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Author: Peter Amuka
Title: Towards a synthesis of the oral and written text: a reading of two Dodo songs
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Towards a synthesis of the oral and written text: a reading of two Dodo songs
Peter Amuka

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 1, pp. 1, 1991
Author Biography: Peter Amuka, a Kenyan folklorist, is a Rockefeller Residency Fellow in the Center for Cultural Studies at Rice University.



"Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things."

—Roland Barthes [2]

Two dodo songs from the Luo of Kenya provide texts for the following discussion. Although the songs originate from oral sources, I proceed on the understanding that oral performance does not close itself to writing or any other recording medium. In fact, my understanding of oral art is that the moment an audience receives and absorbs a particular genre, that audience necessarily composes a new text out of the original; textual reception is textual creation. The new text normally resembles its original but may not be a replica. A dance, for example, is only a reaction to the inspiring tune; its (dance's) rhythms echo the tune but are not the tune. Thus, even if a singer were to hypnotise a crowd, their reactions could never be a reproduction—or exact copy—of his texts. The crowd's response is an interpretation arising from a particular text. From interpretation backwards we reach into the mother-text; from the mother forward, we arrive at the interpretation. Nor does this mother exist in a vacuum; it too has a womb of origin.

In 1978, I tape-recorded, transcribed, and translated two dodo songs performed by Obudo, their original composer. Dodo means Luo beer-drinking songs and Obudo reckons to have performed dodo songs for so long he could not remember the year he started. Always a soloist, he often sung in beerhalls with or without the inspiration of beer, provided he had a supporting choir. The two songs were spontaneously composed and perfected in beerhalls in the presence of some of the personalities referred to or praised in the songs. I recorded Obudo's songs after he had perfected his lines. There was no written script: dodo artists relied on memory. [3]

A few years after recording his two songs, I replayed the tapes for Obudo. His spontaneous reaction was that the songs sounded different, the voices were strange. It was as if another voice had been superimposed. Thus, my transcriptions and translations could only have been additional voices, further removed as they were from the original songs. The interpretation this essay attempts becomes yet another voice, creating one more text in the process. In the final analysis, the problem being addressed revolves around the relationships between the sung texts, translations, and other possible texts.

As Father Walter Ong would have it, orality is a pre-requisite for writing and does exist without writing but not vice-versa. [4] Regarding the self-sufficiency and reliability of written and oral texts he avers that "Total verbal explicitness is impossible, so that all words, written or spoken, are invitations for more words." [5] Going by this dictum, it may be stated that any text (oral, written) carries a number of meanings (voices, texts, forms) subject to the listener's or reader's critical orientations and objectives. A look at these voices necessarily leads to encounters with the composer, his culture, society, critique, and recorded versions of his products. I say "look" because the voices under examination have been converted into visual images through writing. Discussing Obudo's songs therefore includes looking at his voice captured in written form.

A temporary diversion to Nigeria should launch us into the "architectonics" [6] of this voice. Joseph Edozien, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, has quit his post to ascend to royalty. Asaba, a township in Nigeria, is due to have a King with a difference: he will "codify and document our oral traditions." [7] The New York Times report does not provide further detail but a student of oral traditions may hazard a guess as to what the King-designate will do with the oral material. He will record it on some type of electronic gadget the way I did with the dodo songs. Some of the material may ultimately be transcribed and translated into the many languages in Nigeria and beyond. In brief, the King shall have converted the oral traditions into documents that readers and scholars might look at for whatever ends.

But the traditions being translated almost always co-exist symbiotically with some or more of the following: material culture, spoken words, drama, physical setting, flora and fauna and others. In a case where video tape has been used, pictures of scenery, performers and attendant cultural artifacts will augment the spoken word. If the recording manages to convey all the verbal and non-verbal forms, a viewer should justifiably claim that an oral presentation has been re-presented To be realistic, we should omit the hyphen and say represented; what is recorded is necessarily an image of the original. In summary, recording, transcribing, and translating oral traditions are processes of representation.

