng Abura, Princess Jully, and Susan Owiyo who own their own bands and have men playing the reverse roles while they play guitar, compose and sing songs as well as leading the band. In these women-led bands, men have taken other roles initially played by women such as the position of dancers and backing vocalists. It is also worth noting that Princes Jully inherited her band from her late husband. Among the three women mentioned above, Susan Owiyo is a lead guitarist and composer. The context of their performance is both urban and rural with multi-ethnic audience. This adoption of role reversal would seem to signify that these women have stepped out of their circumscribed personae and will not be constrained by them (Esi-Sutherland-Addy 2006: 11). As Aronson (1984: 122), puts it, this highlights the occurrence previously mentioned of women’s knowledge of male dominated fields of work, despite gender restrictions. It also hints at the influence of family in transcending gender roles. The emergence of women guitarist and leaders of musical groups/band in the Luo society in the opinion of this researcher, is a result of changing roles for women in Luo society. However, this may take time to change.

33Makore (2004) in her work ‘Women in Music’ agrees with the above discourse when she argues that most women have assumed the role of fans rather than that of music makers. However, where they have entered the music world, most of them have been relegated to the positions of backing vocalists. She further laments that, material and ideological constraints have lessened women’s full involvement in the creation of music. Nevertheless, A few women have overcome constraints and have succeeded in the music world as creators of music, players of instruments and owners of their own backing groups. What can be asked at this point is that, what are the Luo women just like African women being liberated from? Or what backward state are they emerging from. It seems to me that women have not so much suffered the stifling oppression of men as they have simply played a complementary role as far as gender participation in Luo music is concerned.

34It is therefore important to note that western culture opened up the music space for women too. But with the above new developments, the societal ambivalence could not let both men and women go scot-free. The societal principle is that ‘good decent girls’ are quiet and never make themselves noticeable in public. Making a living through the performing arts has not been seen as a respectable way of making a living for and therefore, within the traditional Luo society, such women were perceived as not morally upright. On the other hand, it was moral for male musicians to engage in playing music (Makore 2004: 49).

“Women artists be they singers or actresses are often perceived as ‘women of the night” or women of the streets; perhaps this is because they exist in these roles in the unmarked territory outside domesticity and also in urban space for historic reasons relating to both colonial and indigenous patriarchy has been officially defined as the territory of men” (Chitauro et al 1994: 11)”

35Women artists therefore, have the challenge not only of being treated as serious talented performers; but also they must change the stereotyping messages and images about women that are communicated through forms of popular culture. This is because such messages have enormous influence in shaping the real language of gender and power relations in a culture. Women have to seriously develop a counter discourse. On the other hand, men in music have also been depicted as lazy and womanizers through this societal ambivalence. In spite of the socio-economic advantages a musician read Jathum enjoys, the society believes that there is an inherent element of tragedy in the vocation of playing music. A musician can never have a decent home and family, fails to have children, has an unstable marriage and so on. The incidences of social failure among musicians result in their being regarded with ambivalence in the society. Although no causal connection can be established between the apparent social failure of the jothum and their being jothum, certain socio-cultural rationalizations for their tragic plight seem to make sense.

36In the first instance a jathum by the nature of his vocation, has to spend many nights away from his own home. This is discouraged in traditional Luo society which believed that while a man is gone, his enemies or wizards got the opportunity to walk freely in his home and deconsecrate or bewitch the home. This aspect of it aside, a jathum who spends his nights performing on his instrument has necessarily to spend his days sleeping. Such a way of life does not allow for execution of the occupations such as clearing fields, tilling the land sowing seeds and other tasks, which are part and parcel of the everyday subsistence mode of life and gender roles which the jathum is expected to fit. Because he cannot do this, he will therefore appear to be ‘lazy’. It is also explained that a jathum because of the nature of his vocation, and the resultant socio-economic advantages, is constantly admired and his attention is sought by many women. This makes a jathum morally lax, thus contravening the code of moral rectitude in the society and resulting in the lack of success in his marriage or family (Omondi 1980: 242). With the constant absence of jathum, the wives of these musicians sometimes have to assume gender roles that are not within their description.

37However, much as popular art tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, new technologies and new contexts are giving room for a revision of these. The broadcast media can be mentioned as an arena, which has permitted women artists to engage in forms, which they were traditionally proscribed from performing, at least in public. These developments have given women some liberty thus overstepping the traditional boundaries (Esi-Sutherland-Addy 2006: 13). For instance, among the contemporary Luo women musicians who have gone beyond the opposite binarism of male dominance and gender stereotypes are Achieng Abura, Susan Owiyo and Princess Jully whose songs have not only appealed to Kenyans across the gender divide but have also appealed to the old and the young nationally. These negative stereotypes, based on very limited experience gained widespread acceptance and belief. However, as Bhabha (1994: 66) pointed out, stereotyping depended on a kind of mis-cognition for ‘it must always be in excess of what could be empirically proved or otherwise logically construed.’ Therefore, for Bhabha ‘the stereotype is not a simplification but a false representation of a given reality’. It is a simplification because it is an arrested, fixated form of representation that, in denying the play of difference (that the negation of other permits) constitutes a problem for the representation of the subject in significations of psychic and social relations. The corollary of stereotypical mode of representation is, for Bhabha, the hybridity’s of colonial and postcolonial condition (Zeleza 1997).

