To mark this eventful school year, DAAS celebrates the achievements of our students, alumni, faculty and staff in stride with the obstacles they have overcome. To share these achievements with a wider audience, we’ve decided to begin a spotlight series to highlight those special members of our community who are doing important work in the world around us, and spreading academic and socially conscious excellence wherever they go.
Kelly Askew is a professor in DAAS and the Anthropology department here at Michigan, as well as the director of graduate studies for Anthropology. She is also an award-winning filmmaker capturing the stories of Tanzanian communities like the people of Zanzibar in The Chairman and the Lions (2013) and the pastoral traditions of the Maasai tribe in her latest project Maasai Remix (2019). Askew is also an accomplished author, with work focusing on the intersection of tribal tradition, rural communities and contemporary political and social issues in East Africa. A few weeks ago, DAAS spoke with Askew about her newest projects and how her love for music has influenced her work as an ethnomusicologist and anthropologist throughout her career.
Clara Scott, DAAS Student Writer:
For those of us who don’t know all of your background, how did you start in Anthropology and African Studies? I’m really interested to see what led you to study so much of Tanzanian and Kenyan culture, especially as an American, so if you could give a little rundown on that it would be great.
Sure, so I am actually of Filipino heritage. My mother’s from the Philippines and I grew up in Los Angeles. I went to Yale for my undergraduate degree, and while there I took an anthropology class at the suggestion of a close friend of mine. He suggested it because he knew that I was really interested in other parts of the world, and you know, other cultures, other ways of viewing life, and sure enough, I fell head-over-heels in love with anthropology.
But in the 1980s, when I was in college, anthropology was strongly of the opinion that you couldn’t do good anthropology if you were of the culture you were trying to study. So although my original hope was to do work in the Philippines, well, I was told that I would be viewed as a “native anthropologist” and therefore my work would not be viewed as as rigorous, or perhaps empirical, as objective -- all of that we have cast aside now. But it was the opinion of the time, so as a result, I took advantage of what Yale was very strong and remains very strong until today, which is African studies. It’s one of the really wonderful places to go and work with people who are experts on Africa, so I took classes on Africa, and I ended up taking Swahili.
I majored in Anthropology with a double major in music, because I was training as a pianist. So I ended up doing ethnomusicology but from an anthropology perspective and discipline. So studying less the structure and functions of music and its makeup rhythmically and melodically, however, which would be more of the focus if I had chosen to go into ethnomusicology from a music school side of training -- I am more studying music in its social context. I think musicologists do that too, but there is more of an emphasis on grappling with the music as a form via the theory. For me as an anthropologist, I'm looking more at music and meaning and political context and things like that, so I ended up spending my summer between junior and senior years and undergrad in Kenya. Yale had this competition to put in an idea of an interesting project to do over the summer, and I thought that I would study Indian music in Africa, because Kenya has a large population of Indians.
When I was told I couldn’t do the Philippines, I thought, okay, I’ll study India and then I realized that Yale was not strong in Indian/South Asian scholarship, at that time anyway, it probably is not but it wasn’t then. So again, I hit dead end after dead end before finally finding Africa, and I went to Africa first to study Indian music in Mombasa, Kenya, where a lot of Indians were brought over by the British to help support the colonial enterprise and serve as middle-tier clerks and functionaries in the colonial bureaucracy. Well, there are still large populations of South Asian diasporic communities in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa -- Gandhi for one lived and worked in South Africa for quite a while.
I was interested to see whether their music as a community had absorbed any African influences, or if there was any syncretism happening, any hybridity, only to discover after going there for that summer that the Indian community was still very oriented towards returning to India. In some ways, they didn’t want to assimilate, they wanted their Indian-ness or South Asian origins to be as strong as ever, so that when they went back they would be welcomed. So music is one of the ways that they protected their community and its purity, they imported a lot of music cassettes and even musicians from India when there were big events, so it was another dead end. But what it did do and in each of my dead ends, it proves that there’s another interesting path to take.
