AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
The relative exclusion of popular song vis-a-vis other forms of expression in scholarship on African literature and oral verbal art is a serious oversight that needs to be reconsidered and rectified. This article constitutes a comparative analysis of two wordsmiths from East Africa whose works embody the salient relationships and overlapping tendencies of works considered "high" literary art and popular songs, which are thought to constitute a different type of artistic productivity. A consideration of the poetry and prose of Shaaban Robert, one of the giants of Swahili literature, in conjunction with the songs of Samba Mapangala, a popular singer who has become a household name in East Africa, reveals that there are significant points of contact between both popular songs and other forms of verbal art in the region.
Scholarship in African literature tends to exclude songs from the canon. But song is one of the most widely communicated forms of verbal art on the continent. Popular songs are dynamic and widespread, and permeate the lives of people throughout Eastern Africa. This exclusion raises many questions. Are songs merely superficial entertainment for their immediate audiences or do they operate on deeper aesthetic and intellectual levels for the songwriters and audience members in their respective communities? Do they convey information that may provide a key to understanding the people who produce these lyrical traditions? The purpose of this paper is to provide answers to these questions through a comparative analysis of two exemplars of Eastern African literature and song, to modify Western academic paradigms in order to construct, assemble, and to tailor them to the imperatives of the current realities experienced by those living in Eastern African countries.
The questions that such a comparison raises are multiple: what formal, linguistic, and thematic attributes do the artists share? What are the expectations of their audiences? What is their relationship to their audiences? And finally, how have they contributed to the creation of a panethnic or supercultural sense of identity in the region? Such a comparative analysis will, I hope, serve to challenge the "modal" bias of much of comparative literary studies, which, in the words of Alamin M. Mazrui and Ibrahim Noor Shariff, "concerns the values imposed upon the written word. The written, even if peripheral, is thus given prominence over the oral, even if the latter is more central in a given tradition" (96-97).
I will be drawing upon the work of two canonical verbal artists, one a writer, Shaaban Robert, and the other a songwriter and singer, Samba Mapangala, in order to provide compelling examples of the significant affinities between the written and performative works of these two figures. My choice to focus on two individual artists has been motivated by a desire to provide an in-depth analysis of the techniques and sociocultural strategies employed by Mapangala and Robert in their respective attempts to create works relevant to their projected audiences. Furthermore, my comparison of the works of two artists operating in the same region who oftentimes employed the same language (though in different ways) is a deliberate attempt to countermand some of the basic assumptions of the field of comparative literature, a field of scholarly endeavor that apparently makes linguistic disaffinity a prerequisite for comparison to take place, and displays a predilection for comparisons that involve Euro-American creativity as at least one part of every comparative equation.
As J. H. Kwabena Nketia has made clear in The Music of Africa, there is much to be gained from comparative analyses of the works of African artists. His study has demonstrated that their works and the structures upon which they are based do in fact display similarities and dissimilarities that are as striking as they are educational. Nketia s scholarship has also challenged some of the accepted wisdom that defines and separates expression into seemingly distinct categories. Nketia s observations on dance and its accompanying musical performance point us toward a more nuanced comprehension of the ways these forms of expression can be deployed within and integrated into multiple social situations. In the case of dance he writes that it "[...] may be regarded not only as an avenue for bodily response to music or a means of communication, but also as a serious art form" (230). He also makes clear the extent to which the "traditional," as a concept used in contradistinction to the popular and the contemporary, is inadequate at best and destructive to the very nature of artistic creativity in many African contexts. In his opinion, maintenance of the status quo in expressive culture, especially that of music, is nearly impossible due to the fact that "[a]lthough in every generation performers are supposed to play what is passed on to them, each generation may reinterpret it, particularly with respect to those fluctuations arising out of subjective feeling" (240). Changing demographics in African contexts inevitably bring additional changes because "[i]n addition to internal changes [in African musical traditions], there are also changes that are brought about by the interaction of African societies with one another, as well as changes that are made in response to acculturation" (245).
