Okot p'Bitek | Critical Review by Gerald Moore

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Okot p'Bitek.
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Critical Review by Gerald Moore

SOURCE: "Songs from the Grasslands," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3807, February 21, 1975, p. 204.

In the following review, Moore praises p'Bitek's The Horn of My Love, asserting that p'Bitek's translation captures the evolving nature of Acoli culture and the expressiveness of Acoli song.

In his preface to The Horn of My Love, a collection of Acoli traditional songs, Okot p'Bitek argues the case for African poetry as poetry, as an art to be enjoyed, rather than as ethnographic material to be eviscerated. The latter approach has too often predominated, even among those scholars who have actually troubled to make collections. This book, with Ulli Beier's valuable anthologies, can help to build up the stock of African poetry for enjoyment.

The Acoli (pronounced "Acholi") are a grassland people of the Uganda-Sudan borders whose songs and ceremonial dances are still remarkably alive. Not preserved, with all that this word implies of mustiness and artificiality, but continually changing; continually acquiring new words, new tunes, and in the case of the dances, new steps or instruments. Okot p'Bitek himself describes the many changes of style and title undergone by the Acoli Orak (Love Dance) over the past seventy years. Dances do not change in this way unless they are still in the mainstream of the people's cultural experience.

Perhaps the Acoli were relatively lucky in this respect. Their music and poetry were not court products, played by a corps of professional artists. They were the common stock of the whole population, diffused by the communal dances and ceremonies into the knowledge and practice of every member of the group. A young man or girl unable to perform adequately on such occasions could not escape ridicule. There was no question of being "in the audience" when great ceremonial dances like the Otole (war dance), Bwola (victory dance) or Guru Lyel (funeral dance) were performed.

This total cultural involvement lasted until quite recent times. The main occupations for men who left Acoliland were soldiering or policing, both easily assimilated into the traditional concept of the warrior. Indeed, army terms, drilling moves and whistles were often incorporated into the constantly changing dances, which is another example of the response of these popular arts to the changing experience of the people. Add to this the relative inaccessibility of the area, far from the major towns, with few roads and no railway until the 1960s, and with a colonial interlude which really lasted only some forty years. All these factors worked in favour of continued vitality within the traditional arts of the Acoli, and they were assisted by the recent efforts of a small group of educated young men, such as Okot p'Bitek himself, who studied and mastered these arts in order to introduce them in the schools. Thus the schools became the new sphere for acquainting the young with the cultural achievements of their people, instead of the sphere for their estrangement and reorientation towards foreign cultures.

The expressive range of Acoli song is remarkable, extending from the fiercest of war chants to the tenderest of love lyrics or funeral laments. There is no more stirring sight than that of hundreds of men and women, ostrich plumes waving in the sunlight, singing and stamping in unison, so the ground seems literally to shake and the dust rises ever higher. But many of these songs are also sung on small and comparatively private occasions, to the accompaniment of a solo nanga (boat-zither) or adungu (jaw-harp) played by the singer. Thus the same song may be heard in the moonlit arena of the Love Dance, sung by hundreds of young people to the electric beat of calabashes and the stamp of anklets, or floating in the still night air from the top of an anthill, where a girl is crying the praises of her lover:

      When the chief of youths enters the arena
      He is like a waterbuck breaking the circle of hunters.

This variety in the modes of presentation is matched by the variety of imagery to be found within even a single genre. In his interesting chapter, "Themes in Acoli Dirges", Okot p'Bitek identifies no fewer than six more or less distinct groups of imagery, all of which might be heard sung in the course of a single night-long Guru Lyel. This event might open with an advancing group of warriors entering the arena and fighting the "mock fight" with Death to the accompaniment of words like these:

      If I could reach the homestead of Death's mother,
      I would make a long grass torch;
      If I could reach the homestead of Death's mother,
      I would destroy everything, utterly, utterly,
      Like the fire that rages at Layima.

Yet this cry of anger and aggression may be interrupted by a new chorus, sung perhaps by some of the women mourners, whose words re-evoke the actual agony of a death suffered many months before (since the Guru Lyel is performed only in the dry season and only after elaborate preparations):

      Death burned the body of the young woman
      Like fire,
      She cried with pain in her chest,
      Beloved of my mother, Oh!
      Death burned your body,
      At last, today, it has taken you.

Among the most interesting, though not among the most moving, of these digres are those in which the dead person is actually attacked, for having in some way disgraced the clan. There is a bitterness in these satirical songs which is conventionally shocking. But they are probably best understood as having the same basic virtue as the others: they articulate the spite and resentment within the group, just as the others articulate its grief, and thus play something of the same purgative role. Every feeling aroused by this particular death is thus given open but ritualized expression, and the solidarity of the surviving group is actually renewed by this very expressiveness.

Another valuable chapter is devoted to the patterns of relationship between the chiefdom songs (Bwola) and certain historical events in the story of each chiefdom. These are not the explicit historical narratives which are found among many African peoples. The references are cryptic and vivid, but they cannot be fully understood without some independent historical instruction. Their very presence within these ceremonial songs, however, serves to keep alive some of the group emotion associated with these, often ancient, events.

There are useful descriptive notes introducing each group of songs but, owing to some vagary of composition, these notes are all placed together, instead of each being set separately before the particular group to which it refers. There is also an occasional visual irritation, where a very short poem, rightly given a page to itself, is set tightly at the very top, crowding the title and leaving an ugly expanse of blank paper beneath it. The book would also benefit from a bibliography, though there are some bibliographical references scattered in the text.

Above all, however, it is a book of poetry to be handled and enjoyed, rather than a ponderous headstone placed on the living body of a popular art. It can be read with equal enjoyment, in these facing texts, by Acolis relishing the felicities of the original languages and by English readers relishing the muscularity of Okot p'Bitek's translations. Those familiar with his own poetry, especially The Song of Lawino, will recognize here the indigenous poetic tradition in which that fine work is embedded. The bitterness of Lawino's sense of betrayal is not a personal but a cultural bitterness. And it takes on additional depth and meaning for those who understand, from these songs, why a husband who cannot show his body in the dance arena is an insult to his whole clan, not just to his deserted wife.

These songs must also deliver a fatal blow to those who contend that romantic love is an alien importation, unknown in traditional African cultures. The great love-duets sung by Goya and his wife, in which they jointly ridicule "the roughskinned man" once destined to be her husband, attack the avarice of her father, and proclaim their intention of running off together without the payment of bridewealth, expose the hollowness of pronouncements based on anthropological norms. And it would be hard to imagine a more romantic lyric than that of this deserted lover, as he watches the hot pathway all day long:

    She has taken the path Nimule:
    Tomorrow she will return.
    As she walked away her buttocks danced.
    Bring Alyeka, let me see her!
    My eyes are fixed on the path,
    my eyes on the path …

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This section contains 1,396 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gerald Moore
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Gerald Moore from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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