Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Jogoo la Shambani Haliwiki Mjini: The Village and the Town in the Mugithi and One-Man Guitar Performances in Kenya

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Jogoo la Shambani Haliwiki Mjini: The Village and the Town in the Mugithi and One-Man Guitar Performances in Kenya

Article excerpt


Jogoo la shambani haliwiki mjini ("The village cock does not crow in town") is a Swahili proverb commonly used in East Africa to capture the rural/urban tensions that characterize everyday life. An examination of popular culture reveals, however, that the rural/urban distinction captured in this saying is not nearly so clear cut, for urban identities, like all identities, are always contested terrains. This is especially so with the knowledge that an argument for a fixed identity is always problematic. As Clark contends, it is the popular cultural forms expressed in the urban landscape that provide an arena for engaging with and framing these complex debates around identity. (1)

Again, aware of the diverse interpretations of this tradition/modernity dyad, especially in postcolonial studies, this paper appropriates a geographical angle to delineate the urban/rural divide as expressed in the performance of Mugithi. As Brodnicka is wont to remind us, it is always important to "differentiate the ideology of tradition and modernity from tradition or modernity as they are experienced." (2) In this light then, this article investigates the performance of urban identities in the changing cultural terrains of music in postcolonial Kenya. The one-man guitar phenomenon and the resultant Mugithi performance epitomize these concerns. The word "Mugithi" is derived from "mixsi" a term used in the 1950s in Kenya to refer to a particular train that ferried both passengers and cargo in the same compartments. It was probably an earlier version of third class and maybe the only train Africans could then ride. The etymology of Mugithi is "Mixed train," which Nairobi youth in the 1950s referred to as simply "mixsi." A Gikuyu rendition of "mixsi" would assume linguistic features common in other word borrowings. For instance, "s" is realized as "th" (e.g. thogithi for socks; thothenji for sausage) and "mu-" for the noun class marker. (3)

The two terms, one-man guitar and Mugithi, are quite interchangeable. One-man guitar refers to a singer-guitarist backed up, at most, by just a drummer. Mugithi is "train" in the Gikuyu language. In the performance, there are no defined steps, and the participants, (mostly patrons in a restaurant) are linked by holding onto the waist or shoulders of the one ahead. Though the actual Mugithi may take up only a few minutes of an entire night of undiluted revelry, it has come to define the night and has almost become an anthem in most clubs around Nairobi. (4)

I start by defining the terms in a Kenyan context and locate their origins before delving into the thematic issues. How this music becomes vital in the performance and propagation of urban and suburban cultures and identities constitute engaging arguments in the Kenyan popular music scene. The suburban restaurants in Nairobi have provided the space for this musical blending of cultural influences that has produced so many innovative and distinctively Kenyan urban performance styles. Similar to the shebeen in South Africa, the restaurants located inside and outside the busy capital city of Nairobi have facilitated the convivial interaction necessary for urban Kenyan social survival. (5)

Mugithi: The Kenyan Context

Owing to the informality that characterizes this performance, there exists scanty literature on Mugithi as a musical genre. Maupeu and Wa-Mungai (2006) locate the bar as the space in which Gikuyu nationalism thrived at the height of the one party dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) in the late 1980s. This was mostly achieved through the performance of Mugithi. Mutonya (2005; 2007) similarly locates the politics of everyday life through ethnic stereotypes as expressed in the music, while Githiora (2008) examines how the Mugithi performance embodies Gicaandi, a Gikuyu poetic tradition while recreating Gikuyu traditions and social-cultural discourses.

The performance referred to as "one-man guitar" should in fact be labelled as a "one-man, one-guitar," an expression that captures the reality of Mugithi. …

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