Performance as an inter-genre system

Table of Contents:

In concluding this introduction, we suggest that in East Africa, and probably across most of sub-Sahara Africa, the boundaries between performance forms are more fluid than in Western theatre since performance is shaped not only by the verbal but also by the non-verbal, similar to what Glissant observed about the performance of the spoken word in the Caribbean.

The oral ... is inseparable from the movement of the body. There the spoken is inscribed not only in the posture of the body that makes it possible ... but also in the semaphoric signals through which the body implies or emphasizes what is said.

(1989: 122)

A poet or a song soloist may work as a dancer, an instrumentalist, or a comedian and vice versa without drawing attention to their specific performance specialism. Abevugyi, and abadongo, Btvola and Larakaraka, and even imbalu ritual performances depend on crossing boundaries between dance, music, song, and recitations. The crossovers, also evident in various performances, are central in society’s attempts to make performance more flexible. Also following on from Glissant s observation about the embodied nature of the performance of the spoken word is the fact that East African performance understanding recognises and, in fact, privileges the multi-textuality of performance in place of the singularity of a dramatic text or script; the density of the performance text offers more in terms of theory and practice because it takes into account the ‘final’ text that the spectator co-creates and shares with the performer. The orality of these East African traditions captures this density, this complete text in a way that a script or dramatic text is never able to.Thus, in general, the development and inclusion of the forms as well as their syncretisation into new forms, which takes place without prioritizing any of their component elements or manner of expression enhances their cultural significance.

Introducing the chapters

The chapters in this book examine and reflect in contrasting ways various forms of performance in East Africa, highlighting their complex interconnectedness. Similar to any performance in Africa where genres and themes dovetail and echo each other, the themes in these chapters resonate. Some of the recurring themes in the book are training, apprenticeship, audience participation, re-creation of songs and dances, elements of performance and meaning-making, and questions of cultural identity. The selection of case studies reflects what we believe to be their shared defining features of performance, and their overlapping heterogeneity. They show the intersections among and between performance practices and discourses that form the indigenous view and sensibilities. We chose to study local performances, performers, audiences, and practitioners believing that we might bring their voices into conversations with each other. Our hope is that an analysis of indigenous performances framed in this way might regenerate an inclusiveness, a shared ground, which has always been part of the African experience, but has been disappearing in the transition to contemporary social conditions.

Each of the seven chapters in this book is informed by a complex interplay of audience participation, dance, music, oratory, recitation, ritual, song, and history as domains of culture and identity. The first chapter serves as an introduction to the whole study, contextualising the discussion and reflecting on performance in the East African historical context. We also explore ways in which peoples perception and conceptualisation of performance reflect the identity, location, and lived experiences of the peoples who own and produce these performances. Focusing on the question of performance and the role of migration and colonial borders in shaping various genres, forms, and styles, we use the chapter to reflect on some of the important ideas of performance and the way they are conceptualised by different communities; however, in doing this we also on occasions cross-refer these essentially East African (African) sensibilities to the performance aesthetics and sensibilities from other parts of the world. In Chapter 2, we present performance practices of praise poetry, ebyevugo (Ankole), ibyivugo (Rwanda) and ibyivugo (Burundi), which are the most significant performances in these communities that articulate their identity, cultural consciousness, and creativity. Through a substantive exploration of the movement of political structures and cultural performances between Rwanda and regions of South Western Uganda, including Bufumbira and Ankole, we show how migrations, the experience of colonialism and post-independence, transferred aesthetics and also transformed and embedded them into diverse contemporary performance practices. Chapter 3 explores one of the issues raised in Chapter 1 by presenting two instances of the way the British partition policies consciously or unconsciously affected ritual performances within communities split by newly created borders. Here we explore the link between dance, movement, song, myth, and ritual, all important aspects for understanding the relationship between performance, history, and identity. With a specific emphasis on the disruptive colonial border demarcations, we show that despite the differing locations in Kenya and Uganda, the Babukusu and Bamasaba have enjoyed an untroubled cultural and sibling relationship, even adjusting dates of imbalu ritual performances to enable equitable participation.

Having made the case that colonialism and migration informed the idea of what it means to be a member of a specific ethnic community in East Africa, we use the second section to make a more explicit link between culture, ethnicity, location, and performance. Chapter 4 is a study of the function and/or social relevance of

Bwola and Larakaraka dance performances in Acholi life and culture. Understanding the Acholi worldview is crucial to understanding the dance tradition. This chapter therefore begins by looking at Acholi traditional religion in which the relationship between the ancestors, divine spirits, and the living-dead is central. In Chapter 5, we turn our attention to the relationship between oral history and the arts among the East African Bantu, specifically the art of the abadongo and inanga players who are central to the preservation and dissemination of Bantu culture and history. Here, we explore the relationship between oral literature, history, politics, and performance within the post-colonial states. We reflect on the status of dance, music, recitation and the song, and the travelling musicians. Although the majority of travelling musicians who had worked in palaces in several kingdoms in the region became ordinary performers, they could not disengage from the art of court performance.

How then, has the contemporary culture of performance been constructed or refined in the context of ethnically hostile institutions? Performance challenged and informed some of the central function of justice in several indigenous African communities; in this context, its primary aim was restorative and reconciliatory justice between various sectors of society. In Chapter 6, we concentrate on Gacaca, long established in Rwanda within customary law as a ritual forum used to settle disputes. Apart from the way it simply appropriates legal structures in its own way to make it relevant, what has been consistent about Gacaca today is the staging of hearings in outside/outdoors communal spaces, the central significance of public participation, and its relationship to aspects of reconciliation and nation building. The chapter discusses the transformation of Gacaca through different political dispensations since colonial times, and examines its various iterations and its present form. The concluding chapter uses a combination of analyzes and discussion to provide insights into ideas of culture and performance; in particular, the chapter demonstrates how culture is a dynamic and continually evolving amalgam of a people’s way of life as they live, adapt, and make sense of the world around them. The conclusion also highlights the role performance/theatre plays in configuring, expressing, and interrogating, consolidating, and sometimes modifying the culture out of which it has emerged and to which it speaks.


1 For example, see Kubik. Gerhard (2010a), Theory of African Music, Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago); Kubik, Gerhard (2010b), Theory of African Music, Volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); Nannyonga-Tamusuza, Sylvia, A. (2005), Baakisimba: Gender in the Music and Dance of the Baganda People of Uganda (New York: Routledge); and Katamba, F. and Cooke, P., (1987), ‘Ssematimba ne Kikwabanga: the Music and Poetry of a Ganda Historical Song’, World of Music, Vol. 29,49-68.



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