Sung assemblies or declaimed songs? The samburu soloists (Kenya) on the border between political discussion and musical activity


Among the Samburu of Kenya the leaders and the spokesmen of the warriors' age-grade, the so-called larikok, play a fundamental role in both political and musical domains. The oratorical skills of which they must be provided to protect the interests of the warriors during the assemblies, core of the Samburu political system, also allow them to stand out as main soloists during the singing and dancing. This double form of authority is based on what, among the Samburu, is considered as one of the essential features of male leadership: the ability of “dominating the words” in all their forms, both sung and spoken. At the same time, this connection between political debate and soloist singing is not focused exclusively on the double social role of the larikok. The vocal technique that characterizes a big part of the Samburu's musical repertoire, in fact, is definable as a form of speech shaped around the rhythm of the dance. It confers to the melodic contour of the soloist's part the prosodic characteristics of the spoken language, making Samburu choral songs a sort of oratorical confrontation between soloists, very close, structurally and verbally, to the assemblies' debate scheme. The process of decision-making and the composition of the songs' lyrics lead, in both cases, to the creation of accounts which aim to expose opinions and stories based on real events. But if during the assemblies the speakers' purpose is to use their own charisma for the political administration of the community as representatives of an age-grade's or an age-set's interests, during the singing and dancing sessions the soloists have the responsibility to stand for their age-group and share with the listeners the narrative of its collective memory, contributing to assert its presence within the society.

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