Marketing Nigerian Dances for Cultural Diplomacy: Lessons from Swange Dance of the Tiv People
Justin Tijime AWUAWUER
Department of Dramatic Arts
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife
Apart from treaties and other political actions that constitute diplomacy, such as economic decisions and even military, another very potent diplomatic vehicle is cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is a form of relationship that places emphasis on cultural understanding as a basis for dialogue and trust. Dance as one of the characteristics of culture is considered in this paper as a strong weapon for cultural diplomacy. The thrust of this paper is on Swange dance of the Tiv people which is popularized and performed by the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture (BSCAC) within and outside the shores of Africa. The paper therefore outlines the contributions of the dance to the national and international cultural diplomacy which is seen as a soft power approach that has to be recognized as a means of resolving conflicts, settle disputes, build sustainable relationships between countries, and strengthen economic ties and respect for human rights.
Today, cultural diplomacy is practiced alongside other generic forms. The act of cultural diplomacy has grown to become a global industry with legal foundations and comprehensive set of conventions epitomized by Vienna Conventions on consular and diplomatic relations. Many governments enshrined the approach to cultural diplomacy within a foreign policy document and appoint a Foreign Minister to lead its implementation. In most cases, there are cultural attaches to foreign embassies who are saddled with the responsibility of coordinating and promoting cultural indices of respective home countries in countries of their resident. These cultural indices include, a people’s beliefs, rules of behaviour, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems. Since no human society exists in complete isolation, different societies also exchange and share culture providing many benefits for all societies.
A recourse to history shows that these diplomatic cultural exchanges are considered the foundations on which most developed countries found their initial inspirations. According to Galen M. Fisher: Americans were fascinated with Japanese art. In the early years of Japan’s opening to the West, art curator Ernest Fenollosa from Harvard University became entranced by Japanese art and took a teaching job at Tokyo Imperial University. Fenollosa worked for the preservation of Japan’s traditional art and became curator of Imperial Art Museum of Japan. Like many Western art aficionados of the time, Fenollosa also took a large number of Japanese art objects out of Japan back to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts where he became curator of Oriental art. In addition, American women became very interested in art trinkets from Japan and they sold well in the United States in the interwar years (122- 23).
Considering Galen’s chronicle, as it relates to the potency of cultural diplomacy, it is also believed that as “Oriental” as Japan seemed, the Japanese had escaped. Japan had modernized itself on the Western model and looked not at all like the Orient but more like the modern West. “But Japan has proved itself possessed in high degree of the very qualities which we have regarded as peculiarly belonging to the Occident” (Inui 150). This lack of interest in the transfer of culture made in the USA across the Atlantic is surprising, because post-war Europe would not be the same without the ubiquitous presence of America – in television, movie houses and music clubs, fast foods and matters of lifestyle, popular literature and musicals, education and the style of political campaigning.
Alexander Stephan states that: In a sharp reversal of its withdrawal from Europe after 1918, after the end of World War II Washington employed all available tools of public and cultural diplomacy to influence the hearts and minds of Europeans. Simultaneously, and with much more success, American popular culture, which had already established firm footholds in the Old World during the Golden Twenties, invaded Europe with new intensity in the second half of the twentieth century, first by winning over the young and then by gradually eroding the resistance put up by elites eager to protect traditional high culture. The anti-Americanism that had been expressed in different forms and in varying intensity since the 1940s in most European countries by the political right and left alike seemed to have largely vanished by 1990(1).
To buttress further, German conservatives today still complain that German postwar culture was overwhelmed by outside forces (Holthusen 47). They claim that Anglo-Saxon mercantilism, with its utilitarian model of civilization, has triumphed over German values and traditions, while washing machines, refrigerators, and electric shavers have usurped the place of humanism, intellect, and insight (Kahler 91) Technology, the big cities, and tourism are described, without mincing words, as “extermination camps for the individual” (Kuby 93).
Although, such cultural diplomacies and exchanges may also have drawbacks; however, the advantages of such practices are overwhelming owing to the fact that now, with this global policy, the United Nations has encouraged cultural exchange as a means of fostering goodwill between countries by way of cultural touring, which includes folk troupes, among others to present folk dances. This is because national, state, and local tourist agencies have gone beyond ambassadorship and have discovered the value of dances and dance troupes that are identified as their own. Visitors can be entertained, absorb some local culture, and support the economy for national development.
