International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 1 Number 3

September 11, 2000

Using Namibian Music/Dance Traditions as a
Basis for Reforming Arts Education

Dr. Minette Mans
University of Namibia


          The incredible diversity of music in southern Africa causes many teachers to doubt their ability to teach in cultures other than their own. Those teachers who have formal music training often don't have a working knowledge of the local peoples' music and dances. In addition, there are very few published materials available, so where to begin? Because they feel uncertain about the music of another culture, teachers may turn towards "formula" lessons. There is, however, a danger of tokenism in such formulas. This can be avoided by learning more about the culture.
          In this article I identify some of the questions that can lead to a better understanding of music and dance in cultures other than one's own. Video and audio examples are provided that illustrate answers in Namibia. By asking the right questions, the characteristics of a particular musical culture can be exposed. However, understanding something about a culture does not necessarily equip one to teach it. Therefore the development of teaching-learning materials for schools is necessary. These normally include transcriptions of songs and dances. Based on my research on Namibian music and dance a possible transcription of both sound and movement is described.
          Music and dance, as expressions of culture, convey values located within a group's belief system. Hence, the information and materials are framed against a philosophical understanding which I call ngoma.

Ngoma: A philosophical departure point

          This term summarizes the holistic connections between music, dance, other arts, society and life force. It encapsulates the notion of power in communal performance, and it draws from indigenous music and dance traditions for color and vitality. Ngoma refers to musical performance and musical instruments, dance, humankind, spirit possession and the world as an organic whole (Bjorkvold 1992, Blacking 1985). It signifies the unified experience of music and dance and their links to other arts, to society, to life-force and it implies that performance centers on the power created by communal participation. Ngoma has been described by a Silozi-speaker (Lunenge 1995) as the communication between drums and spirits—impossible without dance.
          The holism of arts in many African cultures is relevant to fundamental aspects of life. Music, dance and other arts are functionally interwoven into everyday life and festive occasions as well as ordinary work. In performance, the individual becomes part of community, but also part of the music, linking earth to heaven, past (via ancestors) and future (via children). Performance as ngoma implies that music/dance have a purpose and function larger than themselves. They prepare individuals and community for the tasks intended, whether mundane or spiritual. By means of this preparation the performance encourages total involvement, which in turn feeds back as excitement and enjoyment, leaving a sense of satisfaction.

A framework for understanding arts in southern African cultures

          Should teachers require insight into a culture's songs, rituals and dance, a conceptual framework of questions allows one to approach that culture constructively. In my research I normally begin by asking very general questions about when and how people make music and dance. Questions are framed around stages of life or functions that musical practices have within that particular culture, because these are common frames in African contexts. From this general background, one can move towards more specific observations in terms of the musical performance with questions that normally refer to structural organization, tonal organization, rhythmic organization and quality of sound (Arom, 1989, 1991; Chernoff 1979; Kubik, 1990, 1993; Tracey 1990).
          Based on the work of Adshead (1988), Bartinieff (in Royce 1977), Hanna (1979), Thompson (1974) and Keali'nohomoku (1997), the following are salient features of an observation and description of dance:
  • the context, that is the background and purpose of the dance
  • the movements, in terms of characteristic use of the body, components, design, elements, and group relations;
  • the dancers themselves—age, gender, personality, artistry;
  • the music or sound accompaniment and the relation of the dance to the aural aspects including time and flow;
  • all the additional material and non-material traits associated with the dance.

          I generally use the above as a general framework to guide my personal observation and the questions I ask people or myself. This may differ according to the context of the particular performance. From answers and observation the prevalent categories of performance within that culture become clear. Although not final, this begins to show us the conceptual framework by means of which that culture organizes its music and dance. I aim to try and understand peoples' own conceptual framework rather than impose one based on my own concepts. In Table 1 below, click on the characteristics outlining possible questions and some of the answers I have found in Namibian practices. Short illustrative video clips can be viewed.