When a door closes a window opens!
Exactly, exactly, so I may not have found that Indian communities music in East Africa was terribly interesting, but what I found was the East African music had readily absorbed influences from Indian forms of music and Egyptian forms and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, including and then and then even further afield, there was Cuban influence in the music, Congolese influence in the music, and it was so open as a musical form, you could hear components of all manner of things in it. That suddenly became super interesting to me, so I found the hybridity, it just wasn't where I was originally looking.
I ended up learning that Kenya was a wonderful place to be, but Tanzania proved to be more interesting because Tanzania had a socialist government for many decades, and so because I also cast myself as kind of a political anthropologist, I was looking at how music helped people and how the State navigated the transition out of socialism into the neoliberal present. So that became my focus, and because I was a pianist I ended up performing in two different bands. It became a life. For me, I ended up staying, one year became two years became three years. I almost didn’t come home and my dissertation committee was like, hello, where are you? You’ve collected enough data now, you can come home now.
Scott: So was this during undergrad, but you were in Tanzania?
No, sorry, I skipped a step. So I finished my undergrad at Yale, and I had discovered a form of music called Swahili Taarab music. So then, I did that research, I came back to finish my senior year and wrote an honors senior thesis on this and the different forms of music I had studied over that summer. I applied to grad school and got into Harvard and went to Harvard and so from there, I ended up shifting southward towards Tanzania, as my research questions became very much about state politics and how states produce a sense of national culture and belonging using music and other art forms.
I know your film last year, as I read, was about the Maasai. How did you make that shift from music, well music is still a part of it, but political changes into kind of focusing on these tribes happen, where did that interest come from?
Sure, so um I ended up getting my degree in 1997 and my book released, it's called “Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania” that came out in 2002 so really from the start of my Grad studies in 1988 through 2002 my whole focus had been on Swahili coast, all this cultural intermingling but also how the State is involved in music cultural policy and how people use music to contest, challenge, and resist what the state is trying to do. Yeah, so that was that really you know from 1988 really 87 was when I went to Kenya, for the first time, so for the next 15 years or so, I was working on music on the Swahili coast.
Then in 2008 so in between, I was doing a film about Zanzibar, that I can't remember the year that came out 2012, kind of, but it actually came out a little bit earlier, we had a lot, a lot of difficulty trying to find a distributor. But we made a film about the oldest Taarab orchestra in Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania, but near both Tanzania and Kenya. I started getting interested in other issues about politics and economic change, so the slight socialist to neo-liberal transition, I had looked at it from the arts and from state policy.
Now I started looking at the same question but in terms of land rights and that's what took me away from the coast into many different areas of Tanzania. I became part of an interdisciplinary international research team, we have two anthropologists, myself and one of my colleagues from Denmark. We have a Tanzanian geographer and then an economist here at Michigan named Howard Stein. And the four of us started doing research on land rights and one thing that the research would yield is that people who are classified as indigenous people in the context of -- indigenous people have formed a global movement, a very successful one, even though there are still till today many, many, many cases of human rights violations.
I mean Hawaii I mean is like this is happening everywhere.
Exactly, first nations and Native American communities, one of the worst stories of land dispossession is with Australian aboriginal communities and also the Inuits in the Arctic Circle.
So my interest is in pastoralists in East Africa -- many pastoralists groups exist in East Africa, the Maasai are just among the more well known, but their land rights get rendered vulnerable because states, number one, tend to cater to the majority voting population, which in most parts of Africa are farmers. There's something that states like about farmers because they're in the one place, I mean they have their farm, you know where they are. That’s different from pastoralists or hunter-gatherers where mobility is really, really necessary to sustain that form of life, you have to be able to move when it's the dry season, take your herds elsewhere, to where you know there's pasture and water, and you move according to the season.