Following these kinds of global developments on cultural adaptation and transfer, Nigeria as a nation state has a cultural policy that is closely linked to an important aspect of the foreign policy operated within the framework of its strong cultural foundations. This can also be deduced from Nigeria’s preoccupation with West Africa’s integration, African Unity, and strong links with the Diaspora that can be easily explained by the Nigerian concept of being ‘our brother’s keeper.’ The experience of performing some Nigerian dances beyond the shores of the nation or African region is quite interesting for both Nigerians staying abroad and even non-Nigerians. This is affirmed based on the fact that on several occasions, foreign scholars and students of dance are always visiting the Department of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife researching into various kinds of Nigerian dances. This kind of development shows that Nigerian dances could be marketed for cultural diplomacy with the attendant international dividends.
However, Nigeria as a nation is lagging behind in the area of policy implementation that would support the global marketing of the various dances for its cultural diplomacy objectives. This negative attitude towards the indigenous dances by the policy makers informs the problem which this paper is set to address. Using Swange dance as template, the paper will attempt to outline the justification of Nigerian dances to the national and international cultural diplomacy, which is rather a strong potent alternative to other means of diplomatic ties with nation states.
Swange Dance and Cultural Diplomacy
Swange, a popular dance among the Tiv of Benue State, has gone through several modifications, as response to periods within the purview of the Tiv socio-economic and political changes. To be precise, the modifications began from Gbangi to Swange, Swange to Kpingi, Kpingi to Ngigh-Ngigh, and, recently, Baka (Baka is currently used at night clubs while Swange has been sustained by the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture, Makurdi). This makes the origin of Swange dance obscure because of its changing and transitional nature. However, Gbilekaa postulates that:
Swange music and dance started as Gbangi in 1940s in Makurdi. By 1950s, it had spread to Gboko. At the time its chief exponent was Yanmoel Yashi. It was a dance band that was created by the exigencies of urban life, as a tool for protest which gave vent for the expression of frustration by Tiv youth who felt they were not fairly treated by society or fate (44).
However, this work is not concerned with the evolution of Swange dance; but a fundamental issue worth noting is that Swange which began as a folk dance is popularized within the precept of cultural diplomacy. The Benue State Council for Arts and Culture (BSCAC) is able to carry Swange dance to many countries in their quest to encourage peace and intercultural harmony. Even though, there are other troupes of Swange dance whether performed in Nigeria or abroad, the group that popularized the dance is basically the BSCAC Troupe. In personal interactions with Terseer Aernyi, the present Executive Director, BSCAC, and Richard Tsevende, the immediate past Executive Director, BSCAC, both of them posit that the popularization of this dance has earned their audiences undying love and respect for Benue, and Nigeria and their dance.
In recognition for this, therefore, their excellence in performances, the Federal and State Governments have often sent this troupe to so many parts of the world, where it keeps performing for selected audiences and bringing back State and National Honours. According to Denis Teghtegh in an oral interview:
Its reputation has widened its scope even abroad that other countries like Burkina Faso, South Africa, Guinea and other nations’ cultural troupes have adopted Swange dance as part and parcel of their artistic forms.
Emphasizing on the functionality of Swange music and dance in one of his papers Teghtegh also states that:
Dance has been able to unite the Tiv people, even when in disagreement; the Tiv man cannot be dispassionate when he or she hears the sound of drums. In the case of Swange dance, nobody either Tiv or Ibo or Yoruba or Hausa, listens to its lyrics and fails to at least nod his head in appreciation. Through this dance, diverse people are often seen at state functions gyrating to its erotic dance steps. At this point, nobody remembers where they come from (157-8).
Theses lyrics clearly show that Swange dance could be viewed within the context of national integration. Elaborating on this, therefore, Jenkwe concludes that:
Swange is therefore taking a new and significant cultural meaning as ‘respectable’ music and dance will most likely assure and added importance in the life of the Tive people as the icon of their contemporary cultural life (36).
Not that this dance is only popular within the Tiv social milieu, it has become a national dance. The presidency and other federal ministries at the Federal Capital Territory, FCT-Abuja are constantly inviting the BSCAC to perform Swange dance for international visitors.
