Subjective Realities of Musical Fieldwork in Northwest Tanzania: An AnecdoteSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The BaSukuma people live on the southern shores of Lake Victoria-Nyanza, constituting, with their Nyamwezi brethren to the south, nearly six million people. They reside in the East African country of Tanzania, which ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world. Most of the population lives in rural areas, where the average yearly income is $US 175. Due to political corruption, a significant amount of funding set aside for public services such as roads, healthcare and education simply vanishes. As a result of IMF negotiations in the late 1980s, the Tanzanian government has initiated a liberalization process promoting a freer market economy and opened up to a multiparty political system, holding its first democratic election in 1995. This has given hope to many of its citizens for a more secure future. Yet where Tanzania is poor in the economic arena, it is enormously rich in its humanitarian potential. The same socialist policies of the post-Independence era that are behind many of the country's economic woes have fostered a genuine esprit de corps among village dwellers. The political discourse of social transformation still permeates the practical communication of everyday life in Tanzania. The country has long stood as a beacon of hope and peace for half a century in a part of the world that has been host to an unending succession of man-made calamities that have included debilitating president-for-life dictatorships, politically-orchestrated famines and horrific ethnic cleansing.
To what degree does a field observer (or a field observer's tools) affect the active performative realities of whom he or she observes? How can we claim knowledge about observed performance when so much of what we know about what we see and hear depends on our personal subjective orientation(s)? All subjects of inquiry in the social sciences have their own particular issues of subjective relations that the ethical researcher must address and resolve in order to come to a deeper relational understanding. In this article, I will discuss some of my personal music research experiences in northwest Tanzania, where being a guest afforded me countless serendipitous and surprising privileges as well as peculiar disadvantages as a result of my very presence in the music community.
I first became interested in the Sukuma post-harvest dance competitions at the outset of my investigation of farmers' song. While soliciting farming songs ( miimbó ga bulimi) and farming song lore from my research sources, I noted the often boastful, first-person poetic narratives that occur in the texts of these works. This observation led me to question the genre-crossing attributes and multiple functionality shared by labor-related songs performed in Sukumaland. These songs, sung at the labor site in order to make cotton farming a more bearable chore, are the creative products of farmer composers ( baliingi) who publicly display their compositions at post-harvest dance competition festivals ( mashindano). I realized that it was necessary to observe these festivals to better assess how Sukuma composers bring a composition to light from its creative inception via lucid ancestral dreams ( shiloóti sha masámva) to the song's public performance.
I had been learning song performance from having joined a village group slated to compete in the upcoming competition season . I reasoned that performing "live" all of the set pieces I had been learning "in practice" would be an excellent opportunity to further understand performance in its competitive context. This experience would then help me to fine tune my questions about farmers' music performance practice. So it was that I accompanied the "Ground Nut Pickers" ( Bakulang'halanga) dance group by bicycle on a dusty 12 kilometer ride to a Farmers' Day ( Siku ya Wakulima) celebration. The following is a field note excerpt:
Went to an ng'oma (drum-dance performance) about twelve kilometers away together with the Bakulang'halanga group. I see now that it was known well beforehand by my group that my appearance would cause a big sensation and indeed it did. Noting along the way also the camaraderie that this group has. Passing peoples homes, folks ask if we are " bagíika" and we return emphatically " bagáalu." We arrive at about six p.m., about an hour and one half after our travel over a very dangerous, rocky, rutty, and sandy road. I am dying of thirst, but there is nothing to drink but homemade millet beer. A strategic spot is chosen where our preparations are made, costumes prepared, and fellowship is established with the local bagáalu chapter whom we have come to help. At this point I unfold about one half an hours' worth of videotape. All the while we can hear that the competition proper has already begun and I am wondering whether I will have time after our performance to videotape any of it since the sun was already going down. After a short while we move on strategically to the performance site. I am struck by how warlike these maneuvers are. Spies are sent forward to find out what the other side is doing, and return with news of the best avenue to enter the dance site. We are hiding so that the audience cannot see what we have in a store for them. I am told only at this point that I will play kadeté, and that I will accompany the elder faction of our group into the arena. As we enter, I can see that there are already hundreds of people running toward us. I am playing for about thirty seconds when the cow tail strings on my bow break. Ng'wana Njile (our group leader) frantically gestures that I should just fake it. So now I am pretending to play and jumping around wildly & foolishly as we enter the arena. There are by now more than a thousand people on our side of the performance area, all surrounding me, ogling me, wanting to touch me. It could be that for the majority of these village spectators many of whom are in their teens, I am the first person of European descent that they had ever seen. We circle our side a bit and Njile motions us to stop our performance.
As is customary, we had already been declared the victors, as a result of audience headcount. Our prize was a bull donated by a village sponsor, which by local standards was no small gift.
