Performing Arts and Gender in Postcolonial Western Uganda
My book looks at the entanglements of Ugandan traditional music, dance and theatre with gender expressions, negotiations and contestations. I explore this wide topic by understanding how traditional performing arts, considered to incarnate the old local customs, are indeed dynamic and flexible means that have changed with time under various social, cultural and structural influences. In the process, they have both been a mirror and a transformative and expressive stage of gender notions and concepts.
During the colonial era, both internal and colonial pressures have determined the strengthening of a hegemonic gender model based on, among others, sexual determinism and heteronormativity, while they erased special gender expressions and identities. In the last decades, the revival of traditional arts, spurred in particular by the national school festival, has privileged genres and their interpretation based mostly on ideas of tradition referring to the hegemonic gender model that crystallized during the colonial time, while other genres have been left aside. This notwithstanding, the stage conventions established by the performance of traditional genres in today’s spectacular context allow for the flexible interpretation of the various gendered roles in instrument playing, singing, dancing and acting.
Runyege is the most common and popular traditional genre in Western Uganda, in particularly in the regions of Bunyoro and Tooro, where it is considered a symbol of the local cultural heritage within the multicultural Ugandan context. It does not only involve music (instrument playing and singing), but also dancing (its mostly distinctive component) and acting. In all these components, the gender of the performers is prescribed, displayed, expected, feigned, or contested. Because of the inner complexity of runyege as a traditional art, the variety of its components and performers’ role, and its relevance as expression of local cultural heritage, runyege represents a unique space where to investigate Ugandan musical, historical and social dynamics of community and individual representation, power relationships and postcolonial tensions, gender identity and expressions.
Since the beginning of my interest for performing expressions in Uganda, I thought it was essential to counter old Western stereotypes seeing in traditional arts in Africa as rooted in ancient times, thus depicting them as without history and frozen into an exoticized past. For this reason, I dedicated part of my efforts to researching the history of performing arts in Western Uganda, in particular of runyege. Of this genre, I found the first visual presentation in a photograph published in 1907 in a book by British missionary Albert B. Lloyd. A similar temporal depth can be assumed by the recollections of local elders as listeners of others’ memories or as direct observers (if they left written memories).
Some of the earliest written sources about Western Uganda – the reports of explorers searching the sources of the river Nile – date back to the last decades of the 19th century but they are quite generic in describing music and dancing. Furthermore, while examining written (but also visual, in the case of drawings) sources about Western Uganda, one must consider that these materials are expression of a colonial time overflowing with racial, cultural and religious stereotypes, besides gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations. So, while researching the historical past of so scarcely documented a genre like runyege, I have been very critical of colonial European sources and contrasted their information with oral history or also later local sources in order to offer a reconstruction of past performance practice that respects and reflects local understandings.
According to a very widespread (but not unique) narration, runyege has its roots in the preparation of the local banana beer. Runyege songs, in which men used to perform the solos and women the chorus, describe situations connected to parties and celebrations when beer was drunk. Runyege basic footwork, posture and body movements of male and female dance parts imitate the actions that respectively men and women executed to prepare this traditional drink. As a genre rooted in village life and dynamics, in its essence runyege coveys the key values and hegemonic gender model of that part of the population. In particular, dance movements represent actions in beer preparation that are gendered as masculine or feminine, but they also express more general values of mainstream masculinity and femininity like strength and flexibility, braveness and delicacy. During the decades, though, along with these notions, other meanings have developed, in part overlapping and in part re-coding pre-existing ones. Transformations have come along especially because runyege was adapted to performance contexts different from the past village parties, in particular in schools and by semi-professional ensembles. This has determined at the same time a codification and strengthening of previous gender notions encoded in runyege and a significant flexibility in the role that the performers’ gender has in music making, singing and dancing.
My initial interest in conducting research in Bunyoro, where I carried out my first fieldwork, was motivated by the surprising scarcity of studies on the music in the context of the local traditional kingship, although the region is considered to have been the cradle of the monarchies of the African Great Lakes region. During my first stay in that part of Uganda, I got intrigued by traditional arts beyond the royal repertoires and their profound cultural value for people. So, I decided to explore more in this fascinating field and I expanded my area of interest to neighboring Tooro region, which shares many cultural traits and expressions (like runyege) with Bunyoro.
I was surprised by the degree to which the gendered body is connected to the very feasibility of performing the two dance parts of runyege. Indeed, an understanding that I found very often in Bunyoro and Tooro is that just a male body is able to properly perform the men’s dance part and just female bodies can do the women’s part. At the same time, though, this mainstream vision is today faced with numerous performances in diverse contexts where girls and women perform the men’s dance part, and vice versa. Although it is evident that any-body, when adequately trained, is able to perform any dance part, traditional gender notions are so deeply entangled in runyege that they emerge in evaluating the exceptionality of dancers performing the part not prescribed for their gender.
LINDA CIMARDI is Principal Investigator of the DFG-funded research project “Black Musics in the (Former) Yugoslav Region” based at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg (Germany)