Cultural Dances: The BOMAS Of Kenya Will Be Performing A Unique Suba Dance At The Rusinga Festival

Dancers in the water. Image credit Antony Ochieng

The Bomas Harambee Dancers are Kenya’s national dance company, proudly representing the beauty and diversity of Kenya’s music and dance traditions since 1973. They will be performing at the Rusinga Festival for the first time this December. The group uses dance to preserve and promote the beauty of Kenyan cultures. At the Rusinga festival, they will be performing dances from the Suba people who are one of the inhabitants of the Rusinga Islands.

Mr. Bwire is the production manager for the Bomas dance group. We talked to him about the upcoming performance, the preparation process and what we can expect from their first ever performance at the Rusinga Festival.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Bwire Ojiambo. I am the production manager at the Bomas of Kenya, and I am in charge of artistic production and research. As an artistic producer, I produce all the cultural dances and performances. I manage the Bomas dance group which is the national cultural dance group. We are unique to tourism and also charged with the responsibility of preserving and promoting Kenya’s culture in the form of traditional music and dance.

Picture from Antony Ochieng

Do you choreograph just one group or are there different groups that you work with?

Bomas is a government-owned dance company so we are just one group with dancers who have the capability of performing different dances from almost all the communities in Kenya. We currently have sixty cultural dances from different communities. The group currently consists of 66 active performers including the trainers and administrators. Our work is to entertain the tourists who come to visit Bomas.

Have you performed at the Rusinga Festival before?

This will be our first time performing but we have attended three editions of the festivals. It was during our attendance that we got an interest to do a dance for the Suba people. We realized that the Suba are not Luos as many Kenyans think. With the current revival of the Suba culture, the dance would be a very timely and effective tool.

Describe the process that goes into the preparation for such a dance.

The Suba journey is a long one because this is a culture that was threatened by extinction, it was on the verge of disappearing completely. The story, therefore, begins with research, we needed to find out who the Suba are and what is their history. Next, we had to familiarize ourselves with their folksongs. Folksongs are important in the process of research because they record people’s history and their lifestyle. When people drink, they sing songs to appreciate their host, such songs tell you a lot about the traditions of a people.

When a community’s history is hinged on migration like the Suba are, you will find that most of their songs are about how they migrated from one place to another. If a community has a history of hostile neighbours, their songs will mostly be about preparing for war or celebrating victories. So, we do extensive research on the history, the folk songs and the dance steps. We find out which steps accompanied which song. After we are done with the research, we identify a few people from the community who come to Bomas to sing and demonstrate the steps to our dancers. My work comes after their demonstration. I pick the songs to be performed, the steps and then choreograph the complete dance on stage.

The Suba story was longer than the other stories I have interacted with because as I mentioned, this is a community that was facing extinction. When people think about the Suba people they think about Mbita, Rusinga and Gwasi. We visited all these places and we found that most of the songs had a Luo influence. It was only when we went deeper into Mfangano that we met the Suba council of elders and found people who speak the original language. We made around four trips to Suba before we finally settled down and began planning for the dance.

Dancers in the water. Image credit Antony Ochieng

Do you perform songs that already exist in the culture or do you write your own versions?

We perform original songs from the community themselves. Original songs have rich history about the people, for instance, the history of the Suba is that they migrated from Uganda across Lake Victoria and settled where they are today.

We approached the people and ask them which songs remind them of the migration period. It is when one of them starts to sing, that we are able to identify the song as it was sung back in the day. There is a popular song called “Keboe” which is a dedication to one of their heroes during the migration period.

We then ask the people what their economic activity is. For the Suba, it is fishing, once again we enquire about the songs they sang as they pulled the nets and when they recall the song, we incorporate it into our dance. That is basically how we get the songs from all the communities that we intend to dance for. We do not write our own versions; we just record original songs as sung by the natives and replicate them in our performances.

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I would imagine the Bomas performers have to be conversant with very many dialects in order to perform these dances.

