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Diane J. Thram

Performance as ritual, performance as art: Dandanda song and dance as repository of Shona cosmology and cultural history in Zimbabwe.

Thram, Diane: "Performance as ritual, performance as art: Dandanda song and dance as repository of Shona cosmology and cultural history in Zimbabwe", 14th International Congress on Dance Research, Aridaia, Greece, 13-17/9, 2000.


This paper investigates the performance process of Mhembere Dandanda (a traditional dance troupe who live in Murewa, Zimbabwe) from the ethnographic perspective of ethnomusicology. Mhembere Dandanda’s performance of dandanda, a Shona ritual dance with its own song repertoire and distinctive ngoma (drum) and hosho (gourd rattle) styles, has equal efficacy in the sacred context of ceremonies to call ancestral spirits, and the secular context of traditional dance competitions. Performance of dandanda is analyzed as a living example of the transformation from ritual to art theorized by classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison (1913, Ancient Art and Ritual) in relation to the emergence of Greek drama. Mhembere Dandanda’s performance practice is exceptional from traditional dance groups surveyed by Janzen (1992, Ngoma) in sub-Saharan Africa, in that use of dandanda song and dance for communication in sacred contexts did not die out before the transition to staged presentation for an audience occurred.

The transition from ritual to art, from sacred to secular, from ceremony to staged performance is routinely achieved by members of Mhembere Dandanda in the course of their day-to-day activities. In the present historical moment, dandanda serves to activate Shona cosmology and provide a vital link to participants’ cultural heritage. Performance at the annual rain ceremony and periodic ceremonies to call the ancestral spirits, powerfully connects the dancers to their collective past. Meanwhile, performance at secular dance competitions fulfills the present day need to preserve dances such as dandanda for posterity by promoting education in traditional dances as indigenous art forms that embody Shona culture. The communicative processes employed - music and dance, discourse and enactment - show how participation in dandanda music-making operates to integrate each participant’s experience across the time continuum of past, present, and future through which meaning is created and understood in the activities of daily life.

1. Introduction

My interest in the indigenous religion of the Shona and the annual rain ceremony central to it led me to Mhembere Village, a rural community located an hour northeast of Harare, where I conducted ethnographic field research for my doctoral thesis (1993, 94-95) and on-going follow-up field research (1998-99) with members of Mhembere Dandanda. Mhembere Dandanda is a dance group of the type various scholars (notably Janzen 1986, 1992; Turner 1968, 1977) have called ngoma cults or simply ngoma, labeled thus because of the use of drums to accompany the song-dance activities of participants. Janzen separates ngoma into two types, therapeutic and entertainment, and reports that the sacred or secular character of the ngoma depends on the context of use, not the music or dance form as such. (Janzen 1986:174). Unlike ngoma surveyed by Janzen throughout sub-Saharan Africa, among whom performance in sacred contexts died out before folklorization as entertainment ngoma occurred, Mhembere Dandanda’s practice qualifies as both therapeutic and entertainment ngoma, not simply one or the other.

The dancers of Mhembere Dandanda, in the social reality of their performance practice, have been performing dandanda in both sacred and secular contexts since their first performance for a public audience in 1983. Dandanda has always been performed at ceremonies for the ancestral spirits integral to Shona indigenous religion. When Mhembere Dandanda joined the government sponsored Traditional Dance Association in 1983, they began to perform dandanda to entertain and educate an audience in government sponsored dance competitions and special events. This action caused a significant transformation in the activities of the dancers. It gave them the opportunity not only to engage in performance as ritual by participating in ceremonies to call their ancestral spirits, but also in performance as art by dancing dandanda for an audience in staged events.

My first encounter with dandanda occurred the night of July 24-25, 1993, when I was invited to come along to an all-night bira (ceremony for the ancestral spirits) held in MhembereVillage. The bira was hosted by the leader of Mhembere Dandanda, whose members, together with other residents of the community, were present to sing and dance to mbira (metal keyed lamellophone) music and to dandanda, both for the purpose of contacting the ancestral spirits. The morning after that first all-night bira with Mhembere Dandanda, two of the female dancers proudly told me about their trip to England in 1985 to dance in an arts festival. Thus, as I had just seen people participate in dandanda in its communicative mode as ritual that summons the ancestral spirits, I was being told about their participation in dandanda in its communicative mode as a staged art form performed for an audience. Given the multi-dimensional social reality of dandanda practice my focus in this paper is to show how performance of dandanda in sacred contexts communicates as ritual that taps the reservoir of Shona cultural history. I will also show how performance of dandanda in secular contexts communicates, through the interaction of tradition and creativity taking place in the moment of staged performance, to create cultural history anew.

