Publicizing the Private: Femini st Locution in Taarab Songs and performance

Zaja JO. "Publicizing the Private: Femini st Locution in Taarab Songs and performance .". 2008.


Scholars have for long deliberated and debated what is truly public and private in the articulation of feminist agendas in the world of Kiswahili artistic compositions. This is true for the various written literary texts in all genres as well as the diverse strands of taarab music/poetry compositions. The issues that are central in animating feminist locution in these art forms and which contribute to the incessant making and re-making of the feminist public and private spaces are neither fixed nor immutable—hence the shifting of these factors from time to time dictate the nature and essence of the contestations of what ought to be public and private. In other words, given that women’s voice in both are forms—song and written literature—are ever changi ng, so too is the discussion of what is rightly perceive d as public or private. Thus, what constitutes public and pr ivate in the myriad interests of feminist discourses and therefore what animates locution in such discourses is dependent on concrete material interests as well as the relations those interests evoke. These interests are central in informing disputations with other contending interests, occasioning either expressions of dissatisfaction or affirmation. Consequently, strategic and pragmatic political positioning, control schisms and schemes, ge nder relations and mate rial contestations ar e always constant and continuous themes that get critically nuanc ed in these disputati ons—hence the gist of these compositions. There has been much animated critiquing of feminist image presentations and gender articulation in Kiswahili writing, but there has not been sim ilar and thorough going interest shown in the Swahili taarab song. Yet it is a sphere that is predominantly and conspicuously female in terms of its subject matter, compositi on and performance, a sphere in which there is a subtle politicization and public ization of supposedly private feminist concerns. However, the few studies on the Swahili taarab song and pe rformance have indeed pointed out that the whole taarab discourse is an intimately fema le sphere that foster s and advances women’s voices (Fair, L. 2001, Askew, K. M. 2002). Taarab songs have a long a nd rich history as a medium of social commentary among the inhabitants of the East African coast. This is a hi story that dates back to the last quarter of the 19 th century (1870 onwards) during the reign of Sultan Seyyid Bargash in the Zanzibar Sultanate. Taarab at that time was essentially an elite court music sang in Arabic within the courts of the ruling Arab elite, the merchant cl ass as well as the land owing aristocracy. It was as such inevitably performed on imported E gyptian and Arabic music instruments. Its transition to Kiswahili and therefore, its movement away from the sultan’s courts to the general public is credited to Siti binti Saad a woman of sl ave ancestry (Askew, ibid), who having observed and internalized th e intricacies of taarab music, its artistry and potential as a 2 terrain for social articulation, started com posing and singing taarab songs in Kiswahili. Taarab songs are as such sung Swahili oral poetry, primarily by women as singers and performers and less often as composers. (It should be noted, however, many taarab songs have multiple composers in the sense that one pe rson will be credited with the poem, another with music arrangement and a nother with singing. It is not uncommon for one person to combine all the credits). Taarab, as Askew (102- 3) explains, takes its name from the Arabic tarabun meaning joy, pleasure, delight, rapture, amus ement, entertainment, music, or ecstasy, a complete engagement with music. It is impe rative to add that this “complete engagement with music” spanning poetic composition, music arrangement and performance, is not essentially a private affair but rather a publicly accessible ar t form whose rendition spans both private and public interests, and in which wh at is sung is not only open to multiple interpretations, but also constitutes social action deployed to ne gotiate socioeconomic relations. Both Fair and Askew are agreed that, taarab songs are composed as social commentaries in which women as “composers” respond to and tr ansform local debates about class, gender and social relations into vers e and weave personal and communal experiences into songs, sung as personal statements on mo rals, relations and pr obity. The taarab song lyrics are embellished poetic compositions, rich in literary devices through which the songs ridicule socially unacceptable and deviant beha vior, praise and insult, warn and admonish perceived or imaginary personal or collectiv e enemies. The messages in the songs are sometimes products of true life experiences, po pular beliefs and discer nible lifestyles. They also reflect the nature of relations to social institutions, modes of inte rrelations or material circumstances. They may also be protests to or affirmations of social morals/behaviors such as greed, idleness, gossip, rumour and all manner of abhorrent sexual misconduct. Furthermore, they are also expressions of j oy, elation and personal or collective triumph. In essence, the songs are intricate yet generalized responses to soci al realities, beliefs, traditions, material conditions and institutional dynamics normally projected as personal or collective needs, desires, losses, miseries— in a word, various forms of social, economic and political struggles. They are in essence subtle strategies deployed to question, analyz e and reshape material and social relations. They are strata gems set out to publici ze and politicize private struggles—thus bringing into the public domai n subjects routinely muted, yet important at pointing out marginalized social act ors and competing alliances. By using extracts from three popular taarab s ongs, this paper examines how the taarab song lyrics in performance are viable sphe res for publicizing private pillow business. 3 Analyses of both the songs and their performances show clearly that they intricately articulate desires either denied or unful filled, with nuanced enunciations where the private and the public mutually interconnect a nd interrelate. Consequently the songs are an exposé, depiction and a rendition of underlying interactions tied to multiple and variable feminist locutions. Primarily, this paper, demonstrates how such locutions considered private are enabled— literally aired—through the public performance, recording and airplay of taarab songs


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