Yes, they are. We do translations of the different songs so that the performers can understand the words of the song and the emotions involved. As a performer, it is only after you have internalized the story in the song that you can truly do it justice. For example, unless you understand that a certain song is about a funeral, you cannot perform it with the feelings necessary to capture your audience. Our performers, therefore, have to learn the language.

When will you be performing at the Rusinga Festival and for how long have you prepared for it?

As per the invitations, the festival will happen on the 19th-20th of December. We have had preparations lasting over four weeks with the Suba people, we have been practising every day and we are now at a position where we can say that the dance is well put together and ready for the stage. After the dance is ready for stage there are other things that we have to think about such as the costumes.

The Suba people have provided us with specific costumes with principle colours that are synonymous with their culture. We therefore always have to give a design that the community identifies with. We also have to source for instruments that identify with the community. Different communities have unique instruments, for instance, when you see Isukuti drums you definitely know that they belong to the Luhya people. So, if you play Isukuti drums in Ohangala music, it won’t make sense to either of the communities.

Once in the Rusinga Festival, how many times will you perform and for how long will you be there?

We hope to perform on both the two dates so that we can also get an opinion from the Suba people about the dance. It is important for us to get validation from the people themselves and for them to feel connected to the dance because the essence of it is that it depicts them completely and shares the richness of their culture to the rest of the world.

We will be attending the festival at the invitation of the Rusinga Cultural Festival Committee. We are majorly coming to launch the Suba dance and show it to the people. Because we will be attending the festival as a national dance group, should they request us to perform dances from other parts of the country to give the festival a national feel, whether it is a dance from central, coast or western, we will gladly oblige.

Having interacted with the Suba culture while preparing for this performance, what should we all learn about this little-known community?

The most important thing about this experience has been the realization that we need to revive this community and protect it from death. The best way to revive a community is to immerse ourselves into its culture and language through folk music and dance, this is the surest way to effortlessly remind people of the existence if the Suba.

When you go to primary and secondary schools and teach them the real Suba language and show them the steps, the children will slowly develop an interest, guaranteeing the continuity of the community for years to come. Through music and instrumentation, the history of why the Suba people migrated from Uganda, the challenges they met here will be well preserved for the coming generation to research and enjoy.

Rusinga Festival dancers leading people to the lake. Image credit Antony Ochieng

What makes the Suba dance unique from all the other dances you have done?

I would say it is a hybrid dance. When you look at it you will find aspects of Luo, Luhya, Kuria, and Bukusu. Its ability to incorporate all these diverse cultures into it makes it unique in my eyes. It certainly stands out because the Suba dance will appeal to a Luo, Luhya, Kuria. Not many dances have that sort of reach.

Besides the Abasuba people, what other projects have you launched to give a platform to other small communities?

We have made deliberate efforts to target minority communities which just like the Suba, are at the risk of fading away and being forgotten. Just recently, we did a dance on the Makonde people which is a community found in Kwale and Taita Taveta. They came to Kenya about 100years ago from Mozambique. Their current population is about 6000 people. They have been assimilated by the Digo people; it was until 2015 that the president recognized them as a community of Kenya. For such communities, if you don’t tell their stories on a national platform, they will likely die.

As Bomas, we have a silent affirmative action that allows one youth to join the dance group from every community that we do a performance on. This way, they not only get a job but also a unique opportunity to interact with the other communities in Kenya.

What can we expect from your performance at the Rusinga festival?

We are going to give the festival a national flavour. We will be attending as the Kenya National dance group and we intend to not only show our support to the Suba people through performing their dance but also showcase other Kenyan cultures. We hope that we will provide a platform for the people at Rusinga to see all corners of Kenya and all its beauty through our performances.

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Brian Muchiri is a passionate writer who draws his inspiration from the experiences in his own life and of those around him. He is candid and he seeks to inspire society to be more pro active and vocal about the social issues that affect us. Brian is also actively involved in pushing for awareness and inclusion of people with disabilities through his foundation; Strong Spine.