2. Mhembere Dandanda

Mhembere Dandanda is a traditional dance group with twenty-five members, fifteen women and ten men, fourteen of whom are svikiros (spirit mediums), thirteen for vadzimu (s. mudzimu) family spirits and one for a gombwe remvura (pl. makombwe), a rain spirit. Makombwe spirits are closest to Mwari (God) in the Shona hierarchy and therefore most powerful in the Shona spirit realm. The gombwe spirit, Chinovaranga, whose medium is a drummer for the group, was sent by his older brother in the spirit realm, the spirit Mande, to be guardian for the dance group. Although Mhembere Dandanda did not take its name and formally organize as a traditional dance group until 1983, members have been dancing together for a very long time, some for 35-40 years. All members are middle aged, some are in their 70’s. The oldest member is a woman over 80 years of age.

Members of Mhembere Dandanda are of the Zezuru sub-group of the Shona and live in an immediate rural area comprised of Mhembere, Madzia, and Chikupo kraals. These kraals, located within the MangwendeCommunalLand, span a distance of four to five kilometers when one travels along the footpaths used by residents. Most residents are peasant farmers who try to eke out a subsistence living aided by cash from sale of their maize (corn) crop, produce, or domestic animals. The semi-arid terrain supports crops of maize and rapoko/zviyo (finger millet) provided there are adequate rains. The people also keep domestic animals, mainly cows, goats, and chickens. Some families raise vegetables such as greens, tomatoes, squash, peanuts, and onions for sale, while others maintain vegetable gardens simply as source of food without expecting to sell their produce.

Membership in Mhembere Dandanda is not exclusive, there is no secrecy involved in the practice of dandanda to call the spirits, and there is no initiation process required to attend biras or become a member of Mhembere Dandanda. Anyone is welcome to join as long as they can sing the songs and dance the dance. Those who are svikiros (spirit mediums) feel compelled to go to biras where dandanda is played, because it is what the spirits they host want them to do. If they fail to attend they report having problems, such as stomach ailments or headaches.

3. What is Dandanda

Dandanda is an indigenous ritual dance that embodies Shona religion and reflects the basic tenets of Shona cosmology, reciprocity and respect. It is dedicated to the ancestral spirits, who are called at ceremonies to "come out" through their mediums and speak to the people. Members consistently report that dandanda has come from their ancestors, and that these are the songs of the spirits. They learned the dance and its songs, how to drum and play the gourd rattles, as young people growing up from their parents, grandparents, and other community elders simply by watching, imitating, and singing along, which occurred naturally as part of daily life.

Dandanda has its own song repertoire (forty-six songs identified as dandanda have been documented in context of performance) and distinctive ngoma (drum) and hosho (gourd rattle) styles. The word dandanda itself is an ideophone that evokes the sound of deer rushing into nets during the hunt. The two drums used to accompany the dancing are played by men, the gourd rattles by women. The song repertoire consists primarily of very old songs of war and the hunt. Song lyrics make reference to strength for battle and the hunt, to nature, family, and the spirits. New songs are not composed for the spirits. The people rely on the time honored repertoire of songs it is believed the spirits knew and sang when they lived on this earth. Creative elements involving spontaneous composition exist when singers improvise vocal lines "inside" the standard songs that comment or reflect on past performances or the present performance now in process.

3.1. Sacred context

In sacred contexts, dandanda is played at the annual rain ceremony outdoors at the rushanga rain shrine; at all-night biras, periodic ceremonies to call the ancestral spirits; and guvas, ceremonies to call the spirit of a relative home a year after death. Biras and guvas are held inside kitchen huts, begin late evening and carry on until dawn when everyone moves outdoors for a final round of singing and dancing to welcome the new day. Participants seek contact with the spirits to show respect by offering the ritual beer brewed for the occasion, to pray for rain, to give thanks for good fortune, and to seek advice for the problems of daily life. Showing respect to the ancestral spirits by holding biras is essential to the reciprocal process basic to Shona cosmology. If the people show proper respect to the spirits they can expect the spirits to reciprocate by providing them the two essentials of life - rain and fertility.

