Culture The vibrant song and dance traditions of varied tribes of this African country are linked to their customs and mores. Aruna Chandaraju

The spirited movements, rhythmic clapping, sonorous songs, and flamboyant clothes and jewellery held us in thrall. The women of the Samburu tribe of Kenya were giving a dance and music demonstration. Their vivid attire and ornaments were a contrast to the barren, dusty land in the background. The women’s neckwear were the delicately strung, richly-hued beads that covered the entire chest. Two of the women wore beaded headbands.

A pair of women with lithe bodies moved out of the line and began dancing in a circle, their necklaces bobbing as they moved back and forth in a skipping movement. The two retreat to the circle to be replaced by another pair.

The men’s dance was more vigorous and their singing more full-throated. They jumped, in what seemed like a competition, to see who could jump higher. Moving into the inner area from the outer circle, they would leap vertically into the air, their heads held high. Attired in a riot of colours and richly ornamented, they often danced like this to impress the young girls.

No instruments

The Samburu used no instruments, not even drums. Their music was created by the clapping and singing. And they danced with joy. Nothing - neither the searing midday heat nor the dust and dryness - seemed to affect them.

Watching centuries-old traditions untouched by outside influences was as heartening as it was fascinating. But how long can they be preserved? Especially since the tribes are slowly embracing the many changes in a bid to improve their livelihood. It seems there is hope. Many tribes, especially the Samburu and Masai, are proud of the traditions and culture of their forefathers –– and preserve them lovingly, and revel in showcasing them whenever they can to outsiders.

Apparently, the rich and vibrant music and dance traditions of Kenya have been drawn from many sources. Most of the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of the country have some common features such as the use of songs and chants, particularly among the groups that speak Maa. The Maa languages are a closely linked group of Eastern Nilotic languages spoken in several parts of Kenya.

Intrinsically connected to the cultural mores and societal customs, the country’s traditional dance and music are more than a collection of melodies and rhythms. It is an integral part of many ceremonies that take place at different stages of a person’s life in Kenya, especially among the tribals. So, there is often a context, an event, or rite of passage which invests the dance and music with meaning.

These become expressions of many other aspects of life. For example, the body ornaments indicate a person’s social status. The young men's leaping dances are a part of a courtship ritual to impress shy, young girls.

Nature, flora and fauna of Kenya have influenced life and the arts. So, a widely known Masai ceremonial/victory song is the ‘Engilakinoto,’ which is sung after a successful lion hunt It is accompanied by a dance complete with the characteristic leaps.

Drums (ngomas) and other percussion instruments, flutes made of reeds, stringed instruments including Nyatiti (a lyre-like instrument with a soft, tranquil sound), bells and horns, are a major part of the music. Drums are central to most African music and dance traditions, especially the elaborate ritual dances.

With or without the accompaniment of instruments, the traditional dances of Kenya are captivating spectacles. Western Kenya's Luhya has a distinctive dance style called Sikuti, which is vigorous and is usually performed by men and women paired together, and the performance is accompanied by long horns, several drums, whistles and bells.

Acrobatic style

The Kamba people have an energetic, acrobatic style of dancing. Both Kamba and Chuka use a long drum which slopes forward towards the ground and is clasped between the legs.

A popular form is Taraab. This is a unique style of music, which uses soulful Swahili lyrics (largely), and draws from African percussion as well as Arabic rhythms. It has been evolving over the years and the modern version includes influences from various sources including Bollywood and Bhangra music and moves!

A great deal of western influence is seen today on Kenya's contemporary music scene. Reggae, rap, hip-hop, rhythm and blues… you can see them in modern Kenya's music performances. Congolese pop and Linga are widely popular forms of today, while gospel and choral music too have their place.