Forging Cultural Identity from “the margins”: An Investigation into the Iteso Traditional Music and Performances

Problem statement

Oral traditions are a factory, a storage, and a mode of transmission of knowledge. For the Iteso, music is a very important part of their daily life, however, their traditions are disappearing. Therefore, it is paramount to ensure their continuity in our modern and digital world, this is why I plan to investigate this field of research.

How does the performance of this music impact the performers and various audiences across generations and how is it possible to bridge the generational gap in the transfer of this knowledge
from the bards of the past to the young Iteso generations in order to ensure continuity and safeguard the Iteso cultural identity and sense of belonging?

An investigation into the Iteso various music and dance genres and their performances – including performance theories studies – will help to shed light and answer to the above research gaps.
One of the Iteso writers Norah Owaraaga (2020) in her work, going back to our root’s quotes Dr Wangari Mathai, saying “people without cultural identity feel insecure and are obsessed with acquisition of material things and public displays, which give them a temporary security”

Indeed, the problem is that the the identity of the Iteso has been under researched, there are no clear academic epistemologies on the musical/dance traditions of the Iteso and their cultural history has largely been forgotten. By studying their music and dance, am laying a foundation for a renaissance of Iteso Knowledge and cultural identity.

Secondly, a generation gap now exists which threatens the continuity of knowledge encrypted in these traditional genres as the new generation of Iteso get further from their elderly sources of inspiration.

Karl Mannheim has written about ‘fresh contact’ arguing that “there is a certain distance in how each new generation approaches and assimilates shared cultural material. This means that there can be loss of cultural material or practices but also adoption of others. As Mannheim explains, generational change makes a fresh selection possible, it facilitates a re-evaluation of our inventory when it becomes necessary because it is no longer useful and ‘covets that which has not yet been won’ (1972: 294)”.

Most of the new Iteso generations left their villages to the urban centres and diaspora and are now contented with a westernized lifestyle which makes them feel modern and superior to their village counterparts, therefore, they tend to look down upon their remaining elders and their traditional knowledge as illiterate and backward. This means that they can no longer sit around the fireplace with their elders and receive oral impartation.

Back then, a lot of knowledge was transferred orally around the fireplace – “Etem”, in which adherence to family-cultural values for instance was emphasized in form of songs, proverbs, dances etc.

Moreover, apart from the frustration of feeling abandoned by young generations, and being denied their role in socialization, these highly skilled and knowledgeable elders are dying out, the new pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV make the situation worse.

In Africa, a proverb says, “when an elder-dies, a library burns to the ground”. Who will fill the gaps in knowledge transfer if urgent research is not done soon before all of them perish?  “By January 19th, 1972 African music was already reported to be disappearing”, How much more will be lost in 2021 and beyond unless urgent research and intervention is done.

Moreover, It is not only music that is disappearing. UNESCO has reported “that the Ateso language and Iteso culture generally is at the verge of extinction within the next 50 years!” . When the young Iteso cannot construct a full paragraph in Ateso without mixing it with English or Luganda, there is a big problem. It will be important to find out how these musical traditions could help to preserve the Ateso language in order to preserve themselves.

Publication strategy

My main thesis will be a multi modal product.

A) I will first create an archive on YouTube and on my website/resource space and then a video story of the musical genres and instruments of the Iteso with their ethnographic meaning to the Iteso society and identity,
B)  I will then make a reflective paper in which I will explain my choices of methodology and content/ material presented.

To be featured are:

1) Short clips-vlogs for YouTube – A future TV series-documentary
2) Audio podcast series for Soundcloud- A future radio series-Audio album for sale
3) Short descriptive texts – For website, a book and social media
4) Images- For website, a book, and social media
5) All these final products will have written reflections (Short papers), excerpts that can always be posted on my social media to create awareness/marketing purposes

These short stories will feature the following aspects of my archive, which will be an on going project beyond this thesis

-Description of each music genre/instrument
-purpose/philosophy behind each genre/instrument
-History behind each genre/instrument/dressing
-Trends of each genre/instrument across generations/dressing
-Instruments used in each genre/building materials of instrument
-Purpose of each instrument in the genre/purpose of each building material in the instrument
-The rhythmic notation of each genre/Different parts and functions in the instrument
-Dressing chord of each genre/instrumentalist
-Main audience of each genre/instrumentalist
-Rules, taboos, and customs of each genre/instrument
-Playing techniques of each instrument
-Scales of each musical instrument
-General categorization of each musical instrument
–Most popular song of each musical genre/instrument
-Re-known performers and makers/builders of these genres-instruments ETC