The trance state that takes place among mediums at biras is "possession" as distinct from "shamanism." In possession the spirit displaces the medium’s human personality and then, using the medium’s body as a mouthpiece, communicates with the world of the living. Thus, the medium is the spirit while possessed (Roget 1985: 19-20). Mediums have no recollection of statements made or events that occurred while possessed. When the spirits arrive by possessing their mediums, snuff is mixed with water in a shallow wooden dish and offered to them to drink as part of the ritual greeting. Then gifts are offered, typically snuff - a sacred healing substance desired by the spirits, money, and sometimes a length of black cloth. The spirits respond by leading out songs sung in call-and-response fashion, making statements to the people regarding their behavior or the conditions of life, and listening to the people’s problems and giving advice. I was present at a bira held in August, 1998, at which Choto, the most senior spirit, after leading songs and speaking of his history among the people, advised a young man not to have sex with multiple partners because of the current AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe. Thus the ancestral spirits put the people in touch with deep cultural history, but also are concerned for the people’s welfare and aware of present social conditions.

In the context of all-night biras participants reverse the "normal" by staying awake through the night. The process is cathartic in the way it stretches the senses and liberates the individual through the musical participation and communication with the spirits. The sacrifice of brewing the ritual beer for the spirits and staying awake through the night singing, dancing, and facing whatever problems exist within the community pays homage to the power of the natural order found in Shona world view. Holding biras achieves two obvious goals: veneration of the ancestral spirits, and counseling from the spirits for perceived problems.

3.2. Ritual efficacy

In sacred contexts dandanda is purposefully used to communicate with the ancestral spirits. The music is the primary vehicle that connects the communicative process of present to past events, while it also provides the core mode of communication for future events, because it is the music - the same drum and hosho rhythms, the same song melodies and lyrics, the same singing style, and the same dance form - that calls the spirits and facilitates the possession necessary for discourse between spirits and humans to occur. The counseling aspect of the relationship between the spirits and the people at ceremonies, accomplished through discourse, constitutes a communicative dimension with obvious therapeutic effects, first from identifying problems, and second from advice given that provides solutions to them. Participation in the ritual process, the communication, that occurs in biras and the annual rain ceremony embodies the reciprocity so important to Shona cosmology. The spirits who possess the mediums are given the respect they desire, in return the people are given counseling they desire for problems of their day-to day lives.

3.3. The transition: ritual to art

In staged competitions and performances at secular events Mhembere Dandanda is playing, singing, and dancing the same songs they play, sing, and dance when they "call" their spirits at ceremonies. I asked the dancers, "Do the spirits ever try to "come out" at secular events?" Their response was that this is avoided by informing the spirits before they commence their performance of the nature of the event. They tell them that they are going to dance dandanda for entertainment now and they do not want them to "come out." At the same time, before competing they ask the spirits to be with them, to be "behind them" and help them win. Every year their leader visits the medium for Mande, the senior gombwe (rain) spirit, just before the annual traditional dance competition to be given a special packet of tsvimbo (snuff to travel with). Just before the dancers go out to perform they all take a pinch of this snuff as a token of bringing the spirit with them into the dance arena. It is thought that this special snuff possesses power to aid them in their performance and help them win the competition.

The crucial issue in the recontextualization of dandanda is not change in the form of the music-making, but rather transformation of the intention of the performance from performance intended to communicate with ancestral spirits to performance intended to communicate with an audience of spectators. In secular contexts group members perform dandanda specifically to entertain an audience and to display their competence as musicians, dancers, and actors to the competition judges. When staged, the singing and dancing of Dandanda songs is done with great energy and showmanship, obviously with the desire to demonstrate the group’s ability as dancers and musicians and to impress the audience and judges. During the performance certain dancers provide a rehearsed enactment of spirit possession as it occurs in biras. This enactment is meant to be humorous and amuse the audience as well as instruct them in a jocular way about their culture. The dancers say the primary purpose of their performance at dance competitions, over and above entertainment, is educational - to expose the public to Shona traditions.

3.4. Secular context

The exceptional use of dandanda, both in practice of indigenous religion, and as a staged art form is the result of a unique historical moment (from the early 1960’s to the achievement of self-rule in 1980) when practice of Shona religion was promoted as vital to an evolving cultural nationalism, and sanctioned as part of pride in and celebration of Shona culture. Simultaneously, in 1966 (with support from the then white Rhodesian government) the National Arts Council established the Traditional Dance Association and began to sponsor competitions, which promoted the staging of traditional dance forms. The only requirement was that dance groups pay a nominal membership fee and join the Association in order to compete. These dance competitions began in Salisbury (now Harare) and spread regionally to other population centers such as Gweru and Bulawayo. Corporate sponsorship was obtained from the Chibuku brewery in 1978, which gave birth to the nationwide Neshamwari Chibuku Traditional Song and Dance Festival competition staged annually, organized by the National Arts Council, with funds for cash prizes supplied by Chibuku Brewery.

