Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Ngoma memories: A history of competitive music and dance performance on the Kenya coast
by Gearhart, Rebecca Kathleen, Ph.D., University of Florida, 1998, 291; 9926006
Abstract (Summary)

Music and dance performances, called “ngoma” in Swahili, have been the site of social interaction and cultural creativity on the east African coast for centuries. This dissertation explores the recent history of groups oriented around ngoma activity by sharing the memories of the ngoma experts who once led them. All of the narratives that are included were transcribed from video taped interviews I conducted with Kenya coastal residents in 1995 and 1996. Their oral narratives are part of a larger documentation project concentrated on visually recording oral traditions and live ngoma events performed in coastal communities between Mombasa and Kiunga on the Kenya mainland, and on the islands of the Lamu archipelago. This growing archive of visual data, which ngoma experts viewed at several video screenings, provided ethnographic material that stimulated discussions that illuminated ngoma's role in the construction of social identity among the coast's diverse populations.

This study takes a three-field approach, combining theoretical models and methodological strategies from history, performance studies and visual anthropology. This work is historical in content, yet it does not follow a chronological narrative, much like memory itself. The memories of past ngoma groups and how they operated within coastal society are intertwined with European accounts, secondary historical analyses, and my own interpretations. In combination, these sources demonstrate some of the ways in which coastal people have transformed what I call “ngoma packages”, made up of specific dance movements, poems, songs, drum rhythms, costumes and props, over time and space.

Rather than focusing on the ephemeral dimensions of performance, this study locates music and dance in the daily lives of coastal people and discusses the practical advantages of participating in ngoma. This perspective places weekly ngoma competitions at the center of social activity, and makes them the premiere fora for sustaining as well as challenging dominant systems of political and moral authority. For example, spiritual leaders strategically used ngoma as a vehicle for mediating ethnic and religious difference, while marginalized groups such as women and slaves used performance media to express their discontent with the status quo. The public nature of ngoma group competition made both possible—often at the same time.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Burns, Allan
School: University of Florida
School Location: United States -- Florida
Source: DAI-A 60/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, African history, Dance, Music
Keywords: Dance, Kenya, Music, Ngoma, Performance
Publication Number: 9926006
ISBN: 978-0-599-25845-7
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