Table 1

Characteristic Questions to be asked Description could be...
Musical Action
  • What is the predominant form of music-making?
  • What other forms of music-making are there?
  • How do people organize performances? Solos?
  • Small groups? Large gatherings? Combining vocal and instrumental?
  • Separate? Combine music and dance? Separate?
Go to Table 2
for organizing musical performances within life context, e.g. rituals, life stages, work, praise, etc.
  • Is there specific music/dance for specific occasions?
  • What happens when a baby is born? Are there differences for a girl or boy or twins?
  • Who performs? Who may not perform?
  • Are there specific stages to a child's life? How are they marked?
  • What are major occasions in adult life? How are these marked?
  • Are there specific rituals to mark seasons?
  • What happens when someone becomes ill?
  • Are there rituals related to survival or work?
  • Are there songs for work? Who performs them? Are the songs related to specific tasks?
  • On what other occasions do people make music/dance?
  • How do people celebrate?
  • How do they entertain others?
  • Or themselves?
  • Is there music for a leader? Music to remember the ancestors?
  • How do people celebrate their religious or spiritual needs?
Rituals, e.g.
Go to Table 2
Structural Organization
shape, structure, organization and coherence of pieces of music and dance
  • How are songs structured?
  • Is there a leader and a chorus, or does everyone take an equal role?
  • Are there repetitions of certain sections or parts?
  • Are there changes/variations to recognizable parts or sections?
  • Do voices inter-relate to instrument parts? How?
  • How are dances structured?
  • Do they have different phases?
Tonal Organization
Forms of plurivocality may include homophony, parallelism, heterophony, melodic and rhythmic counterpoint.

Also tuning patterns, melodic arrangement (e.g. short, repeated melodies), intervals and tonal progressions.

  • How many different vocal parts are there?
  • What is the local understanding of voices (tessitura) and pitch?
  • Who may sing a specific part?
  • Do you recognize typical ways of tonal organization?
  • How are melodies structured?
  • Do you notice tonal differences in the way the same song is performed on different occasions? In the tuning of instruments?
Go to Table 2
Rhythmic Organization
system of regular pulses; coincidence of pulses to form reference beats; recurrence of time?lines or periods; basic musical "theme"; rhythmic patterns.
  • Is the basic pulsation fast, slow or moderate?
  • Do you notice/ feel points in time where different parts coincide?
  • Can you establish the length of a time-line or period?
  • Can you recognise clapping/drumming patterns?
  • Does music increase or decrease in tempo?
Quality of Sound
distinctive qualities of vocal and instrumental timbre
  • How do people use their voices?
  • Are there qualities that contribute to a unique sound of the particular music?
  • Are voices and instruments complementary, imitative, or contrasting?
Go to Table 2
Sound and Movement Conceptualization
  • How do people organize their musical practice in terms of their lifestyles?
  • How do people recognize their own music?

Materials—A Suggested Form for Sound and Movement

          The high demand for teaching materials in different African languages prompts discussion of how this is to be presented. Because western notation proceeds from a different conceptualization of music to that of many African societies who make provision for a margin of pitch tolerance as well as great rhythmic complexity, it is not an ideal vehicle for notating African music. Note values in western notation indicate duration of sound, whereas the space between sounds and the moments of impact are more important in African music. In drumming music it is not only the rhythmic patterns which are of importance, but also the timbral- melodic effects and the movements involved. A system is needed where both music and movement can be combined in a score, in the same way they are linked in the minds of performers.
          A transcription can be reduced to the simplest form recognizable to members of the community. A transcription need not be detailed, but should reflect the central characteristics of the music being transcribed. One would try to establish which elements the practitioners of the culture deem essential to the performance, elements that undergo relatively minor changes as they are passed from one generation to another. The score therefore reduces relevant elements to a point where only elements common to all realizations of that particular music are notated. Transcriptions can be enhanced by verbal descriptions which provide deeper insight into the context and meaning of the performance, including variations to the basic form.
          Where a notation is unable to convey expression, or individual movements and deeper experiences such as trance, a description provides a verbal sketch of the event. Vernacular terms provide the frame and indicate the peculiarities of the event.
          Pulse notation works well in the Namibian context because:
  • it allows for a comfortable marriage between symbols used for sound and those used for movement
  • it indicates the impact and conjunction of sounds and movements accurately
  • it allows one to draw up a music and movement notation that clearly conveys the sense, form, style and structure of the music/dance without cluttering the page with non-essential details, and therefore
  • it is easy to read and interpret.
          Pulse notation is a system of rhythmic notation based on the number of elementary pulses, rather than metric time signatures and bar lines. Sounds (notes) are indicated ON pulse lines, not between. It uses a five line staff for a relative pitch notation dispensing with accidentals and clefs. Relative means that the actual pitch may not coincide exactly with that expected in Western notation, because tonal systems may differ. An example follows:

          Tracey (1990: 1) suggests that a transcription should reveal the shape of the song, "so it looks on the page as much as possible like the song sounds." To do this, identical or equivalent melodic or rhythmic patterns are written so that they fall exactly below each other on the page. This allows one to see the order and structure of the song—whether it has short cycles, or long. Correspondences and irregularities will also reveal themselves this way.
          The actions used to play an instrument, e.g. a drum, are conceived as an important aesthetic aspect and are consequently notated as kinemes (Kubik (1990, 1993). I write a drum beat as for a full right hand beat and for a half right hand beat. The same symbols filled in black refer to the left hand, i.e., and .
          For dance movements, which also take place on precise pulses, I use kinemic symbols. This is combined with a description based on an observation table looking at aspects such as body attitude, stance, relation of foot to ground, use of space and use of effort, intensity of involvement, Modalities used, and the organization of effort into sequences. Kinemic symbols may include those given below:

          Having taken all these into consideration, a transcription may look as follows:

Suggestions for implementation of music and dance as ngoma in the classroom

          Once a teacher has gained information on a cultural practice and has materials for use in the classroom, attention needs to be paid to the mode of implementation. While there are many possibilities, an approach located within the spirit of ngoma would take cognizance of the following three cornerstones that underpin this approach.
  1. Music/dance as ngoma emphasizes communal performance

    One of the main differences between Western music and dance and the spirit of ngoma, is the shift of emphasis from individual performance to the synergy of group performance where everybody participates. This does not imply that individual excellence is of no consequence in ngoma. On the contrary, excellence in terms of balance, clarity of purpose, precision and originality are valued, but within the context of improving the performance of the whole group. Performers gain identity through their cohesion and merger with others. Hence, performance as ngoma demands the ability to function in a complex interactive environment in harmony with other individuals. Most Namibian performance events I have studied cannot succeed without communal participation.

    Within the classroom one can bring about closer involvement amongst members of the group by using a circle formation, where all are equal and participants have visual contact with one another. In the ngoma spirit a good performer is one who does not try to outshine the group, but who, through his/her performance draws in other participants so that everybody gains from it. Thompson (1974: 2, 27) refers to "levels of perfected social interaction" where a good leader brings out the "full and explicit mode of choral response." Communal performance also means that a particular aspect of performance, for example the drumming, the dance or the masks, is never emphasized over another in performance. The principles of equity and balance are therefore brought to the fore in this kind of performance.

    The song forms that predominate in Namibia and other parts of southern Africa enhance communal participation, because they involve call and response, mostly with a cyclic structure. The leader's call reminds all participants of the melody and words of the song and even allows newcomers to join in. The cyclic structure encourages freedom of participation and provides continuity that allows participants to dance, sing, clap, and even move away and return as wished. Such songs are imminently suitable for classroom use, as they are easily learnt and remembered. By adding other aspects of performance (dance and instruments) the teacher can adjust the level of challenge, making one song adaptable to various levels of schooling.