Mhembere Dandanda’s first performance for an audience took place in 1983 when they played at the Murewa Culture House for Europeans who had come there wanting to see some traditional music. Dancing for those Europeans was the first time Mhembere Dandanda danced purely to entertain, it was also the first time they were paid for performing. Subsequently, because the quality of their performance was so exceptional, the culture officer for Murewa encouraged them to join the Art Council’s Traditional Dance Association and register to compete in the annual Neshamwari Chibuku Festival.

Mhembere Dandanda participated in the Neshamwari Chibuku Festival for the first time in 1984 after they organized by calling themselves Mhembere Dandanda, elected officers, procured uniforms for stage performance, and paid the Association dues so they could register to compete. They decided to dress for competitions basically as they do for the spirits in ceremonies. They made their uniforms black with white trim because these are the colors of the spirits. Many of the dancers who are spirit mediums wear their cloth for the spirit and the animal skins they put on at ceremonies over their dance uniforms, plus dance holding either a walking stick or war axe. Their dress for staged performance is somewhat exaggerated quite deliberately, because one of the criteria for judging traditional dance groups is the quality of their costumes. (Mhembere Dandanda 1998).

For their staged performance the dancers created a choreographed entrance to the dance arena that simulates the ancestors entering a battlefield. Their entrance is accompanied by a well known war song called "Baya wa Baya" (spear to spear). From this they move into performance of other favorite dandanda songs, soon to be interrupted by a female dancer enacting spirit possession. The lead male dancer greets her and they proceed through a dialog intended to amuse the audience in which the spirit tells the dancer he doesn’t know how to behave because he hasn’t been raised right, chastises him for not having his paraphernalia ready, and demands his water and snuff. This enactment of spirit possession is in no way considered disrespectful.

Most recently, in 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997, Mhembere Dandanda has won cash prizes by placing first in the "Vadzimu Ritual Dance" category at the nationwide Neshamwari Chibuku Festival. In 1998 they placed second in their category, which also brings a cash prize, although not as generous. In 1995 they were honored with the "Best Traditional Dance Group of the Year" award, given to only one group each year, which brings with it a specially printed certificate, a trophy, and another cash prize.

3.5. Secular efficacy

Staged performance of dandanda in competitions and other community events achieves three obvious goals beyond entertainment for the dancers and their audience: first, for the spectators, education in Shona tradition and exposure to dandanda as a dance form; second, for the dancers, perpetuation of their Shona cultural identity through group participation in an indigenous art form; and finally, for the dancers, income from payment for performance at community events, and cash prizes at the annual Neshamwari Chibuku Festival competition. In addition, dandanda is projected into the future by members of Mhembere Dandanda teaching it to children of the community at the local primary school as part of the school’s arts and culture curriculum. Since 1994, the children of MhemberePrimary School have their own group, Mhembere Primary School Dandanda, who compete in district wide school traditional dance competitions. This outreach to the school children together with Mhembere Dandanda’s staged performance at public events documents how the Zimbabwe National Traditional Dance Association together with the National Arts Council promotes education in and preservation of traditional dances as indigenous art forms that embody Shona culture.

4. Ritual and art: experientially joined through performance

The relationship between ritual and art has received a good deal of scholarly attention by those who study culture, and justly so since both ritual and art are forms of human expression through which the interaction between tradition and creativity - the process through which meaning is created and culture is formed - can be witnessed (cf. Biesele 1993). Moreover, it is generally agreed that both art and ritual are executed and/or constituted through performance and that their intention is to communicate. Yet a conundrum arises over the difficulty in creating neat categories for human behavior, and the reality that in all cultures much that is considered art can also be seen as ritual, or at least as ritualized, and much that is labeled ritual can be seen as requiring artistic expression and as being artistic.

The communication that occurs in ritual and art, despite apparent fixity or regularity of actions, is always open to multiple interpretations by both performer and observer. Furthermore, the necessity for interpretation allows an active role for the spectator as well as the performer and is an essential ingredient in performance events whether they be labeled ritual or art, sacred or secular. While ritual and art are more than just communication, it is the element of performance, the communication achieved through performance, that is essential in order for ritual and/or art to qualify as either, in order for them to be recognized for what they are.

