Ubuntu and social cohesion in indigenous music and dance

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THERE is the assumption that traditional African performance such as music and dance is static and has not evolved since time immemorial.
However, contrary to that perception, traditional music and dance, as with every other art form, is open to innovation and continuity.
For indigenous African societies, music and dance are tangible cultural expressions of human values, mores and principles of life.
The communalistic interactive, communicative nature of music and dance creates a high degree of social cohesion.
These art forms are important social mechanisms that nurture and promote our indigenous cultural transformation, and reflect as well as reaffirm indigenous processes of social and cultural community relationships.
Socio-cultural opportunities for co-operation and creativity, inextricably linked with music and dancing, were constructed into the traditional Zimbabwean social system.
The (agglutinative) socio-cultural forces that embody collaboration and unity, bonds and strengthens the community; and exemplifies the central ideology of ubuntu — munhu, munhu pamusaka pevanhu, or umuntu, ngumuntu ngabantu — a human being is a human through association with other human beings.
On the other hand, Western performances of music and dance are primarily an aesthetic art form, with the settings for entertainment or recreational purposes, perceived as peripheral extras rather than an intrinsic part of social interaction.
By contrast, traditional African cultures performance is primarily functional and communal.
In Zimbabwean, and other African contexts of performance, no separation exists between producer, performer, consumer or audience.
All take part in the music and dance experience that derives from their specificity of the tribe and at the same time allows for individual expression, creativity and innovation.
Ecstatic members of the audience step onto the field at appropriate euphoric moments and are acclaimed as complementary, impromptu communal creations in so far as they are within the parameters of the established music and dance form.
The regenerative themes often introduced into the corpus of traditional Zimbabwean music and dance are the very embodiment of materials marshalled from surrounding environment; giving external physical shape to conceptual content.
Socio-religious expressions in music and dance form the pure expression of the indigenous life force essential to Zimbabwean societies.
These are connected to trance and spirit possession achieved during spiritual rituals and celebratory ceremonies.
The integrated nature of indigenous cultural performance is also symbolically reflected in the basic structures of music and dance of Zimbabwe; in this context lies the corpus of communal beliefs whose validity lies not so much in their rationality, but in their ability to explain, symbolically, the raison d’être of the existence of the people that they unite psychologically.
Spiritually they are powerful agents that play a holistic and unifying social role for individual and group morale and stress management.
They are tools for socio-spiritual reconciliation and transformation and are resources to improve community productivity.
Such communal activities in Zimbabwean cultures induced profound and authoritative shared experiences that made the indigenous African community more conscious of themselves as a holistic unit and aware of their shared responsibilities towards each other.
Music and dance were the most potent means of expressing the values and fundamental structures of socio-cultural and economic life of indigenous societies.
Rhythm in both Zimbabwean music and dance is expressed through corporeal and sensual means that exemplify and embody the highly interactive and communicative elements of the performance through inflection, nuance and tone in music and through the variation of lines, movements and pantomime in the dance.
The cultural performances and rites are enacted in such a way that they allow and encourage spontaneous individual expression that is integrated within the performance and is supportive of group expression.
According to a dissertation on ‘Zimbabwean dances’ by Dr Michelina Andreucci: “The various dances cannot be attributed to a single originator, but are impromptu rather than designed, and attributed to communal-impromptu origination; their survival has been possible by the continuing presence of creative minds willing to keep and improve upon heritage in the light of their particular circumstance at any historical point in time.”
The interdependence of parts inherent in the structural arrangements of traditional African dance and music is symbolically reflected in the wider concept of communal and social inter-connectedness in Zimbabwean society — as an illustration replicated in the theory of African ubuntu/hunhu/humunhu.
This widespread use of music and dance in Shona, Ndebele, Ndau, Karanga, Venda and Tonga societies of Zimbabwe ensured they were part of the infrastructure of their communities where their performance, enactment and practice were some of the most tangible expressions of basic human values and the most potent modes of expressing the values and fundamental structures of cultural, ritual, religious, agronomical, geo-physical, meteorological and industrial, social and economic life.
Despite the fact that many forms of traditional Zimbabwean music and dance forms and practices have changed over time, basic principles inherent to, and values associated with, the performance have essentially remained intact.
The performing arts of music and dance consequently developed into an important indicator of how our indigenous communities have had to reassemble, acclimatise and restructure available cultural resources following colonisation and the Eurocentric Christian and colonial disruption of the African indigenous alpha cultures.
Modern day improvisations, modifications and adaptations to the expressive forms of music and dance in Zimbabwe are often significantly ingenious reorganisations of current socio-economic realities designed to correspond to the spaces and milieu of the performance.
Indigenous music as well as dance contributed greatly to the socio-education, socialisation and development of children, individuals as well as groups and contributed to maintaining the psychological health and social concord of Zimbabwean communities.
In post-colonial Zimbabwe, these performances were adapted to suit the physical spaces available to the people, thereby constructing their own notions of their personality, social identity and affinity in the new peri-urban, settler-constructed environments and spaces for Zimbabwean people, such as mines, high-density township municipal halls and community courtyards.
Music and dance thus played a key role in education and socialisation, and the mitigation and socio-psychological prevention of stress through the promotion of social communal cohesion and group solidarity.
In their pre and post-colonial forms, Zimbabwean music and dance embrace and reflect cultural and educative values of discipline, freedom of personal expression, creative and spontaneous improvisation as well as socio-psychological empowerment, physical, emotional and mental catharsis.
While many indigenous traditional Zimbabwean dances and musical styles are no longer practised in the new urbanised contexts and environments today, the traditional values assigned to existing dance and music performance, and the personal and social creativity they demonstrate, continues to exist and affirms the strong link between these expressive arts, communalism and spirituality.
The deep-seated spiritual foundations and the centrality of music and dance in Zimbabwean culture as vehicles for enhancing social unity continues to play an invaluable role and provide an important platform for a creative outlet, social transformation and the preservation of national collective dignity and solidarity; the artistic embodiment of the nation!
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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