You don't just settle permanently where there are year-round waterholes because you would endanger that source, then it would cease to be around. So there’s this collective consciousness about needing to preserve resources and use them collectively but responsibly. Unfortunately that mobility means that their land rights get constantly challenged, because if you're here one day, but then you're not there the next day or somewhere else, people say ‘Oh well, they’re not really using it, I will use it every single day, I'm a farmer, I could make good use of this land,’ and so people start encroaching little by little, but in areas that Maasai and other pastoralists and also that hunter gatherers need for their way of life.
They're the most easily dispossessed and also because such communities tend to be discriminated against by the broader population as being backward, as being too traditional, as being not willing to modernize and live the way of life that everyone else is aspiring, to they want to live a way of life that's very important to them and they are typically discriminated for that reason. So we discovered that my communities where we worked were the first to suffer serious infringements on their land rights. I got to know several communities quite well, but as an anthropologist we were doing work in 40 different villages, this is not the traditional process of an anthropologist that delves deep long term immersion in a community that you come to know.
So as part of the team, we would do this work together in these 40 different villages in Tanzania and fight in four different regions. We extended it recently to a fifth region so now we're in 46 villages. But it was always unsatisfying to me to just float in and float out, float in and out into another, so I decided that there was this one particular Maasai village where people were so welcoming and so willing to talk about their their community issues that I just gravitated to it, and so I would come and stay for longer term visits of two or three weeks. I've been back many times over the years.So that is the community that we ended up making not one, not two but three films in, so my first film in the community was called The Chairman and the Lions, that came out in 2013 and then made another one which is about the rite of passage a man undergoes to become a full fledged senior elder, and that came out in 2018.
We had all this extra footage and we struggled because there were so many different interesting things that we wanted to discuss in the film that when we tried to make one film, it became just too complicated and too big, so we had to kind of have a different project. So the last one, Maasai Remix, is about a young woman named Evelyn who is in search of her education and she very much wants to pursue that, she has dreams, but, as often happens in Maasai communities, she's promised in marriage at the age of nine to a man who's the same age as her father.
Now he agrees to wait until she finishes school, but, as she gets closer and closer to the end of secondary school she's deeply unhappy about the prospect of not being able to continue and also having to marry somebody that is not of her choosing. She writes to her father, as we explain in the film, and begs him to not force her to do this, and that he should give back the 12 cows that that man has now given as the bridewealth payment for the right to to be part of this new family.
Her father did the unthinkable thing of returning the 12 cows, and he's been mocked and ridiculed ever since that crazy calamity and so it's about it's really her story, but also to other people who were really also very involved in the pursuit of education in my community, so the main theme of this film is, it's called remix, not because it has anything to do with music actually but it's about them trying to maintain their commitment to their culture, to their way of life that they value deeply, but recognizing that it might be easier to protect if they had some other skills.
Education, but also aligning themselves with the world global indigenous rights movement, so one of the people in the film is named Adam and he's spoken before the UN, six, seven times to speak about the problems facing Maasai and other pastoral communities in Africa.
So, what's the main difference between pastoralist communities and traditionally nomadic communities like the Bedouins?
So pastoralist communities get divided into two types, one are nomadic pastoralists who move with their herds year round, you might know of the Bedouins in Northern Africa, the Bedouins move in the Middle East as well, and they just pack everything up, put them on their camels or whatever they're moving with and they keep moving and they're constantly kind of on the go.
The Maasai are what are called transhumance pastoralists which means they're seasonally pastoralists. They have a primary area where they stay, where the women, children, and elderly will stay and then the young warriors will be the ones to move with the cattle when it's necessary. Back generations ago they were more nomadic, and they would they would move more frequently, but they do invest a lot of effort into creating these quite sturdy corrals where they keep their cattle, and their goats and sheep and so these are our structures that are not like tense, where you just pack them up and move. So their traditional ways of architecture would indicate that they did have a more solid place where they would stay, primarily, but even then they would move far distances, with the cows, but not necessarily everyone moving with the cattle.
Do you think that difference has been influenced by those land disputes, like the fact that they are more stable, the women and children in these smaller areas or is that just kind of part of how the culture has changed organically.
