- Performance and Politics in Tanzania: The Nation on Stage
Performance and Politics in Tanzania examines the ways in which theatrical and musical performances shape—and in turn are shaped by—the politics of nation-building in contemporary Tanzania. Laura Edmondson construes the process of nation-building as a dynamic process of collaboration and [End Page 211] contestation between the government's version of national culture and performers' alternative versions. The book builds on and adds to the growing literature concerning postcolonial subjectivity, local agency, power, and identity in relation to artistic performances in contemporary Tanzania.
The book's introduction explicates various conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of this work. The rest of the book is divided into three parts. The first, "Imagining the Nation," situates the dynamics involved in the construction of national culture in the context of broader politico-economic and sociocultural changes that have taken place in Tanzania since the 1980s. It also examines ways in which performing groups such as Muungano, TOT (Tanzania One Theatre), and Mandela explore and use cultural elements from the "imagined" precolonial past in their efforts to create new Tanzanian national culture. Part 2, "Sexing the Nation," examines how the process of nation-building is related to the politics of gender and sexuality in theatrical and musical performances. And part 3, "Contesting the Nation," builds on an extensive literature about musical competition (mashindano) in Tanzania, and examines competitions between the TOT and Muungano groups. It shows that these competitions are microcosms of wider dynamics of nation-building—dynamics that are characterized by negotiations among various competing agendas. This section also discusses a cosmopolitan version of nationhood in which cultural elements from different parts of the world (e.g., Congolese soukous and rap music) are creatively localized and integrated into Tanzanian national culture.
Edmondson's book contributes significantly to the study of cultural nationalism in Tanzania in relation to the politics of gender and sexuality. Highlighting the tension around the erotic hip-swaying dance movements (kukata viuno) of popular culture, the author shows how the government tries in vain to suppress these movements in its effort to create its own version of Tanzanian national culture, advancing several arguments to justify its position. First, the public performances of these dance movements, associated with eroticism and sexual intercourse, are said to transgress the national cultural codes promoted by the government (72). Second, these dance movements are eschewed because seen as indications of backwardness or primitiveness, and hence antithetical to the "modern" national culture endorsed by the government (71). Finally, such public dance movements are discouraged on grounds that they are foreign to Tanzania. Throughout the book, Edmondson shows that the government's choices of what is appropriate or inappropriate for "modern" national Tanzania culture have always been in dialogue with performers' alternative choices, which are subversively incorporated into their musical performances.
Let me note, however, the performative effect of Edmondson's language. She repeatedly describes these hip-swaying or pelvic-rotation dance movements as "sexually explicit" (72), "sexually inviting" (65), and "erotic" (13)—descriptions that make the association between the dances and sexuality seem self-evident, inevitable, and unquestionable, but descriptions [End Page 212] that would not necessarily be perceived had she decided to describe these dance movements in sexually neutral ways. The author/viewer's gaze is also frankly reproving: a photograph caption of dancers refers to "one of the more notorious moments of TOT's lizombe" (71), and she describes her own feelings as "discomfited" (65); such phrasing creates a negative attitude toward these dance movements. In short, while her book is in many ways liberating—a celebration of the power of art to subvert government imposition of national culture and to invent alternative national cultural models—it also derogates these undertakings.
That said, however, the book is also highly stimulating, thought-provoking, and informative. It is a significant contribution to the study of contemporary musical and theatrical performances and society in Tanzania.