Please join us for a special EthNoise! session cosponsored with the African Studies Workshop, as we welcome Dr. Kelly Askew (Associate Professor, Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan). We will meet on Thursday, Feb. 9th, in Regenstein Library, Room 264, at 4:30 for her talk, “‘Poetry in Motion’: Ethnography vs. Cinematography in a Swahili Music Documentary.
Poetry in Motion: 100 Years of Zanzibar’s Nadi Ikhwan Safaa is a (2011) documentary film about the oldest taarab orchestra in the world: Zanzibar’s Nadi Ikhwan Safaa (“The True Brotherhood Club”). Taarab is a genre of sung Swahili poetry popular along the coasts and off lying islands of Kenya and Tanzania. The music of coastal East Africa is an aesthetic manifestation of the confluence of Indian Ocean dhow trade networks with caravan trade networks from central and southern Africa for it was at the East African coast and through Swahili middlemen that these two trading systems would meet. In taarab performance, therefore, one hears the rhythms of local ngoma dances, South Asian vocal timbre, and Arabian instrumentation. Swahili, a Bantu language with significant Arabic vocabulary, ties these together into an urban genre that varies in musical inflection up and down the coast as do the dialects that mark Mombasa Swahili as distinct from Zanzibari Swahili. In this presentation, I wish to share and invite discussion about the challenges we faced in trying to escape from the formulaic genre that “African music documentary” has become.
The “African music documentary” genre was created around West and South African musical forms. Among other things, it entails cutting the visual to a driving beat. But what does one do when the musical form, though “African,” does not have a beat as driving as expected? How does one maintain visual interest? How does one accommodate Western expectations about African music when the selected musical form (a variety of orchestral music) is not easily identifiable as “African”? How do you elicit audience interest in a genre for which conventional performance practice is the affectation of studied disinterest? And how do you deal with the problem we faced of centering the film on a single event—the 100th anniversary concert—and having that event go catastrophically badly? Do you stick true to “documentary value” whatever the damage to the film’s original objectives?
I welcome this opportunity to share these dilemmas from the filming and post-production processes of Poetry in Motion, showing a few selected clips from the film and interspersing them with discussion about the challenges they entailed. I expect this to lead us into a more general discussion about generic constraints in film production and the use of editorial—not to mention artistic—license in reconciling documentary value with cinematic value.