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Review of Journey of Song: Public Life and Morality in Cameroon


By Bill Jong-Ebot


Journey of Song: Public Life and Morality in Cameroon. Clare A. Ignatowski. Indiana U.P., Bloomington, 2006. Pp. 272. ISBN 0 253 21794 6 (pb.) $24.95

The challenges facing post-colonial Africa include attempts to cope with the
complexities of modernity and tradition. On one hand, the long arms of
globalization, including giant multinational corporations, sophisticated
telecommunications gadgets, and powerful Western media programs, have
penetrated every corner of the continent. On the other hand, Africa continues to
cling to its traditions: witchcraft, bride wealth, and rituals such as initiations,
dance and song.
It is most appropriate to understand Africa‘s challenges through village life and
city neighbourhoods given that the continent‘s problems are mired in its past as
well as its present. In Journey of Song: Public Life and Modernity in Cameroon,
Clare Ignatowski illustrates how the Tupuri in northern Cameroon ―mediate and
experience these global forces through their local cultural systems‖ and how the
local systems, including communications and governance, impact the country‘s
The ancestral gurna dance of the Tupuri people is presented as a powerful
institution that serves as the community‘s moral compass and an arena where
reputations are built and conflicts are resolved. The book provides a window
into the interactions between the gurna institution and forms of socialization,
governing, justice, and communication. The reader is invited into Tupuri society
through dance and song and allowed to experience daily life that includes death
celebrations dances, rainy season dances, and state-sponsored dances.
Specifically, the gurna serves multiple functions in Tupuriland. First, it serves as
a communicative system. It is a 'license to speak publicly‘ in a country not
known for according its citizens any expressive rights through the conventional,
government-controlled media. The gurna song is a poetic license to
communicate announcements to the larger community; and a vibrant institution
that coexists and competes with the conventional media. This communication
function not only reinforces the importance of the gurna song and dance
association, but it also satisfies the people‘s appetite for information and offers
them alternative forums for expression.
Second, the gurna song serves a significant social function in Tupuriland: a
license to shame and embarrass individuals, to regulate community conduct and
determine what is respectable behaviour; and a 'home‘ for the disillusioned and
elite city dwellers. Performances offer an opportunity to debate societal issues,
vent grievances through insults and satire, correct transgressions, and examine
the society as a whole. Dance gestures and song lyrics reveal the moral position
of Tupuris on topics such as Christianity, and the abundance of formal education
without jobs. Tupuris sort out and negotiate conflicting moral orders through
dance and song, seek justice as well as retribution, pushing aside official law
and order avenues. Cultural performances take on the role of 'social
Third, gurna song is also about power and prestige. For a country in a state of
political, economic and social decline since the 1980s, gurna song offers an
opportunity for the powerless to challenge authorities, including some traditional
leaders who have been co-opted by the government. While the Tupuri may
respect the gurna, they also see it as an outlet to criticize those in authority.
Gurna songs and dances are also full of praise and admiration for individuals,
indirectly conferring prestige and legitimacy to those in authority and
consolidating their power base. Clare Ignatowski has taken readers on a journey
through Tupuriland, introduced them to the song and dance lessons that begin
with the long dry season, the solidarity offered by the gurna, and the rich local
stories. But this study is more than just an exposure to gurna ritual or a
performance of 'wounded words‘. It offers a critique of what happens when a
state breaks down and the ruling party becomes a dictatorship. Examples of the
gurna exist in many corners of Cameroon, providing the people with a safety net
they can rely on, given that their government has failed them. Since the political
troubles arising from the 1992 elections, the ruling party has neutered its
opponents and clamped down on freedom of expression.
For the Tupuri in particular and for many Africans, verbal arts may be the only
safe arena to resist neo-colonialism and the dictatorship of the modern state.
As Africans navigate the complex waters of modernity and tradition, rituals such
as dance and song will continue to offer opportunities for social and political
commentary. These social organizations offer some hope for viable politics in

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 71-72]

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