Africa Today 50.3 (2004) 139-140
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Kelly Askew's book on the subject of music and nationalism in Tanzania is a superb ethnography that is as intellectually stimulating as it is elegantly written. Based on three years of fieldwork using methods ranging from interviews to archival research to performing in popular music bands, this book demonstrates the great potential of ethnography to deepen our understanding of both human behavior and the fundamental importance of music in society.
Askew begins with three narrative vignettes of everyday events in which people "perform the nation," vignettes that very effectively set the tone for this accessible yet theoretically rich work. Askew immediately immerses the reader in the feel of everyday life in Tanzania and demonstrates a theoretical understanding of performance that encompasses both everyday life and more clearly bounded music events. Moreover, these opening narratives artfully illustrate two of Askew's central points: that nationalism, and the power at its base, are not exclusively a matter of ideological persuasion of the masses by political elites, but are negotiated dialogically between the state and its citizens; and that power negotiations and nationalist agendas are actualized through performance.
This ethnography accomplishes much. It provides a thorough accounting of the Tanzanian musical genres dansi, ngoma, and taarab, distinguishing them not just by their stylistic and formal characteristics, but also according to the contexts in which they are performed and, most crucially for this book, the central (and changing) roles they have played in Tanzanian cultural politics, identity construction, and nation-building. Askew anchors her discussions of music and politics with a concise but effective rendering of Tanzanian history, with an ear attuned to state cultural policies and their linkage to nation-building. Music, Askew clearly demonstrates, has been central to the Tanzanian state's attempts to establish particular nationalist identities, at particular points in history, for its citizens to follow. For example, taarab, a genre that, though unique to the Swahili coast, draws heavily upon Arabic and Indian aesthetics, was viewed as too "foreign" to be embraced as part of the nationalist agenda of the Tanzanian state during its first three decades of independence. This period saw the government seeking to counteract outside influence, especially that of the West, and build a national identity based on things deemed "authentically" African, [End Page 139] such as the genre called ngoma. In the 1990s, however, the government redefined and embraced taarab, in part because its popularity rendered it an undeniable feature of the Tanzanian soundscape at a time when Chama cha Mapinduzi, the ruling political party, was in need of a new image.
Askew urges the reader to consider new approaches to the understanding of nationalism and nation-building. She advocates a "fundamentally fluid and fundamentally dialogic take on national identity formation not unlike identity formation in individuals who are constantly at work to define themselves" (p. 271). She shows Tanzanian cultural policy to be far from unified in approach, but characterized by dissent, tensions, and ever-shifting goals within the state structure itself. Askew argues convincingly that nations are built not just by top-down state policymakers, but through a dialectic interaction between such policymakers and Tanzanian citizens themselves, whose actions guide and shape the debates that contribute to the "imaginary" of national identity. A particular strength is the way in which Askew bases this assertion on this book's many narratives of musical performances that clearly portray such ideological negotiations. She also criticizes studies of nationalism that draw solely on analyses of print media. Based on Foucault's assertion that "power is rendered efficacious only in its enactment" (p. 8), she contends that "power is embedded in performance" (p. 14), and she demonstrates the extent to which the Tanzanian state's efforts to push nationalist ideologies have materialized in performance. Advancing a performative understanding of power, she argues that "music is undeniably and irrevocably implicated...