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Reviewed by:
  • Sukuma Labor Songs from Western Tanzania
  • Alex Perullo
Frank Gunderson, Sukuma Labor Songs from Western Tanzania. Leiden: Brill (hb €94 –978 9 00418 468 8). 2010, 536 pp.

In African music scholarship, few scholars attempt to merge the methods of song collection and detailed ethnographic analysis into a single work. Song collection is a method of recording and documenting as many songs as possible to create an understanding about the cultural, historical and musical traditions of a given population. In contemporary scholarship, scholars mostly select samples of song collections and rarely print translations of an entire body of work. Ethnographic analysis is the more common method in current African music scholarship, where scholars conduct intensive fieldwork to understand a population or a cultural phenomenon.

Sukuma Labor Songs from Western Tanzania uses both methods to create an impressive study of the history and musical traditions of one Tanzanian ethnic group, the Sukuma. Frank Gunderson gathered, recorded and analysed hundreds of songs that provide historical, regional and cultural knowledge mostly focused on the theme of labour. At times, he relies on the work of those who, in the past, collected songs, including Carl Velten and Hans Cory. The bulk of the songs, however, are from Gunderson’s own fieldwork among the Sukuma, a period of research that spans almost twenty years (1988–2006).

In addition to gathering these songs, Gunderson also set out to work with Sukuma musicians and other specialists on the meaning of the songs. Rather than search for a single interpretation, Gunderson allows each person to read or listen to the song and then provide comment. Over seventy people, many of whom are elders born between 1915 and 1950, provide interpretations of songs and music that appear in the collection. Gunderson argues that this approach reveals a great deal about both the person and the song itself. In describing the aim of the book, he writes: ‘This is a polyvocal ethnography featuring song texts and discourse about song texts with no one interpreter, no one meaning, no complete or [End Page 665] “correct” version’ (p. 1). This polyvocal ethnographic approach provides an engaging means of conceptualizing and understanding the extensive assemblage of 335 song texts that he presents in this collection.

The book is organized into four overarching themes: hunters’ songs (chapters 1 and 2); songs sung by porters and soldiers (chapters 3–6); farmers’ songs (chapters 7–10), and political discourse, including independence and socialism (chapters 11–15). In each chapter, Gunderson presents an overview of the topics being discussed, Kisukuma language transcriptions and English translations of each of the songs, and, at times, musical transcriptions. After each song, there are verbatim comments by individuals whom Gunderson worked with during his research. The commentaries are in both the original recorded language, either Kiswahili or Kisukuma, and English.

The value of the variety of songs presented is that each offers multiple narratives to interpret the music, history and culture of the Sukuma peoples. For instance, the song ‘Nani Wapemba Numba Yane?’ (Who Has Scorched My Home?) documents an 1898 conflict featuring a war mercenary named Ibelenge. Taken in its literal form, the song offers an historical narrative of a single conflict. The song, however, also appears in other contexts sung by soldiers, camp labourers during both world wars, and medicine healers in contemporary dance competitions. In the commentaries about the song, informants discuss the war tactic of burning people’s homes and the meaning of the song as a ritual for medicinal healers. In addition, one individual comments on the importance of Ibelenge in inspiring soldiers to fight against Germans and British during the colonial period. These multiple interpretations encourage readers to discover the ways in which ‘a song could make a kind of sense to one person, and an entirely different kind of sense to another, and that both could illuminate aspects of deeper meaning’ (p. 2).

Gunderson refers to himself as an ‘interpretive editor’ in part because he aims to organize songs and their interpretations into a detailed study of Sukuma labour music. He relies on the voices of Sukuma peoples while limiting his own commentary. Thus the concept of editor appears appropriate. Yet, there...


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