So definitely having a residence recognized by the state as yours can protect land rights.So there has been more and more, and some things that they never used to do, like bury their dead with grave sites, and stones, and obvious tombs. People are doing it now because it's a way of claiming that land and showing this is our family land, look at my father's grave, and this is my mother's grave and so people are doing that more and more as a strategy of proving claims to land.So, yes I’d say it has very much been and also Tanzania, as part of the socialist period, insisted that people settle down for the reason that the Socialist government was very much trying to make sure that everyone got access to education, access to health care, access to clean water.In order to provide that the State needs to know where you are.
All of this is just so interesting because I feel like, especially in like a very Westernized historical tradition, like we aren't hearing about these people, and so I really admire that you've taken the time to make all of these films. I know that you, you wrote that book in 2002, so what kind of started this shift towards filmmaking, what kind of inspired you to do that? Was it to kind of include more people, more of their own words, or something else?
I fell backwards into filmmaking without design, again, another one of those things a door opened. I was living in Tanzania, like I said, for three years from 1991 to 1994. When I started in Tanzania, there was no broadcast TV, and this is unusual for Africa, most of Africa had had TV, certainly in the 70s and many times in the 60s.
I mean Nigeria has an entire Hollywood complex, Nollywood.
But Tanzania was socialist. And the government was fearful, I would say, rightly so, that seeing ways of life that they could not hope to provide their people would just be a source of you know, social unrest, it would it would distract people from the job at hand, which was ‘we are coming out from under the yoke of colonialism.’ So thePresident said, we must run, while others walk, we have to somehow kick into high gear and bring about some economic growth and development, because we were just a labor reserve, we were just here to provide cheap raw materials for European economies -- it's time for us to develop our economy.
We can't do that if we're if we're influenced by consumerism from afar, and we will get these other ideas and people won't be able to focus on what needs to be done so they tried so hard to keep to keep TV out but by the late 80s early 90s, when I was there, wealthy people had TV sets, they could buy them, they could import legally, they had VCRs, there were pirate video stores where you could get bootleg versions of major Hollywood films and Bollywood films and Nollywood films.
So they were getting TV anyway by ‘94 I mean the government was waking up to the fact that it was too hard to keep it out, so they issued the first broadcast licenses. Actually, I was wrong by the year. I went to Tanzania for long term research from 92 to 95. So in 94 is when the government passed the first law allowing for broadcast TV. And overnight Tanzania went from zero TV to six private TV stations overnight. There was more foreign content, then, if there had just been one government channel which is like most countries in Africa, they had one government channel.
But in Tanzania, the state didn't produce a TBC until the year 2000. So for six years, it was private TV and everything was there, except usually it was the knockoff reject things from other countries, I mean they couldn't afford to buy the most popular primetime TV so there'd be Brazilian telenovelas from the 80s there be Australian sitcoms there'd be all kinds of stuff, so anyway, I went to one of these TV stations, because there was an American who was brought in as the executive producer. And back in the day when I was there in 94 there weren't a whole lot of Americans in Tanzania so just because I was American and this producer was American no questions asked, I could go see him.
And I said, I think I have this idea of a TV show that I'd like to pitch to you because next door in Kenya, they have a very popular show that features a Kenyan musicians and it's very popular, I'm sure it must bring in advertising dollars and Tanzanian musicians because there's no such show here, they are constantly going over the border to Kenya to be presented on this show.Why don't you have a show like it here in Tanzania? He said well that's a great idea, but I just got here two weeks ago, I don't know the first thing about Tanzania and music.
At this point I’ve been there two years now, and I know quite a few things about the Tanzania music situation and so he's like, great go produce the show. I said, excuse me, I am an anthropology graduate student, I know nothing about producing a TV show. And he said, guess what nobody in this country knows anything about producing a TV.
No one's gonna get mad at you, because they don't know.
