What is “Traditional Kenyan” anyway?

My choir, is singing Wana Baraka on the concert this season, and this piece proclaims a number of things up front.  The piece proclaims to be Kenyan. It also claims to be traditional. And finally, the text promotes an overtly Christian message. So how does this all link up? How can this piece be all three? Well, there’s a complex history behind that, as there is with most things.

The region we now recognize as Kenya is located on the Eastern coast of Africa, which means that in actuality they were likely practicing Islam until pretty recently in the grand scheme of things (and I would assume they still do, in some areas).

What’s up with this? Why Islam?

Well, the coastal region of Africa was part of what historians call the Indian Ocean World Trade System. A world system is a sphere of influence, usually political or economic, that governs a region. These systems can overlap and create gigantic, intricate structures, which is what happened here. China, India, and the Arabian peninsula, all realized somewhat simultaneously that each of the other spheres had goods and commodities they wanted—both practical and newly created luxuries. So they started to intermingle, using the monsoon winds to propel their boats through the ocean. They traded all sorts of things, and then they were left to wait for an entire season before they could return home. This left time for intermarriages—usually for reasons of business, family pact creation, and trade contracts. It also left time for people to learn how to communicate with each other, using Arabic as the sort of lingua franca of the whole system.

Hmm…why Arabic?

Well, Arabic was the language of Islam, and it turns out that Islamic scholars travelled along the exact same routes laid out by merchants. In fact, sometimes these scholars were also merchants, or the merchants would follow in the footsteps of scholars. Islam was an incredibly non-violent and inclusive system, and over time, conversions just became the way of things—this created a peaceful, overlapping system of trade, with a common language and ritual. And trade and Islam became mutually reinforcing, all the way from China to…Africa.

Yep, what we now know as the Kenyan region engaged in the Indian Ocean World Trade System. The whole coast was generally Islamic by 1200 or so, and wildly cosmopolitan. In fact the coast was one of the most cosmopolitan regions in the whole system. On the one hand, Islam worked its way down the coast from the peninsula, and brought merchants from all over the known world with it. And on the other hand, the coastal regions remained dependent on the raw materials coming out to the coast from the interior—gold, silver, ivory, etc—carted around by indigenous people. So rather than strictly adopting Arabic, they needed a language that was both Islamic AND relatable to regional dialects. Hence, the invention of Swahili.

So in respect to the language of this piece, I would argue, sure, it’s traditional. As long as you account for the fact that that “tradition” was founded on both inclusivity and expansion–it was invented as multiple diverse and vibrant traditions combined. That’s a pretty powerful aspect of community, I think.

It’s a little bit harder to say that Christianity is traditional, though. As I explained above, Islam in all its locally varied forms, was really the rule. Christianity didn’t arrive until the advent of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the 1600s, and it wasn’t wide spread until the introduction of missionary zeal in the 1800s.

Really, it’s kind of a sad story.

First, Africa had to be created as a place. It was a geographical and political construct that grouped all those amazingly diverse peoples together into the arbitrary infrastructure of a continent. And this was done so that Europeans could engage in the slave trade with a little less guilt—well, we aren’t trading fellow Europeans, we’re trading Africans and they’re different and they’re less civilized.

So, the missionaries latched on to this and created their “civilizing mission,” which unfortunately, ranked African religions and traditions below those of the “West,” stamping out a lot of regional cultures, or at least driving them into hiding, in the name of “modernity” and “progress.” And although it is likely that most missionaries believed they were really, truly doing the right thing, their mission was propagated by imperial governments, who wanted Africans under control so that capitalists could mine gold and silver, harvest ivory, trade slaves, and build railroads. The “civilizing mission” was a paternalistic afterthought, meant to assuage their guilt.

And, in fact, it wasn’t just Africa that was created. Kenya as a definable region didn’t exist until imperialists laid out a map of this continent they had arbitrarily started calling Africa, and then cut it up into spheres of influence based on the location of raw materials. So for that reason, it’s odd to call this song Kenyan, just as it’s odd to call this Christian song traditional. It helps us place it in time and space, but it doesn’t have all that much historical power.

What is important to remember, though, in this sordid history, is that songs like Wana Baraka are a step toward recovering a small piece of regional history. Even though the text is Christian, it’s likely that the arranger harnessed his melody to a regional oral tradition of song—most continental kingdoms used songs and stories to tell their histories, so in that way, this piece does access some of that original coastal culture. And once world music has mined the accessible 19th century influences, I expect that researchers will delve even deeper, look even further, and find amazing things.

For a condensed version of this piece that focuses on the construction of Swahili, click here!


Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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