2009-04-10

Music for us, music for them

Museke just alerted me to a set of astoundingly awful videos with (occasionally) major Tanzanian artists, produced by one of those aid-profiteering con-NGOs that seem to pop up everywhere in Africa. Media for Development International is a Colorado-based producer of propaganda, typically created with little or no interest in actually letting people tell their own story. Instead, we get to see what westerns would like Africa to be like. And as usual, access-weak local artists are pulled into the charade. Here's Lady Jaydee, a major star of bongo flava:



The video is trite, conservative, moralistic and presents the girl character as weak and exploited. Modernity is frowned upon. It's also badly acted, the characters are cookie-cutter stereotype clichés, and the whole thing is produced as if adult Africans were children that need everything spelled out literally for them. It's especially ridiculous 'cause Jaydee is one of the best and most complex artists on the scene in her own right. Compare the video above to this one, which is locally produced:



In this song and video, Jaydee is strong and calm, facing down her critics and being a hundred times more feminist. It's also much better acted and has a powerful message of not caring what people think about you, and just being yourself.

I wouldn't be consistent, though, if I didn't put some of the blame squarely on Lady Jaydee herself. She chose to participate (within the constraints offered to her), she, effectively, sold out. If we're going to afford agency to local artists then she can't readily just have been exploited, even though that's a clear element here.

And I'm assuming the song is her choice. Compared to her other material, it's consistently more pastoral, more seventies-inspired, less electronic, less sassy. When she got the chance to represent herself to these film-makers she chose a wholly different image of herself than she would normally. And she's far from the only one: the music people present within their own group is almost always different from what they present to others. I've recently learned that the ethnological terms for this is "emblematic" music (which is shown outwards) and "cathartic" music (which is used among equals), and even though I've not read the research it's definitely stuck a chord (silly terms notwithstanding).

In my own future research field for example, that on manele, it's explicitly clear that the music romanian gypsies present outwards as "gypsy music" to tourists, researchers and society at large is not the music they listen to themselves. It tends to be more folksy, more sophisticated, more old-fashioned. Stepping it up one level, manele is inevitably the most popular "cathartic" music in Romania, but the country as a whole shuns it when presenting its image outwards. This kind of a pattern seems very common in the world, and it's so seemingly normal for people to exaggerate certain features of their own culture at the expense of others. But the question remains, I think, as to why.

One possible angle is that the one group that rarely wants to appear as anything its not is the elite. The elite listen to "art music" and present "art music" to the world. This, to me, would suggest that "emblematic" music is the effect of hegemony, that the values of the ruling elite become the norm to follow. Isn't it the case that the "emblematic" music almost always aspires to be closer to "art music"/"folk music", the accepted genres of the cultural elite, and distances itself from the virtues of working-class music? Still, that doesn't explain why another music is chosen in close company and within the media outlets in-group. (I think I better read up on that research.)

Whatever the explanation, it seems I'm personally almost exclusively interested in "cathartic" music of other people. Do you think this is merely a strive towards some kind of authenticity, or could there be another explanation?

9 comments:

zunguzungu said...

Fascinating post. I don't disagree with what you've written, exactly, but I'm a little uncomfortable with the firmness with which you seem to be drawing the local/outside distinction. Partly because, as you yourself noted these artists participated; there are power inequalities in the process of producing the video, of course, but why does that make this situation different than that of almost any musician anywhere? It seems like you're trying to relate certain deficiencies in the message of the video (as you perceive them) to a statement about local group authenticity, but who is to say what is authentic?