So he gave me a camera man and a mini bus and we picked up our musicians and arranged it, and we did the first ever Tanzanian music videos at the beach and at parks and at hotels and so we focused just on music videos and little by little, I got my name circulated when there were independent filmmakers coming to do videos of this that or the other documentary films.
They would ask, we want local music, where do we go, and they would say, ask Kelly, she knows the musicians and so, then I became a music coordinator on a number of documentary films and then I got through another set of weird serendipities onto a Hollywood film starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. It's called the Ghost in the Darkness and it was shot in South Africa and I got connected to it just like a month after in 1995 when I came home and finally finished my dissertation research, and I now had to figure out how to i'm going to start writing my dissertation, I had just no sooner reached Los Angeles, where my mother lived, and I got this call out of the blue, saying you know, we understand you know something about East African music we're making this film with Paramount Pictures.
Next thing I know I'm being flown to South Africa. I'm in a music studio. I'm recording musicians but teaching them songs and Swahili. I became the music researcher, I think, was my name.Then I also got a job as the Swahili dialogue coach because it was being filmed in South Africa, but the film was in East Africa and Swahili was the language needed, so I did a lot of teaching of Swahili to Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.
So after falling into this life, how did you decide to go back and then also do your academic responsibilities? Were you a professor at the same time as producing all these films or did you kind of make a decision to go back and teach again?
I came back in ‘95, then I worked on the ghost in the darkness, for most of the following year. In ‘96 I was able to go back to Harvard and start the work of finishing my dissertation. I got my first job at indiana University in anthropology in 1997 so as soon as I graduated in ‘97 I had a job, I was lucky enough very, very fortunate to get a job right away, and I was at Indiana for two years, during which time I also came to know the people here at Michigan.
I was lucky enough to be offered a position here in ‘99 so all this work I've been able to do. With the blessing of my colleagues. I don't know, if I did only film work, I don't think I'd still be here, you really need to do the analytical work that only the written page allows you. I can do a film that the written page does not allow me to do, there are things about each of these mediums that have their pros and cons. The films allow people to speak for themselves, there's a directness that is more possible where people are able to tell their own stories and all my documentary films have no narrator.
It is just the people which, for some people, they get frustrated with. There's a lot of subtitles but I'd rather that and that people tell their own stories than to talk for them, and we always do our work in collaboration with the communities getting feedback all around. Because I don't speak Maasai, all these three films, ,in my communities, had to do a lot of hours upon hours upon hours upon hours of translation of the material we filmed before we could even start the editing process.
Wow. That's just incredible that you're able to both be a full professor and do all of your writing and work on these films, also just like hanging out in Tanzania to organize all of that.
I forgot a musical component that I'd like to share with you about the film. Even though the word remix, of course, comes from rap music, it's about having something old, but mixing it up with something new, so that they have their culture that they hold on to but they're mixing it up.
But one thing I came to discover along the way, was that every child born into the Maasai community has a personal lullaby composed for them by either their mother or sister or aunt or grandmother, some woman in the family will compose Clara's personal lullaby and that song would be some only for you.
That’s the sweetest thing I've ever heard in my life.
Every woman in the family or man would learn that song to sing to you to put you to sleep, so everyone has their own song, and when I discovered this, like you, I thought it was incredibly beautiful, what do we have that is our signature, we have a social security number. It remains the same as you accrue experiences, so I went to the mothers of the three people we’re featuring in the film, Evelyn, this man Adam, who has spoken at the UN, and then Frank, who was the village, if you saw Chairman and the Lions, he's the chairman.
We found a wonderful Grad student of mine who's a composer as well as a musicologist. He took the original lullabies and he remixed them. So we have in the background, whenever one of them is on screen you're actually hearing, you don't know it necessarily, but the music that's behind there is associated with that person. In a way, that person and that person's family would recognize but not necessarily anyone else.
It's like your own personal leitmotif.
Well, thank you so much Kelly for talking to me, I’m really excited to follow your work with the Maasai and in Tanzania and Kenya.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.