Various theoretical perspectives have been brought to bear on groups such as Mhembere Dandanda that have come to be labeled as "ngoma" because of the use of drums to accompany the song-dance activities of participants. The simultaneous participation of dandanda dancers in sacred and secular arenas is a departure from the findings of scholars ( J. C. Mitchell 1956, Victor Turner 1968, T.O. Ranger 1975, J.M. Janzen 1986, 1992, and others) who have studied the activities of ngoma, also called beni-ngoma [people of ngoma], "cults of affliction," and ngoma cults, in East, Central, and Southern Africa. Unlike indications from Janzen’s survey of ngoma groups in Zaire (Congo), Tanzania, and South Africa, where he found ritual efficacy of the ngoma died out before the transition to use as entertainment occurred (1986: 174), the performance of dandanda did not dissipate, die out, or lose its meaning in sacred contexts before (or after) dancers started to perform it as entertainment for an audience.

As already indicated from Janzen’s research and my own, the most obvious way the ritual structure is carried over is in the music - the song and dance - it is the medium of communication common to both sacred and secular contexts. The departure is that the communication in secular events is now directed at the spectators, not the spirits. Thus, in essence the audience becomes the altar, the audience is substituted for the appeal to the sacred, the appeal for survival, the appeal for continued fertility through the life-giving rain. In secular contexts the communication is intended to display a Shona art form and entertain, nothing more. Yet performances are opened and closed with gestures and vocalizations of respect for the spirits. The spirits are not forgotten in the transformation from ritual to art. As mentioned above, the dancers believe their spirits accompany them to the competitions, that the spirits are there "behind them" helping them win.

This situation is unique from Janzen's comparative study of ngoma groups throughout sub-Saharan Africa, which indicates that groups of this type have a typical cycle with four phases: "emergence, fluorescence, decline, and folklorization as entertainment"(Janzen1986:174). Ritual efficacy is lost before the folklorization as entertainment occurs. Classical scholar, Jane Ellen Harrison likewise showed how the transformation from the circular dance of the Spring Festival to the art of Greek drama took place at a critical moment when people ceased to believe in the ritual, everyone no longer danced the dance - the dance became a spectacle to be viewed. But the spectators were soon bored with simply viewing the dance, since they were no longer participating fully in it. It was to satisfy the spectators that drama evolved (Harrison 1913:126-8). The Mhembere Dandanda dancers embody this transformation in that they developed an enactment of spirit possession as part of their performance in competitions. It is the combination of their outstanding performance of Dandanda song and dance and their dramatization of spirit possession that gives them their distinction as one of the best traditional dance groups in Zimbabwe. They don't give the spectators a chance to get bored.

As discussed above, in Zimbabwe the concurrent forces of cultural nationalism, which encouraged the retention of ritual efficacy rather than its decline and loss, and government sponsored dance competitions, which promoted commodification of Shona culture to assure indigenous forms continued to be performed, gave rise to the performance of dandanda in secular contexts while it continued to be performed at ceremonies integral to indigenous Shona religion. The transition from ritual to art, from sacred to secular, from ceremony to staged performance is routinely achieved by members of Mhembere Dandanda in the course of their normal day-to-day activities. The communicative processes employed - music, dance, discourse, and enactment - show how participation in dandanda music-making operates to integrate each participant’s experience across the time continuum of past, present, and future through which meaning is created and understood in the activities of daily life. When asked if the ritual aspect, the communication with the spirits will carry on, one of the dancers responded by saying, "of course, the spirit that is coming out in me now will come out in someone else after I die, and that person will dance dandanda (Interview: Joseph Maingire, 8/09/95). At least for the present moment, the dancers of Mhembere Dandanda are unique in that they continue to dance the dance in both sacred and secular realms with equal joy and satisfaction.

References cited

Biesele, Megan: Women like meat. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Harrison, Jane Ellen: Ancient art and ritual. London & New York, Henry Holt, 1913.

Janzen, John: "Drums of affliction: Real phenomena or scholarly chimera?" in Religion in Africa. London, J. Curry. T.D. Blakely, W.E. A. VanBeek, & D.C. Thomson, eds., 1986.

Janzen, John: Ngoma. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992.

Maingire, Joseph: Mhembere Dandanda member. 1995. Interview by author. 8 September, MhembereVillage. Tape recording. Archives of Traditional Music, Bloomington, IN.

Mitchell, J. Clyde: The Kalela dance. Rhodes Livingstone Papers, No. 27. Manchester, ManchesterUniversity Press, 1956.

Ranger, T.O.: Dance and society in Eastern Africa. Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1975.

Roget, Gilbert: Music and trance. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Turner, Victor: The drums of affliction. London, Hutchinson, 1968.

Turner, Victor: The ritual process. Ithaca, CornellUniversity Press, 1977.

Diane J. Thram, PhD



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