I say this because while you might be completely right in seeing the video style as being imposed on these artists (and the heavy hand of the cultural NGO *is* an odious and omnipresent thing in TZ), you also might not be. When I was living in TZ, it seemed like the two styles represented by the two Lady JayDee videos are already quite well represented within the broad spectrum of TZ pop music. What you call "pastoral" wasn't as popular with the teenagers of the family I lived with, but there definitely is a local market for less electronic, less "sassy" music that celebrates exactly those kinds of moralistic cliches and there seemed to be a lot of it (a lot of TZ music still sounds like its in the 70s). I found TZ to be a pretty conservative place, and very Christian in the areas where it isn't very Muslim. And anyway an awful lot of the national identity seems to me to be linked to exactly this kind of anti-modernism (a lot of TZans told me, for example, how well TZ's rural shamba values compare to big city life in Kenya). Bongo flava might be linked with Dar (nicknamed Bongo), but the country as a whole is still quite rural, and I knew people to make jokes about Bongo messed with their head (a pun), that there was something fundamentally wrong with city life in all its forms. Which is, again, not to say you're wrong, but simply that there is a lot more nuance in the questions you're bringing up.

Birdseed said...

You're definitely right that there's a huge strand within Tanzanian music which is "pastoral" in this sense (and which I've touched on briefly before), and I wouldn't disagree that there's a definite gap in perceptions about music. (But, I guess, which country doesn't have one of those? It seems to be as generational as it is urban/rural... The more sedate Musiki wa Dansi stuff WAS modern once, but isn't any more.)

Nuance is definitely needed. Perhaps the right way to look at it would be that it's some sections of a country's music that are presented to outsiders. In Bulgaria, the folk music that is sent abroad (and into outer space!) actually used to be really popular in the 80s, during Zhikov's hard-handed communist reign and his policy of Bulgarisation. It is still to a large extent the music of the previous generation, but also (crucially) seen as the "national" music as opposed to the ("cathartic") pop-folk/chalga which is seen as foreign, turkish, roma, representing a pan-national Balkan ideal. I wouldn't disagree if someone said the two genres are both popular in Bulgaria, but the question still remains: which one is presented to tourists and to represent the "national spirit", and which isn't?

Birdseed said...

Oh, and one more thought: this is definitely one of those areas where structural thinking has to emanate from the individual. No matter the social climate, what we have here is Lady Jaydee, in a position where she can chose between several types of musical expression that she's conversant in, to present to the filmmakers. What choice does she, herself, make and why?

It's certainly not as simple as choosing what will satisfy the other partner, perhaps especially not in conservative societies. Self-presentation is something we're all engaged in, and it can be just as much about impressing your Imam or presenting yourself as interesting... But here it does seem to fit into a certain, perhaps damning, pattern.

zunguzungu said...

Who do you think these videos are aimed at? Clearly, the English subtitles indicates an expectation of non-TZ viewers, but then they aren't propaganda, are they? Or rather, who is the "embrace traditional values rather than slutty modernity" aimed at convincing?

I do wonder if "pastoral" has a different meaning in a country with such a rural self-image as TZ. And it's good to remember that every experience of "modernity" is different; in Tanzania, after all, the long Nyerere years are a strikingly different kind of historical backdrop than you get in most AFrican countries (or anywhere else), since there was a really strong, if uneven, ideological investment in modernity through socialist rural development. Nowadays, it's a cliche in certain circles that Ujamaa "failed," but people also remember Nyerere quite fondly, and the decades since he stepped down, and TZ became neoliberal, have been pretty economically disasterous as well. In such a context, I wonder whether the narrative ethos of going back to traditional pastoral values can be disconnected to a sense of Tanzania's best days having been the rural based quasi socialism of the sixties and seventies.

For example, the word used for "society" in that first video was jamii, a word that's etymologically closer to "family" but which, during the Nyerere years, came to mean both at once because of the "society as family" philosophy of Ujamaa. In other words, even the language of the video is completely imbued by the particularities of TZ's particular peculiar history. That reading is going to glide right past the cliched ignorant tourist reader, but that doesn't mean it isn't still there, and part of distinguishing between the artist and the NGO seems to be to think about the different economies of interpretation the song is going to participate in.

By the way, have you heard / what do you think of X Plastaz? *There's* a fascinating case study.

Birdseed said...

I'm absolutely not surprised that the first video is mired in Ujamaa.

