The resonance of place: Vocalizing Swahili ethnicity in Mombasa, Kenya

by Eisenberg, Andrew J., Ph.D., COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 2009, 472 pages; 3388445


Swahili ethnicity is highly porous and ambiguous, often reckoned more as a space to be entered into (or exited from) than an essence one might have. Nevertheless, because Kenya's Swahili-speaking Muslims comprise the core of a Muslim minority engaged in struggles for greater recognition and autonomy, Swahili ethnicity carries a great deal of social and political relevancy in that country. The future of Kenyan Muslims depends in no small part on how Kenyan Swahili and their fellow Kenyans understand the nature of Swahili ethnicity and its relationships to Kenyan citizenship and the global Muslim ummah.

This dissertation, based on eighteen months of anthropological and ethnomusicological fieldwork, is an ethnographic study of vocal expression and Swahili ethnicity on the Kenyan coast. Through interpretive and semiotic analyses of situated vocalizations, I explore the cultural dispositions and social forces undergirding ethnic and religious identification on Kenya's so-called "Swahili coast."

The chapters of the work cover multiple forms of vocal expression, including Islamic vocalizations (i.e. muezzin calls and sermons), "Indian taarab " (Swahili wedding songs based on Hindi melodies), Swahilized Yemeni t&dotbelow;arab (Arab wedding songs that mix Arabic and Swahili words), and hip-hop-influenced youth music. Arguing for the historic centrality of place in conceptions of Swahiliness, I describe how such vocal practices produce epistemic and symbolic contexts for ethnic and religious identification in Mombasa Old Town, a marked Swahili neighborhood that happens to be situated within Kenya's second largest city. By attending to both discursive and non-discursive aspects of the investigated vocal genres, I explore Mombasa Old Town as a both a locally experienced place and a symbol with broad purchase in Kenyan society. This allows me to reveal something of the complex relationship between ethnic identification in Old Town and the stereotypes of Old Town that circulate in Kenyan public culture.

On a broader theoretical level, this dissertation explores the well-trodden yet poorly mapped terrain between ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology. It also extends the burgeoning field of "vocal anthropology," through an intensive focus on vocalization as a practice of emplacement.

AdviserAaron A. Fox
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsCultural anthropology; Music; Ethnic studies; Sub Saharan Africa studies
Publication Number3388445

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