Within this paper, the generic proclivities of Robert and Mapangala, as well as the different eras in which they work(ed), provide a rich and fruitful field for inquiry. The numerous salient points of commonality in their work, despite the seemingly disparate manner of their composition and dissemination, speak to the need for studies that demonstrate the ability of African artists and audiences to carry on creative productivity and appreciation, dialogue and debate, in ways and by means emergent from internal, indigenous processes of socialization as well as sensitive to external influences. Consideration of the work of two artists rather than a superficial survey of numerous personalities and their works allows one to profoundly and comprehensively investigate the nature of their productivity both in isolation and conjunction. Close attention to the works of both will reveal the resonance and crosspollination that is manifest in art forms throughout the region as evidenced in the oeuvres of these two artists.
Whereas academic disciplines condone the dissection of artistic endeavor, my project here is to problematize such proscriptive processes of categorization. A growing body of scholarly work emphasizes that "[...] popular culture is under stood as a site of struggle, a place for the negotiation of race, gender, nation, and other identities and for the play of power" (Dolby 33). Recent publications such as Nadine Dolby's build upon the perspectives put forth by Karin Barber in her 1987 essay, "Popular Arts in Africa":
The most obvious reason for giving serious attention to the popular arts is their sheer undeniable assertive presence as social facts. They loudly proclaim their own importance in the lives of large numbers of African people. They are everywhere. They flourish without encouragement or recognition from official cultural bodies, and sometimes in defiance of them. People too poor to contemplate spending money on luxuries do spend it on popular arts, sustaining them and constantly infusing them with new life. (1)
In addition, Barber strives to fabricate a systematic understanding of the nature of the "popular" and how it relates to African artistic creativity. Her insights into what she calls the "apparently infinite elasticity" (5) of African popular art succeeds in effectively dissolving the shaky foundation of divisions between the "folk" and the "popular" and, ultimately, even those forms of cultural expression that can be labeled "elite or high arts" (9). Shaaban Robert and Samba Mapangala produce art that could be called "high" and "popular," respectively. At the same time, however, it is essential to acknowledge the antecedents of their creativity, many of which lay in expressive genres and forms that have their basis in folk or traditional expression.
Within this paper I will largely be dealing with the verbal content of the works in question, both songs and literature, and their activation in different social contexts. It should be clear, however, that this abbreviation and elision is carried out in cognizance of the fact that, as Nketia states, "the functional use of song in social life or its value as source material should not make us overlook the importance of the musical content of songs. [...] We must thus recognize that the basis for the appreciation of a song may be linguistic, musical, or both" (205).
It is not my project here to present Robert or Mapangala as traditional or contemporary, high or popular, dichotomies that grossly oversimplify the interplay and interpenetration of all types of creative expression in East African contexts. I likewise recognize that both of these artists achieved notoriety through their access to and exploitation of institutions such as publishing houses and recording companies. As Harold Scheub describes in his research on the Xhosa Ntsomi-performance, however, so-called "traditional" modes of expression can also have a basis in conventional technical and sociocontextual paradigms. To the outside observer it may appear that "[t]he ntsomi is a fabulous story, unbelievable, a fairy tale, a seemingly insignificant piece of fantasy, endlessly repetitious" ("Technique" 119). To a literate member of that community, however,
[i]t is also the storehouse of knowledge of Xhosa societies, the means whereby the wisdom of the past is remembered and transmitted through the generations, an image of private conduct and public morality, a dramatization of the Xhosa world-view. This ancient wisdom is communicated in an artistically pleasing manner, so much so that the artists and their audiences have developed an intricate set of esthetic principles, which has in its turn produced a demanding system of art criticism. (119)
Scheub likewise emphasizes the degree to which the translation of orally created and disseminated works such as the ntsomi-performance into written forms divorces it from the "educational-philosophical system" ("Translation" 31) in which it is completely integrated. These performances, therefore, are of complex artistic composition, are intellectually demanding, and constitute highly significant presentations intimately related to the mundane and metaphysical realities of their respective communities. In these senses, they overlap and display more fundamental similarities with than differences from the works of singers such as Samba Mapangala.
When I refer to Mapangala as a "popular" singer, it should be clear to the reader that I am not erecting a barrier between those singers and songwriters who receive publicity and remuneration from presentation on electrified sound stages and in radio studios, and those who perform, more often …