38With these changing trends, we find that the nature of performance of Luo music as well as gender participation has also changed in terms of context. For instance, Orutu music now features in social celebrations of quasi –traditional nature performed in bars, restaurants and nightclubs in rural and urban spaces denoting a change in the context of performance. Other occasions when the music is now performed include parties, national days, political rallies and campaigns. This deprives the music of its original institutional and contextual roles. Orutu is now a band music competing with popular guitar bands. The members of the band are mixed in terms of ethnic grouping. It is no longer performer-participant type of music but performer-audience music attended by heterogeneous audiences with no common cultural denominator. This gives the contemporary orutu artists a challenging task of searching for modern presentational features that would match the rapid modernizing Kenyan society, since the target population is not Luo any more but an international contemplative audience. This has compromised the sharing of music for social bonding purposes and the spirit of togetherness shared by members of one cultural group. Orutu musical performance was an important tool for creating and consolidating Luo community. It was also an important agent in the creation and maintenance of social order. Its utilitarian purpose of fusing the Luo into one unit of an indivisible whole has now been compromised since attendance and participation is free for all, women, men, boys, girls, leaders, children etc. do participate (Omollo Ongati 2005: 17).

39The above argument helps us to understand the whole idea about the special link between music and identity. Maina wa Mutonya (2005) argues that, ethnic identity is invoked by individual or social groups in particular circumstances, when it suits their purposes and helps them attain their goals. Music has consistently been used as a means of both recognizing and reifying identity in Kenyan situation. As Bailey (1994) puts it, music is itself a potent symbol of identity. Like language (and attributes of language such as accent and dialect) it is one of those aspects of culture, which can, when the need to assert ‘ethnic identity’ arises most readily serve this purpose. Its effectiveness may be two-fold; not only does it act as a ready means for the identification of different ethnic or social groups, but it has potent emotional connotations and can be used to negotiate identity in a particularly powerful manner.

40Because of the commercialization of music in the contemporary situation, the artists, both men and women have been conditioned to compose music to the taste of their customers. the introduction of Luo nights, which is intended to bring Luos together so that they interact, enjoy old local music played by renowned Luo musicians as they eat traditional foods, has promoted commercial orientation of the art. During this occasion, both Luo women and men musicians entertain revelers consisting normally of a mixture of all people, local and foreign. This is because the event is normally ‘hijacked’ by people from other ethnic communities as a means of enjoying diverse cultures of the Luo community. Most of the songs played during Luo nights normally have roots in pre-colonial and colonial Luo traditions of praise songs, composed to celebrate love for a girl or to sing one’s own praises as well in social commentary (Cohen & Odhiambo 1989; Burton 2002).


41This chapter set out to interrogate the process of engendering music and changing trends of performance in Luo music. It has been observed that while looking at these changes, gender roles also came into focus. This is because it is not possible to delink gender roles in music from the societal roles as music always expresses whatever happens in the society. It has been demonstrated that African societies have very unique situations and realities which should be looked into through a very liberal mind devoid of western influence. Looking at this chapter through a gender lens, it has been noted that, traditionally, members of the Luo community played music, and there was gendered division of labour as far as these musical performances were concerned. However, historically, Luo musical instruments had been gendered in favour of men. Women were not allowed to touch, leave alone play these instruments. These instruments for example nyatiti were inherited in a patriarchal kind of inheritance, which could not favour women. However, as much as there were songs meant for women such as dodo, women also complemented men in some of their musical performances.

42The 1950s marked a turning point in gender participation in Luo music in that the introduction of guitar which steadily replaced nyatiti revolutionized the participation of women in Luo music. Not only were women able to compose songs but they were also able to play musical instruments which were hitherto a male preserve. However, with all these changes, music has ceased to play the role it traditionally used to play. This is because everything has been commercialized. As a result, women, men, and young children are always found either dancing together in places where Luo music is played or just listening to the music together in public recreational centres. In such situations, people are more concerned with music for its own sake, not attaching it to utilitarian (context) effectiveness. They listen to music and enjoy the music for contemplative reasons not attaching it to its functional meaning and context in the society. Thus, suffice it to say that the traditional role of music has shifted to serve commercial interests. With the societal ambivalence towards musicians in the Luo society, male musicians have been depicted as lazy and without morals since they do not usually have stable families. Women musicians on the other hand have been seen as night workers who have run away from their gender roles of being a mother figure. Nevertheless, both women and men have complemented each other as far as music is concerned in the Luo society. This has produced some hybrid space and traits which may not be easy to identify thereby watering down and transgressing the opposite binarism of male/ female as far as music composition and production is concerned within the Luo society.

43Therefore, we can say that, music displayed in a performance setting provides space for new roles to be expressed. Moisala (1999: 15) concurs with this statement, when he says that

“... the performative nature of music, and its ability to alter our state of consciousness allows for an interesting and possibly radical, if not revolutionary, site in which new kinds of gender performances and gender identities can evolve and which, eventually may transgress the gender boundaries of any society”.

44Not only do gender roles in society affect gender in music, but gender in music can also have a profound impact on gender roles in society and may even allow for women to transcend gender roles which, at times, can restrict their educational, occupational and musical goals or aspiration (Kirsten 2001).



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2 Ian Eagleson,


Obtained his PhD in History from Université de Pau in France. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of History, Archaeology and Political Studies at Kenyatta University, Nairobi Kenya. His areas of interest include race relations, gender history, global history, popular culture and history of international relations.

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