Academic journal article African Studies Review

Ngoma Memories: How Ritual Music and Dance Shaped the Northern Kenya Coast

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Ngoma Memories: How Ritual Music and Dance Shaped the Northern Kenya Coast

Article excerpt


This essay integrates ethnographic data collected between Mombasa and the Lamu archipelago in Kenya into the growing body of scholarship on Swahili music and dance (ngoma) traditions. The analysis underscores how the Swahili have used ngoma events to stake claims to higher positions on the social ladder, negotiate difference, create socioeconomic security networks, establish and mark group identity, connect to the spirit world, and pass through various stages of the life cycle. Through a rich array of historical accounts by visitors to the coast, whose texts complement oral histories of coastal residents, the importance of ngoma in the Swahili-ization of the East African coast becomes apparent. A comprehensive understanding of the part ngoma organizations have played in the recreation and re-creation of Swahili society is possible only when one factors in the contributions made by residents of the northernmost portion of the "Swahili coast."

Résumé: Cet essai incorpore des données rassemblées entre Mombasa et l'archipel de Lamu au Kenya au corps de la recherche existante sur les traditions de la musique et de la danse (ngoma) swahili. L'analyse souligne la manière dont les Swahili ont utilisé des évènements ngoma en vue de réclamer un réajustement de leurs positions sur l'échelle sociale, négocier leurs différences, créer des réseaux de sécurité socioéconomique, établir et signaliser leur identité de groupe, se connecter au monde spirituel, et effectuer le rite de passage à travers les différentes étapes du cycle de vie. A travers un éventail riche de récits historiques de visiteurs de la côte, dont les textes complémentent les histoires orales des résidents de la côte, l'importance de la tradition ngoma au niveau de l'imprégnation de la côte est africaine par la culture swahili devient apparente. En vue de comprendre de manière globale le rôle que les organisations ngoma ont joué dans le renouveau et la renaissance de la société swahili, il faut prendre en compte les contributions apportées par les résidents de la partie la plus au nord de la côte swahili.


The interconnectedness of music and dance is represented by a single word that Swahili speakers use to define both simultaneously: ngoma. On the Kenya coast, this term also refers to the competitions between neighborhood dance associations that took place regularly in towns and villages from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. The remembering of ngoma group activities is one way that residents of Kenya's northern coast (between Mombasa and the Lamu Archipelago) explain how marginalized individuals became powerful, how local celebrities won and lost their fame, how networks between various echelons of coastal society were established and maintained, and how unrestrained material flamboyance eventually gave way to religious piety. Increasing immigration to the coast by "upcountry" (inland) Kenyans over the past two decades, and the conflicts that have resulted between long-term residents and newcomers over land rights, employment opportunities, and political representation, have created a sociopolitical milieu not unlike earlier periods of coastal history that were also marked by competition and intolerance.

This article discusses the ways in which ngoma's capacity to blur distinctions between categories of people and ideas allows for the periodic assessment of what being "Swahili" means in specific coastal communities at particular moments in time. By examining the role of ngoma in the lives of coastal peoples generally, it provides a larger framework within which to situate ngoma activity on the northern Kenya coast. The ethnographic accounts included throughout are excerpts from interviews conducted with Swahili performance experts in 1995 and 1996. In these endeavors, I was often accompanied by Swahili consultants, two of whom, Omari Shee and Munib Said Abdulrehman, helped translate the interviews from Swahili to English. …

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