It is one form of representation—recording—that Obudo casts doubts on. Let us look at some of the tidbits of his objection. He could not possibly sing as badly as the chorus as "thin, hidden and lost" in the tapes. The voices sounded like some spirit, juogi, speaking deep inside a possessed man or woman. There was no difference between their voices and those of jokech, starving people. [8]

Obudo's reactions imply a mis-recording and mis-representation of his performance despite my perfect recording and reply. That he evoked juogi and kech as illegitimate intrusions into his singing meant the recorded versions had distorted his own image and socio-cultural mission: he was not a jajuogi (a person possessed with a spirit) being starved before exorcism and propitiation. The recording had apparently imbued the songs with a wrong cultural context and objective.

Another inference from Obudo's responses is that listening is a kind of reading or re-rereading normally determined by the context and nature of the medium carrying the cultural artifact. His voice has been detached from its physical and social setting and de-contextualized by the recording. The multiplicity of voices in his own have been elevated to the realm of the supernatural, juogi. The absence of cheering drinkers, a choir and bank-notes being pasted on their faces, Homa Bay town and its hills and mountains, diminishes the songs' natural and human setting. Be that as it may, Obudo has also told us—without saying it—that the oral versions of his compositions could have as many interpretations and meanings as the texts reproduced. He hears his voice in the background, in the past, but then the recording imposes another voice with a different cultural and semantic twist. He does not divest the texts of their original meanings, but asserts that the tapes have distorted them, and added other meanings. In effect, the texts signify the initial meanings as much as they do the new ones.

Because the original composer and performer adduces so many possible readings, one proceeds with the knowledge that the written songs (transcribed, transliterated, and translated into English) may be many times removed from the originally intended meanings. [9] The written versions represent the preceding forms up to the original and vice-versa. Orality and writing are therefore systems of signs decodable by analytical reading/listening. Signs in this respect mean language and its cultural milieu. (This does not ignore the argument that language and culture enjoy an interdependent existence). [10] To paraphrase John Deeley, objects involve the observer and objects can signify other objects. [11] The signifier may resonate in the signified; an object may also be a combination of the two. Obudo's response to the meaning of the voice is similar to the relationship of an observer (listener, reader) and an object. Yet the object is his own voice ... in which case we are dealing with a signifier-in-the-signified or vice-versa. Since he represents the audience, they fall into the syndrome of observer-cum-object. To recapitulate, artists, culture, environment, and Obudo's critical voice (including the original and recorded voices) constitute texts (voices) within the final written text.

1. An earlier version of this paper was presented to a seminar at the Program of African Studies, Northwestern, October 18, 1990.

2. Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1972), trans. Annette Lavers, 109.

3. Dodo is said to have always co-existed with beer-drinking among the Luo. The drinking is associated with funeral ceremonies, death-anniversary festivities, and pleasurable activities. Dodo singing accompanies, involves, social commentary, gift giving, and other forms of appreciation of a group or audience. Except for brief moments at some funeral ceremonies, the genre rarely surfaces in public places today. Secondary school choirs sing dodo at musical festivals. In the early 1980s, Obudo's group effectively disbanded as the government of Kenya drastically reduced the number of local and unregulated beer halls.

4. Orality and Literacy: The Technologising of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982).

5. Walter Ong, "Before textuality: Orality and interpretation," Oral Tradition, 2, 1, (Jan. 1987), 261.

6. M. M. Bakhtin, Art and Answerability (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), trans. V. Liapunov and K. Brostrom, 270. The idea of the wholeness of the text includes its figurative dimensions. In my continuing study of Luo oral art, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sung or written text is only part of a whole.

7. New York Times, September 19, 1990.

8. Individuals afflicted with juogi suffer from loss of appetite, get emaciated like jokech (starving people), and have to be cleansed through ritual appeasement of the spirit (juogi).

9. "Intended" is my own emphasis meant to draw attention to the now largely discarded critical theory that literary criticism should not speculate about a writer's intention(s) in a text as this would be tantamount to "intentional fallacy": a critic cannot possibly identify a writer's intention in a text nor a text's intention for that matter. Writers' biographies and the changing nature of literary theory have since invalidated this stance.

10. Okoth Okombo, "Linguistic parameters in Mudimbe's Invention of Africa," seminar paper, Rice University, April, 1990, 3.

11. John Deeley, Basics of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 55.

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