I'm from a country (Sweden) where Nyerere's project struck a particularly strong chord, because it reminded people of our own Social democratic "folkhem" whose imagery is often very similar. (Tanzania is still Sweden's biggest aid recipient.) I recognise, very precisely, the themes and types of expression used from our own state propaganda from the thirties to the seventies. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I found it repellent - it's the sort of thing we've reacted against ever since.

I'm certain the NGO is aiming this squarely at the "uneducated" part of the Tanzanian populace. (It's a radio-based anti-AIDS campaign about a band of musicians.) That does not mean that Jaydee has the same priority - I'd say she's got primarily a loyalty to the production company, and they're the "outsiders" in the equation. Nor do I think it means that the NGO is particularly concerned with whether the intended audience connects with the show or not - they, in turn, are funded by USAID and work with national elites. Enlighten me: does Ujamaa still hold a prestige among the CCM powerful? Do they still use it, or its spirit, in their appeal?

As for Xplastaz, it's certainly a heady complex of extreme, near-western hypermodernity and an appeal to the supposedly traditional and tribal. It's not a surprise to me that they got to represent Tanzania when (notorious "world music" collectors) Rough Guide did a CD of African hip hop, let me say that much.

zunguzungu said...

I forgot about the Swedish/TZ connection, actually, but that makes sense.

As for CCM, I couldn't really say with any authority; all my experience is subjective and unscientific, and I didn't spend enough time there to feel confident in making those kinds of generalizations. But having said that, my sense is that CCM is all about putting Ujamaa behind it, and embracing the new world of globalization and capitalism, in all the ways Nyerere fought against. It makes it easier that Nyerere himself said (and was widely quoted) as saying that Ujamaa failed, but my sense from talking to people about it is that Ujamaa is sort of explicitly repudiated in public discourse while remaining as a structure of (perhaps unjustified) nostalgia in the background. The early part of the Ujamaa period was also the part of TZ's history where modernity was being achieved, or something; the post-Ujamaa period is when it all fell apart. So even though you can't really say that any of this is so simply because of Nyerere or his absence (since the post seventies crash happens all across Africa), it does make history more legible to think of things having gone down hill since Nyerere. And anyway, it's useful to distinguish people's feelings about Ujamaa as state policy and the long Nyerere period as a whole; the *man* is still remembered with a remarkable amount of fondness, even by people who will still say that Ujamaa failed and regretfully talk about how those old ways were a dead end (leaving office peacefully will do that for you). When I was trying to buy copies of his books, I had real trouble because none of the book stores in that town had copies of anything. But then when I told the used book seller guy that I was looking for Mwalimu's books, he came to me a few days later when three books he had gotten from friends who still had them. He wouldn't take money at first and was really psyched that I wanted them. But that was pretty general; you would also hear, a lot, that Nyerere had bad advisors and that his real fault was that he trusted untrustworthy people (making them, not him, at fault for everything that happened). And there are, especially from his region, a lot of people that simply still revere him.

Birdseed said...

Well, I talked to my dad a bit and he basically confirms the picture above.

So the question remains, if we are to look beyond polemics here: who came up with the Ujamaa-flavoured imagery/wordplay in the video above and who was it for?

mfdi said...

Though I can not really contribute much to this debate, I can answer a few questions in the hopes that it continues.

The song was written by Lady Jaydee. The lyrics were inspired by characters of the radio drama, Wahapahapa, which communicates mainly around HIV/AIDS treatment and care, but also involves some prevention story lines, one of which this song, Shamba, is connected to.

The video's script was adapted from scenes from the radio play, which is written by a team of four Tanzanian writers and one Zimbabwean writer. The video is aimed at Tanzanian adults in the hopes that it provokes dialogue among people around the issue that it tackles: older people encouraging young girls to become sexually active before they should.

The subtitles are for the internet only so that people who don't speak Swahili can get some sort of understanding of what is being said.

mfdi said...

I would be interested to hear what you think of some of the other videos. For example, Usife Moyo, by Flora Mbasha.