    In most Namibian communities performances take place in a supportive and encouraging environment. A supportive teaching-learning atmosphere that approximates this situation can be created in the classroom. Learners need to feel free to explore new modes of expression, and to discover the ways in which sound, movement, and expression are combined into music and dance. They can explore individual abilities and interests which will improve the group performance within the supportive framework of a communal performance. Consider dance improvisations, drumming, other instrumental parts, (re)creating contextual background through ornamentation, masks, and so on. Communal spirit can be enhanced by linking performance to discussion, negotiation, decision?making and problem solving which go hand in hand with creative group activities. Input, either collective or individual, is required from learners, so that decisions can be taken in terms of the outcomes or solutions to problems.

  2. Music /dance as ngoma provides holistic connections

    Bringing about the holism of ngoma requires the removal of artificial boundaries between the different arts. Indigenous Namibian performance has been shown to involve instruments, singing, dance, dramatic aspects such as special clothing and atmospheric effects, ornamentation and design, spiritual beliefs, affirmation of power structures, and so forth.

    [T]he integration of all these artistic and social concerns into a single unified event is the essential inspiration of an African musical performance. In the depth of this integration, we can recognize the expression of a profoundly humanistic sensibility and one of the great artistic achievements of humankind. (Chernoff, 1979: 87)

    The performance of a traditional music/dance event, e.g. /gais, is in itself a holism. This is demonstrated by the actions involved in preparing a class performance, namely:

    • learning and performing the singing, the clapping, the dance,
    • creating a performance setting which reflects a general understanding of the culture and its history,
    • designing and making costuming (a recreation or abstraction of
    • traditional dress) or atmospheric props,
    • preparing for a performance through the learning processes of discussion, planning, negotiating, rehearsing, and committing to
    • memory.
    Because Namibian performance traditions are conceptualised holistically, they are pre-eminently suited to exploring inter-arts connections. Certainly this presents a challenge for both teachers and learners. By exploring the multiple connections among the arts, and between arts and life, intellectual challenge is experienced. Even though one teaches through one medium at a time, what is to be avoided is the partitioning of music and dance and other art forms, treating them as though there are only tenuous relationships. In music and dance as ngoma the emphasis is on the exploration of natural connections and ties, which once unlocked, provide learners with a great variety of experiential possibilities, bringing the arts closer to life.

  3. Music/dance as ngoma emphasises oral-kinaesthetic ways of teaching and learning

    Music and dance are things people do. They are immediate. They relate to sound, time and space; hence much of the teaching and learning of music and dance take place in an oral-kinaesthetic way. Sound, touch and action (not words) are the direct sensory media through which music and dance are learnt in oral societies. This means that teaching and learning orally and kinaesthetically rely heavily upon imitation of perceived sounds, movements, gestures and expressions, and upon sufficient repetition to fix the sound or action in the memory. It is through frequent repetitions at regular intervals that learners gradually build up the skills that allow them to perform without undue concentration on details, freeing them to concentrate on quality of performance. Traditional rote learning (imitation and repetition) in music and dance is not only indigenous to Namibia, but is a means commonly employed in music education where performance (singing and playing) is considered important. Although it requires time for an adequate number of repetitions, the learning that results is highly effective. In oral societies, the adult community provides models for performance, on which the child may model his/her own performance through imitation. In schools the teacher, other members of the community, or peers can act as models who perform certain actions that the learner imitates.

    Classroom experiences should provide learners with adequate and varied sensory input of experiences in terms of musical sound and bodily movement. This implies ample opportunities for listening to the use of voice tones, rhythms, instrumental combinations, tonal systems, and observing dancing in different styles, of different qualities, and for different events.

    Teaching and learning by means of oral methods imply adequate time, the lack of which may limit their efficacy to certain extent. It is, therefore, important to strike a balance between the tried and trusted methods and approaches personified by oral-kinaesthetic modes, and innovative and expansive learning through exploration and discovery. Modern teaching media may also include the use of audio and video recordings, as an introduction or as a more advanced model for imitation. The use of modern technology is not in contradiction with ngoma, as long as sound, touch and action are central to the process.


