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Performing the Nation

Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania

Since its founding in 1964, the United Republic of Tanzania has used music, dance, and other cultural productions as ways of imagining and legitimizing the new nation. Focusing on the politics surrounding Swahili musical performance, Kelly Askew demonstrates the crucial role of popular culture in Tanzania’s colonial and postcolonial history.

As Askew shows, the genres of ngoma (traditional dance), dansi (urban jazz), and taarab (sung Swahili poetry) have played prominent parts in official articulations of "Tanzanian National Culture" over the years. Drawing on over a decade of research, including extensive experience as a taarab and dansi performer, Askew explores the intimate relations among musical practice, political ideology, and economic change. She reveals the processes and agents involved in the creation of Tanzania’s national culture, from government elites to local musicians, poets, wedding participants, and traffic police. Throughout, Askew focuses on performance itself—musical and otherwise—as key to understanding both nation-building and interpersonal power dynamics.

392 pages | 22 halftones, 5 maps, 4 line drawings, 25 tables, 1 CD | 6 x 9 | © 2002

Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History

Music: Ethnomusicology


“The book is an extremely rich fabric of ethnographic description, first-person accounts, and theoretical discussions. . . . The major contribution of the book is that, beyond presenting political and musical ethnographies, the author intertwines them to show that music and dance do not simply ‘reflect;’ rather, they provide the means by which social and political hierarchies are negotiated and transformed. . . . In short, it is a history of Tanzanian nationalism through musical performance.”

Margaret Buckner | Anthropological Quarterly

“Askew has given us a richly detailed and engaging study of cultural politics in Tanzania during its transition from socialism to multipartyism. . . . A thought-provoking study of how culture in a postcolonial state is produced, contested, and appropriated. Askew is at her best when she analyzes the multilayered and often contradictory policies of a bureaucracy seeking simultaneously to promote both socialist values and African cultural authenticity.”

Thomas Burgess | International Journal of African Historical Studies

“One of the best ethnomusicological monographs to emerge in recent years. From the very design of the study to the smallest articulated detail, it stands as a testament to the power of expressive culture as an object of anthropological inquiry. . . . Performing the Nation is not only a fine work of ethnomusicology but a weighty contribution to the ethnographic study of the nation-state.”

Andrew Eisebnberg | Current Musicology

“An engaging ethnographic account and historical analysis of Tanzanian cultural policy with respect to Swahili musical performance. Drawing on over a decade of work that included archival research, extensive interviews and first-hand performance experience, it is an impressive book that retains the intimacy of a personal memoir. . . . This work will be of significant use to scholars of performance studies, African area studies, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and culture studies. It is sure to raise the bar for the study of the relationship between musical and political expression in general and in East Africa in particular.”

Ethnomusicology | Frank Gunderson

“Askew’s training as an anthropologist, her years of residence in . . . Tanga and her accomplishments as a skilled taarab performer in her own right combine to make her uniquely quialified as a guide to these complex interpersonal dynamics, and her accounts of them are engrossing.”

“Askew’s training as an anthropologist, her years of residence in . . . Tanga an | Jonathan Glassman

“Applying performance theory to her study of nation-building, Askew explores the ways in which music and dance have played a part in constructing a national culture and identity in Tanzania. An ambitious book, Askew’s thoughtful and richly detailed ethnography traces the relationship between music, politics, and economic change from the colonial period to the present. . . . An engaging and thought-provoking work which will have considerable appeal for readers in African studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology, and comparative politics.”

Katherine Snyder | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
List of Common Abbreviations
1. Arts of Governance
2. Tanga, Tanganyika, Tanzania
3. Of Ginger Ale and Orange Soda
4. Weighty Measures, Significant Glances: Taarab Performance and the Constitution of Social Relations
5. Cultural Revolution in Tanzania?
6. Competing Agendas: The Production of Tanzanian National Culture
7. Of Mwanyas and Multipartyism: Taarab Performance and the Tanzanian State
8. Conclusion: Cultural Policy by and for the People
Appendix A: Song Texts and Translations
Appendix B: Poem from Tanga Technical School
Appendix C: Notes on the Accompanying CD
Glossary of Swahili Terms
Song Index
General Index

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