National Competitive Festivals: Formatting Dance Products and Forging Identities in Contemporary Kenya.

Author:Kiiru, Kahithe


Dance and heritage are two cornerstone notions of the ongoing study this paper stems from--the study of dance heritage creation processes in contemporary Kenya. The polysemous nature of dance as an art form, as well as its amenability to social and political agendas, has been recognized early in the social sciences. Since the 1980s, the most important developments in the field of dance anthropology have been made in studies on the link between dance and politics, on the relationships between culture, body, and movement. Thus, dance as an expression and a practice of power and protest, resistance and complicity, has been the subject of numerous analysis, particularly in the areas of ethnicity, national identity, gender and, less frequently, social class. In more recent years, Andrieu (2007), Buckland (2001), Castaldi (2006), Desmond (1993), Djebbari (2011), Edmondson (2001), Fair (1996), Foley (2001), Gibert (2007), Giurchescu (2001), Nahachewsky (2001), Quigley (2001), Reed (1998) and Shay (1999; 2001) are just a part of the large research community that has centered the debate on folklore dance forms and on their symbolic and political power.

This study joins in that academic tradition, as it focuses on the content and status of social and political practices grouped under the appellation cultural dances of Kenya. These are defined as a set of traditional practices reinvented and re-contextualized for a stage experience and a contemporary social use. The (re)invention of these practices is ongoing, as we consider dance itself as a performance constantly recreated by the materiality of moving bodies, and dance heritage not in terms of finished products, but from the viewpoint of processes. Heritage, "a new mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past," as defined by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995), adds value to practices, in our case dances, which are no longer viable and ensures their survival.

Thus, our analysis puts an emphasis on the identification of heritage production processes at the local level, while trying to understand the relationship that these empirical procedures have with the national identity debates that continue to agitate Kenya since Independence in 1963 up to present day. In a comparative approach, choreographic products, their creators and the strategies they use, are considered from the perspective of a continuous movement between the local and the national--levels often conceptualized in opposition, but in reality interdependent. This prolonged comparison is rooted in a previous study of the national dance troupe repertoire (Kiiru, 2014), accompanied by the analyses of national policies and institutions relating to traditional music/dance, as well as by ethnographic inquiry in the field in selected regions of the country. It relies on the idea that "vernacular folklore and staged folklore exist in indivisible and unbroken continuity" (Giurchescu 2001, 117) and examines the hypothesis of mutual influence between local dance vocabularies and staging strategies and their national counterparts.

The history of traditional dance practices in Kenya is characterized by a series of significant oscillations in the degree of their visibility. This fact results, in the first place, from the particular historical context of a settlement colony (1) that Kenya was, where "indigenous" dances and music were prohibited or strictly controlled. Historically linked to questions of power, local dances were seen as a direct threat to the political and moral order in the colony. Result of a long period of repression, dances seemed to have almost completely disappeared in some parts of Kenya. Since Independence, their status and presence on the national and the local scene fluctuated, while the content of Kenyan dance heritage and the representations it reflects have, on several occasions, been reformulated to correspond to the political issues of the moment. At the same time, local populations seemed to be experiencing a form of discomfort concerning these practices that the Christian churches condemned for decades.

However, corresponding to the cyclic nature of cultural reflexivity (Nahachewsky, 2001), a renewed enthusiasm for traditional dances and other cultural practices can be noted in Kenya in recent years, a fact connected, among others, to the political and security situation. Since the post-election violence of 2007-2008 and the crisis it caused, the national folklore is seen as a potential catalyst for the process of National Reconciliation, and cultural dances as a privileged medium to convey messages of national unity and a call for peace.

Before we proceed to introduce the topic of this paper, we owe the readership a brief reflection on the terminology used. Although we have offered our definition of the ensemble of practices at the core of our study, one might ask the question of why call them "cultural dances of Kenya." It is important to note here that the term itself was reported from interviews from the field, notably with institution representatives, as well as with artists and practitioners. We have found it pertinent not only because of the problematic nature of alternative terms, including traditional, indigenous, and folkloric, but equally because of its reference to the notion of "culture." In the discourse of our informants "culture" is opposed to "tradition" since, according to T.O. Bwire, Production Manager of Bomas of Kenya (national ethnographic museum and dance troupe), it describes better the dynamic and evolving character of the practices in question. Culture is ever growing, whereas tradition is static. Although this contrast between the two notions does not correspond to their academic definition tentatives, it reflects the reality of the milieu in which we investigate. Additionally, in the competitive festivals context, it corresponds to the exact nomenclature of dance competition categories--"cultural dance" and "creative cultural dance"--that we shall discuss later in the paper.

In the course of our research into traditional dance practices in Kenya, started in 2011, school competitions in music and dance emerged very early as an important vector in terms of constitution and popularization of these practices. With more than 7,000 presentations performed for 11 days in 440 categories by approximately 97,000 students (2) (Orido 2011), these competitions emanating from public institutions, receive impressive attendance and benefit from significant media coverage. (3) A special place is given to the dance categories whose pieces last between 5 and 15 minutes (depending on the festival in question) and attract many participants and spectators. In the premises of a national school selected each year to host the event, we thus encounter a strikingly large number of groups of youths, immersed in a state of stress and intense emotions at the time of their performance and of the adjudicators' deliberation. The commotion in the school yard that serves as a backstage, the background sounds of different musical styles as groups practice their performance to come, the visual mixture of various colorful costumes and the enthusiasm and energy of performance inspired ethnographic and artistic interest. In front of us was undoubtedly a fertile ethnographic field and we decided to continue our observations, as well as to further develop them through participation in competitive festivals.

This was made possible in 2014, when we integrated a group of consultants/trainers preparing a secondary school for the National Drama Festival (4) and in 2015 and 2016, when we joined local folk groups in rehearsal and in stage performance at the Ministry of Culture's competitive festival--Kenya Music Festival. (5) This article is the fruit of analysis of data collected primarily through these occasions of participatory observation, but also through the study of video and photograph archives, official policy documents and publications and a series of interviews conducted with actors of the competitive festival structure (festival administrators, several adjudicators, consultants and choreographers, Ministry of Culture representatives at both national and county levels, students themselves, etc.).

Before continuing, we would like to mention here that what we refer to as "national competitive festivals" and/or "competitive festival system" consists of three specific annual events, which are institutionalized and regulated by two national ministries. The National Drama Festival and the National Music Festival are competitive institutions hosted by the Ministry of Education. They are therefore organized around the yearly school calendar as their participants are pupils and student of different levels--from primary schools to universities and colleges. The Kenya Music Festival, on the other hand, is hosted by the Ministry of Culture and its lower level administrative units. (6) It brings together amateur, semi-professional and professional folk music and dance groups on an annual basis, but follows a more flexible calendar. Although the three are neither identical nor aim at the same participants, we believe they repose on the same premises. Originally, they all developed from one ancestor: the Kenya Music Festival introduced in 1927 by European settlers organized into music amateur clubs. School children and students used to participate alongside adult performers until the mid-1960s when a festival dedicated exclusively to educational purposes was formed.

It is also relevant to comment briefly on the genres designation, as dance features in both the music- and the drama-labelled festivals, yet does not possess a festival of its own. The popularly-known fact that dance is conceived as an independent reality in very few non-Western cultures, translates, within the Kenyan context, by the term ngoma. This cultural notion, and the corresponding Kiswahili term...

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