Performing Africa. Paulla Ebron. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2002. 272 pp.
Performing Africa is an
intriguing ethnography that explores jali performers and performances
within the small West African nation of the Gambia and in the United States. Jali are hereditary groups of
Mandinka-speaking praise singers (griots in French), consisting of both men
and women, whose songs not only provide an oral history of the region, but
also affect the public reputations of their patrons. This ethnography is
based on more than a year of field and archival research with jali
from all over the Gambia, from urban, suburban, and rural settings. Ebron
writes in a self-reflexive, accessible, and engaging manner, illuminating her
position not only as an ethnographer from the United States, but also as a
woman of the African Diaspora on the African continent.
Ebron is very interested in the circulation and
production of ideas of “Africa.” The major themes of the book are
performance, representation, and cultural commodities. These are utilized as
the central analytic frames in Performing Africa, examining the ways
in which concepts of Africa are produced through performance, the performance
of Africa becomes its representation, and performances of Africa are circulated as commodities.
The book is divided into three sections. The first
section looks at the idea of representation and performance. Here, Ebron
notes that most studies of representation are based on written texts, and
thus directs her study to fill the gap by looking at performance, embodied
and oral, as representation. She also seeks to extend studies of performance,
which are often criticized as being too local and even individual in
perspective. Ebron makes a valuable contribution in both of these areas. In
chapter one Ebron examines the ways in which the category of “African music”
was created, defined as communal and rhythmic, and placed in opposition to
that of individualistic, complex, Western music. “African music” became a
category signifying difference, which in turn represents Africa as a whole. Chapter two looks at several performance events of jali,
both in the Gambia and the United States, as ways to access conceptions of
Africa that are performed by the jali as well as audience members.
The second section of the book looks at the role of
jali in national history, their “personalistic economy,” and their
individual performances during interviewing sessions. Chapter three examines jali
and the contestations and negotiations surrounding a government-sponsored
oral history as part of nation-building in post-independence Gambia. Chapter four explores the importance of
interpersonal communication in the patron-client relationship as the basis of
jali livelihood, as well as the performatives of jali in
creating public power for their patrons with their spoken words. Ebron
recounts the performance of self by individual jali in chapter five
based on her interview encounters.
The third section of the book moves to the sphere
of tourism in which jali, although present and performing, are not the
only Gambians involved. Chapter six examines the sexual tourism of Western
women traveling to the Gambia to find young, male partners. This is a situation
in which ideas of gender are reconfigured, so that Gambian men are “feminized”
based on the power and status of these Western travelers. Chapter seven
focuses on African-Americans going to the Gambia as “pilgrims” returning on a homeland tour
(sponsored by McDonald’s interestingly enough), and explores their imagined Africa and the cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications that occur.
Many of the issues raised in this chapter are similar to those discussed by
Edward Bruner in his article on the conflicting interpretations and meanings
of Elmina Castle in Ghana between Ghanaians and the people of the African
Diaspora visiting there (Bruner 1996).
An overarching goal of the book is to directly
confront the challenge presented to anthropologists to examine the local,
while still tying it in to larger national and global issues and
perspectives. Ebron draws upon the ideas of global flow of Arjun Appadurai
(1996), and does an excellent job of showing connections between jali,
Gambia, and the broader world. For example, in chapter
four, Ebron demonstrates that jali make interpersonal connections
locally, on the national level, and abroad as a way to secure opportunities
for performances, generating income for themselves at many levels. Similarly,
in the third chapter Ebron examines the place of post-independence Gambia on
the world stage, the role that the oral histories of the jali played
in solidifying its status as a nation with its own history apart from the
colonial past, and the significance of development funding to support such
projects. Moreover, in her discussion of sexual tourism involving Western
women in Gambia, Ebron explores the motivations, aspirations, and
power differentials in these relationships, reexamining “a critical,
transnational aspect of the social construction of gender” (170). Although
Ebron includes a global perspective at most points, a slight drawback of the
book is the loss of the “local,” in that there is not much sense of any
particular locale as the setting of the ethnography, as it is an amalgam of
many different places. However, in an age in which multi-sited ethnography is
becoming more common, Ebron’s work fits in well.
Performing Africa is a well
written ethnography that presents many challenging questions that will be of
interest to Africanists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and scholars of
both cultural and performance studies alike.
Arjun.1996. Modernity at Large.
Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
Bruner, Edward.1996. Tourism in Ghana: The Representation of Slavery and the Return of
the Black Diaspora, in American Anthropologist 98 (2):290-304.
Yolanda Denise Covington
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.