Over the next few days, I was amused and baffled by all the attention that my "performance" elicited. I was told afterwards that were it not for my entrance into the dance site, the bagáalu side would have lost, for the bagíika had put on a stunning music performance. I began hearing from far and wide the tall tales about my kadeté performance competence. Though I had gained a much-welcomed level of camaraderie from my fellow dance members (most evident at our victory feast the next day), from an ethical standpoint my participation in dance competitions left much to be desired.
Later that week when I went to our usual site for dance practice, I found that there was no one there. For the following two weeks no one was around at our usual designated time. I was later told that our dance leader had an emergency to attend to and would not be around for another month, so our practice time was canceled. In the weeks that followed, our group was not invited to any more village competitions during the normally very busy dance season. Members of our group began to discuss the possibility that we had been bewitched by our opponents, and I was given appropriate precautionary charms ( lukagó). I heard that various competitors were sending spies ( basherikaale) out to ascertain whether I was still in the area. It became clear that we were no longer being invited to competitions because of the success generated by my continuing association with the group. Though I was encouraged to continue to dance by my dance comrades, I decided that I would only be a spectator at village competitions, and that I would gain performative experience only at group rehearsals. This decision caused some friction between myself and our dance leader, who returned from his absence with plans for us to compete in bigger competitions outside of our district, where the rewards would be greater.
When I heard that a competition (that our group hadn't been invited to) was happening in nearby Nyang'asamo village, I packed up my gear and made way for that area. I wanted to observe this event from start to finish, and I was looking forward to interviewing the composer-leaders after their performances. I began watching this performance event at two in the afternoon from the rooftop of a friend who lived there. He told me that this competition was between the dance teams of the two notorious arch-rivals, Ng'wana Shitobelo & Idíli, and that 5,000 people would be expected to attend over a 12 day period. From my rooftop vantage point, I could get a clear panoramic view of the entire playing field. The atmosphere was festive as the spectators made their way into the designated dancing area. Vendors lined up selling peanuts, sugar cane, fresh hot corn-on-the-cob and sodas. The first ensembles to perform were the initiates ( baheemba), chorus singers ( banyayaali) and dancers ( babini) associated with the two main competitive groups. These were the warm-up groups for the two main acts, who would later wrap up the day's festivities with their judged event.
When the main singers took to their respective areas, I decided that I needed to get a closer look. I climbed down from the roof and went over to take my place among the rest of the spectators. I immediately recognized the by-now-familiar feeling that I was being watched and talked about by nearly everyone in my immediate area: "Look, it's that European that dances with the Bakulang'halanga group, lets go and have a look at which side he likes." Sure enough, as the main event unfolded and I milled around the arena, making my way from opposing side to opposing side, I realized that the crowd was inching along with me, apparently anxious to know which side it was that I found the most fascinating.
I was getting very frustrated with being unable to act neither within an imagined comfort zone with fly-on-the-wall "objectivity" nor from the point of reference of a "subjective" performer. I began to ask myself in all seriousness how I could assess these competitive performances without radically affecting their outcome. If I joined a group and performed, our side won overwhelmingly because of my presence. If I decided to observe up close, whichever group I decided to observe had an enormous advantage, due to the crowd's curiosity about my tastes. Even when I tried to divide my viewing time equally among the two teams, so not to bias one side in favor of the other in the judges' eyes, I found that the crowd followed me toward the first team that I decided to watch, and then eventually trickled away as I went to watch the other team. I could neither tape record or videotape competition events nor hire others to do so, as either choice would draw the same disproportionate crowd of spectators. I could really only watch from afar, so it seemed, but I knew no one with a pair of binoculars that I could use.
Though the importance of the competitive event in relation to my dissertation research was "only a chapter's worth," I had cultivated a near-Faustian desire to know absolutely what Sukumaland competition was all about, perhaps because of my failed attempts to gain knowledge about Sukumaland performance on my terms. Because I did not want to fabricate missing details, I resorted to putting together a bricolage description of the multiple events and processes that make up a competition by attending the less important (non-judged) days of the longer competitions, relying on personal memory and doing lots of interviews with participants and spectators. In several competitions that took place over a two week period, audience participants became used to my presence and did not alter their normal routines of observation and participation. Though at first not entirely pleased with these experiences, in looking back I finally realized that this is what post-modern ethnography is all about: accepting the fact that in fieldwork, objectivities and subjectivities are turned inside out and conflated and our influences upon our hosts as well as their influences upon us are profound.
Frank Gunderson is a program associate for the Center for World Performance Studies, and program coordinator for the U.S. Secretariat of the International Centre for African Music and Dance. He received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in 1999. He has worked as a curator at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University and has taught at the University of Oklahoma. He has recently co-edited the volume Mashindano!: Competitive Music Performance in East Africa (Mkuki na Nyota Press).
Competing dance societies continue to be aligned under two powerful umbrella groups, the bagíika and bagáalu, formed by two extraordinary dance society leaders who lived around the turn of the century.