Ngoma performance

An introduction

Talking about ngoma1 means talking about music, dance, song, about tradition and history, but not about performative events considered as a ‘noble art’: ngoma performances belong to the cultural setting of marginalized gendered, ethnic and religious subcultures and are, therefore, often considered expressions of immorality (uhuni), in all the different meanings that this term acquires in the various contexts.

Ngoma (a Swahili word which literally means ‘drum’) are happenings during which music, dance and song act together to realize performances related to the most important rites of the Swahili communities’ cycle of social life — birth, death, female and male initiation, marriage and celebration of female purity before weddings.2

This singular cultural mode of expression provides a unique, rich source that helps in the comprehension of both socio-cultural transformations and relational changes (with reference to gender, classes or ethnic groups), and the competition for political power — the destabilizing silent movements that claim equal rights and freedom — and the traumatic experience of colonialism. In this sense ngoma can be considered metaphorical expressions of historical events that permitted a mediation with other cultures rather than simple imitation.

In Africa, performance is a fundamental dimension of culture: “Whether taken as the practice of everyday life or a bounded, framed event, performance is inherently social and rhetorical. Therefore the study of performance is at the same time the study of social processes.”3 Performances are events in which knowledge is produced, people sit and reflect and then perceive precepts and advice. Thanks to performances, people find and reinforce their individual and collective identities and resist or subvert prevailing social orders. Thus the social context and the audience become performative.

During a ngoma performance the musicians beat rhythms, echoes of a distant past, which have been modified over time both in terms of musical development and rules; the dancers mix steps and movements, learnt in the different artistic experiences they have participated in or which they have been taught by the elderly performer in their home villages, with new scenographic gestures invented for a special occasion or required by the performative context.

All recent studies stress the importance of the analysis of the audience’s process of perception, reaction and reinterpretation. It is impossible to speak about performance without referring to its interpretation: “any musical object embodies and provokes interpretative tensions. (...) Its position is doubly social: the object exists through a code, and through processes of coding and decoding.”4

Recent studies on the performance have created the basis of a syncretistic theory on the politics of performance: “how performance is actively employed in the negotiation of power relations.”5 I would not like to talk only about the politics of performance, the concise, effective expression used by Kelly Askew in Performing the Nation (2002): I think that it is equally useful, for the comprehension and the completeness of the subject, to talk about the performance of politics.

During the act of performing, the performers are influenced by rules, customs, religion and politics: they must chose where to reproduce an ancient, ritual gesture and where to add some changes, in the mime, in the music, in the dance and/or in the song. This position may turn out dangerous in a context in which performance has been transformed into a performance of politics: in Tanzania, since the independence, a political use of performance, with particular attention to ngoma performance, has rapidly developed in order to create a ‘super-ethnic’ culture. The freedom of improvisation, which is theatrically probably the most dramatic moment, has suffered strict censorship and has been substituted with an insistent representation of the dominant political ideology. In a limited context like this, performance becomes a place for the reinforcement of power relations, “power not only immanent and comprising economic and political directives but also presentable to people in such a way that they would gladly submit themselves to social rules and authorities to the extent even of regarding them as desirable.”6

Behavioural norms, constraints and limits are gathered into a cultural repertoire that replaces the people’s attempt to represent themselves and to be an active variable in the context of cultural performance.