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Tsutsube is not religious trance dance, never was

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 21 November 2018   |   By Ricardo Kanono
Tsutsube dance Tsutsube dance

For one, the word is actually the title of a late 1950s/early 1960s hit song performed by a troupe of Bushmen street performers returning from South African mines, writes BASHI LETSIDIDI

QUESTION: What traditional dance is so authentically Government Enclave it should have its own fleet of BX vehicles, daily service-disrupting meetings and rotting stacks of unprocessed invoices from SMEs? ANSWER: Simple – tsutsube.

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The world knows tsutsube, a unique Bushmen dance, as a religious trance dance. However, according to Kuela Kiema, it is anything but. Let’s first establish Kiema’s bona fides. Born in the rustic, pre-fracking Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) in the settlement of Old Xade, Kiema is an artist who studied music at the Molepolole College of Education. He would later proceed to the University of Namibia and upon graduation, became the first CKGR-er to obtain a bachelor’s degree. With his book, Tears for My Land, he notched up another impressive record - first author from the CKGR, which he refers to by its proper name, Tc’mnqoo.

Kiema is Dcuikhoe and among his tribe (indeed as among all other Bushmen tribes) music is a communal activity because there are no spectators at any one performance. Everybody is either a dancer and/or a singer. Dcuikhoe people have a wide-ranging repertoire of polyrhythmic music and dance as well as many musical instruments and sound-producing objects that are used at a wide range of social functions.

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The insight that Kiema provides with regard to what is called tsutsube is that it is actually not a religious trance dance. Kiema’s account is that the word tsutsube itself didn’t exist until a period he approximates at “late 1950s, early 1960s.” Around that time, loosely constituted travelling traditional dance troupes of Bushmen men returning from South African mines would sojourn in Molepolole and surrounding villages. They would dance up a storm during street performances and one of their songs was called Tsutsube. Decades after the troupe that introduced the unique dance style of the Bushmen to the Kweneng district, the name tsutsube is associated not with a song but with what the world believes to be a dance style.

Kiema reveals that at least among the Dcuikhoe and Qhanikhwe subsets of the Khwe, there are three types of traditional religious dances: kh’oba, cqoo and qanu. Khoba (just a word) is a trance-healing dance which can be performed either during the day or at night. Cqoo (which means gemsbok) and qanu (which means iron) are both religious dances that involve, not healing but meditation that establishes oneness with the Gods. Most people would not expect “iron” to exist in any Bushmen language but the findings of Duncan Miller, a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town during a 1992 archaeological dig at the Nqoma site on Tsodilo Hills can help illuminate this issue. Miller found fragments of jewellery that strongly suggested that residents of this area, some of whom were Khoesan (another name for Bushmen), were unusually dedicated purveyors of luxury. The jewellery was in the form of rigid and flexible bangles, beads, chains, ear rings, pendants and finger rings made from either iron or copper.

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There is a misconception that the Bushmen are a cultural monolith but the reality is that they are a total of 16 different tribes with equally different sub-cultures. Kiema says that unlike the Dcuikhoe and Qhanikwe, the Naro and Kaukau don’t allow the use of drugs not during the performance of trance dance performances because they believe the smoke interferes with the flow of the spirit.

The Bushmen do indeed have a type of non-trance dance (called “wokhuri cee” in Dcui), that is purely about entertainment. Wokhuri means play and cee means song. The linguistic waters have been muddied but tsutsube was actually the title of a wokhuri cee that was popular in the Kweneng district in the late 1950s or early 1960s. It was certainly not a style of trance-healing dance. As performed in the President’s Day Competitions and outside the cultural realms of its origins, tsutsube contrives to be a trance dance which it is not. The other very important point that Kiema makes is that out of practical need, a trance dance is performed very slowly because it can last the entire night.

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In his telling, a wokhuri cee has some unique characteristics: it is composed after the fact, deploys a whole repertoire of human and animal physical movements to retell a story and the choreographer doubles as dancer. To clue up the community on a budding romance, a boy would, for instance, choreograph dance steps depicting the first romantic encounter with a maiden, her coquettish mannerisms around him, the performative sway of her nether regions as she walks as well as the brisk joyful trots across the veld that she breaks when she spots him. Other choreographer-dancers would physically retell the story of a wild berries-gathering expedition, of a hawk-eyed ostrich hen protecting its young or a limping giraffe trying to bolt off at the sight of a hunting party. To the extent the audience would be animated by this particular aspect of the story-telling, the unfolding of a wokhuri cee story involves another art form - physical comedy.

When you think of it and while it has no spirituality, a wokhuri cee is an artistically demanding enterprise: an artist has to compose lyrics, improvise and choreograph dances steps that are also supposed to yield a physical comedy dividend. Kiema says that unlike the kh’oba, cqoo and qanu type of dances whose lyrical content is limited to a limited set of exclamations, a wokhuri cee uses many more words. Each wokhuri cee had a composer and over the years, would be handed down from generation to generation. Clueless about this context, history and differentiation, traditional dance troupes are corrupting the stylistic conventions of both religious dances and wokhuri cee.

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There is a deeper, more disturbing dimension. Former First Peoples of the Kalahari Coordinator, Roy Sesana, says that to them, the trance dance is not entertainment.

“For us, trance dance is like going to church for you,” he says, hazarding a false guess that the writer is Christian.

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Basically, this means that the President’s Day Competitions’ performances that incorporate principles of the trance dance into what is actually wokhuri cee denude spiritual essence from a sacred, centuries-old religion by turning it into entertainment. Keikabile Mogodu, the leader of Khwedom Council, has also lamented both the appropriation and misrepresentation of Bushmen culture through President’s Day Competitions. In a past rotation of these competitions, one dancer used a python skin as a prop. “That was a complete misrepresentation of our culture because we don’t ever use snakes in our healing rituals,” says Mogodu whose Council is the umbrella for Bushmen rights lobby groups.



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