A Final Word

          Finally, traditional arts practices can contribute to learners' creativity, perception and understanding of life and their cultural identity. The classroom in which the arts are treated as ngoma may become a place where communal, connective, relevant and ultimately enjoyable learning takes place. Teaching as ngoma may require substantial
readjustment to the standards by which teachers measure the success of their programs. It is not only what a performance looks or sounds like to them (teachers) that is important, but what the performance feels like to learners. Effectively implemented, the notion of arts education as ngoma is a means of linking the wisdom of the past to modern modes of expression and to the wider world.


Adshead, J. (Ed.)(1988). Dance Analysis: Theory and Practice. London: Dance Books/Cecil Court.

Arom, S. (1991). African polyphony and polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology. (1989) Translated from the French by M. Thorn and R. Boyd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arom, S. (1989): Time and Structure in the Music of Central Africa: Periodicity, Meter, Rhythm and Polyrhythmics. Leonardo:, Vol. 22:1. 91 - 99.

Bjørkvold, J-R (1992). The Muse Within: Creativity and Communication, Song and Play from Childhood through Maturity. (1989). Translated from the Norwegian by H. Halverson. Aaron Asher Books. New York: Harper Collins.

Blacking, J. (1985). The Context of Venda Possession Music: reflections on the Effectiveness of Symbols. 1985 Yearbook for Traditional Music. Vol. 17: 64 - 87.

Blacking, J & Kealiinohomoku, J. (Eds.)(1979). The Performing Arts: Music and Dance. The Hague: Mouton Press.

Chernoff, J. (1979). African Rhythm and African Sensibility. Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hanna, J. L. (1979). To Dance is Human. A Theory of Nonverbal Communication. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.

Kealiinohomoku, J (1997). Structure presented in a workshop at Confluences: Cross-Cultural Fusions in Music and Dance. First South African Music and Dance Conference incorporating the 15th Symposium on Ethnomusicology. University of Cape Town, 15 - 19 July 1997.

Kubik, G. (1990). Drum patterns in the "Batuque" of Benedito Caxias. Latin American Music Review, Vol. 11: 2 Fall/Winter. University of Texas Press.

Kubik, G. (1993). Manual for Teachers: An Introduction to the Study of African Music. Manuscript for the Ministry of Basic Education & Culture, Windhoek.

Mans, M. E. (1997) Namibian Music and Dance as Ngoma in Arts Curricula. Unpublished thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. University of Natal.

Mans, M. E. (1997) Discovering some of the Characteristics of Namibian Dance/Music. IN: Fourie (Proceedings Compiler). Confluences: Cross-Cultural Fusion in Music and Dance. Proceedings of the First South African Music and Dance Conference incorporating the 15th Symposium on Ethnomusicology. 16 - 19 July 1997, University of Cape Town. pp. 273 - 289.

Namibian Broadcast Company (NBC) (undated): Omakamba, Outjina, Mayimbwe video clips. Used with permission.

Royce, A. P. (1977). The Anthropology of Dance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Thompson, R.F. (1974). African Art in Motion. Icon and Act. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tracey, A. (1990). Namibia Songbook Project. Some extra notes on transcription and layout. Unpublished notes.

About the Author

Dr. Minette Mans
Department of Performing Arts
University of Namibia
Tel. + 264 61 206 3896

Dr Minette Mans is Associate Professor at the University of Namibia, where she heads the Performing Arts Department. She is involved with teaching Music Literature (mainly African), Classical Guitar and Body and she publishes widely on topics relating to music, dance, culture, identity and education. Although previously deeply involved with arts education reform in Namibia, she now focuses on policy development and field research. Her present area of research is the documenting and analysis of Namibian musics and dance as part of an extended project covering all the main cultural groups of the country. This information is currently being developed into books for schools, videos, and CD ROMs in service of education.

   home   |   articles   |   abstracts   |   editors   |   submit   |   subscribe   |  

You are visitor number since August 27, 2007.