In an oral interview, Shanyo Monica, Troupe Manager, BSCAC unequivocally states that: During the pre-mobile phone era in Nigeria, that is when the use of handsets were not in vogue, especially during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, the BSCAC troupe was always on the road to and fro Abuja for performances. Sometime after leaving Abuja for Makurdi after a command performance they were made to return back to Abuja from the Agan toll gate, Makurdi for a Swange performance for yet another set of august visitor(s).
From the above, one can see the reason why Swange dance is without doubt considered an international dance. If Swange dance is accepted and appreciated locally and globally, how can it not be used as a tool to engender cultural diplomacy for national integration and development? Advancing further on the above, Teghtegh aptly states what considers a good development about Swange dance. According to him: Event of the recent past, such as Chogm, Coja etc, have proven that Swange dance is an effective rallying point for national integration. For once the entire country was basking in the euphoria of hosting the world, the best were brought to choreograph the opening and closing ceremony and Swange formed the basis upon which other dances were built (160).
This was a good development that a bit of Tiv culture was let loose for others to learn as the Tiv artists also learn from other cultures. One could also imagine that as the festivities were going on, artists would have been able to communicate with the Benue artists and made friends. This friendship will expand beyond the present scope the Ibo man may visit Benue to see his friend and the Tiv boy will also visit Oyo to see his friend. This certainly will enhance tolerance paving ways for national development.
Again, during the 2014 Nigerian Universities Games (NUGA) hosted by Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, the BSCAC Swange troupe, powered by the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi performed Swange live to colour the scenario that made the University of Agriculture, Makurdi to win the hosting right for the next edition of the NUGA. During the time of their performance at the event, the writer of this paper made an attempt to sample opinions from some students and officials of the event, who came from various universities to ascertain if there was need for the dance at that moment. All the respondents commended the Swange dance performance and held that the dance was a factor that stands to establish Benue State as a cultural icon. These positive responses from the various respondents suggest that, a cultural material such as dance could be used to foster unity amongst the multifaceted nations in Nigeria.
At the Obafemi Awolowo University Staff Club, the BSCAC Swange troupe performed after the closing ceremony of NUGA 2014 and most colleagues who knew the writer as a Tiv person came giving complements for the wonderful Swange dance they watched. According to Adewale Adedolapo: As the troupe began the performance at the club, all the people who were at the club, were moved an unconsciously danced to the rhythm along side with the troupe dancers without actually understanding the meaning (Oral Interview).
This positive reaction from people of various cultural backgrounds to the Swange music and dance is an indication that it is not only appealing but also a potent tool for Nigeria’s integration and nation development. Similarly, a colleague from the Department of Philosophy, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Y.K. Salami on watching the dance submits in an oral interview with the writer that:
Swange dance like any African or Nigerian folk or popular dance is a potent tool for cultural orientation and national identity which must be harnessed for a national development. The diversity of Nigerian nation states and cultures can be used to bring out a Nigerian culture. More importantly, Nigeria can only survive when we are able to use these dances and other related cultural indices that reflect the cultural nationalities in Nigeria (Oral Interview).
At the National Conference and Annual General Meeting held at the Benue State University, Makurdi in 2013, the same BSCAC troupe performed live for the conferees at the Cocktail Party and all expressed satisfaction for the wonderful Swange dance performance. Another colleague in the department of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Bayo Afolabi who was in attendance concluded in and oral interview that:
Swange dance as performed by the BSCAC was really a display of Tiv and Nigerian national identity. It is an avenue for relaxation, social commentary and above all a tool for national integration, economic and political development (Oral Interview).
In furtherance to the diplomatic networks of Swange dance, the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture has in many times performed the dance beyond the shores of Nigeria and sometimes Africa.
Diplomatic Engagements of Swange Dances from the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture
1980 Northern Nigeria Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in Stuttgart, West Germany
1981 Music Festival in Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom.
1981 Indigenous People’s Theatre Association Festival in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
1983 World Music Festival, London
1992 Universal Exposition, Seville, Spain
1997 OAU Pan African Music Festival, Congo Brazzaville
1997 3rd Pan African Historical Theatre Festival (PANAFEST ’97) in Ghana
1990 The Troupe performed in Libya on the invitation of that country
2000 The Troupe also performed in Libya for the second time on the invitation of that country
2006 Venezuela 2006
2007 Canada, Quebeque and Otawa, Toronto, London and Niagra Falls
2008 Cuba – Invitation by Cuban Government
2008 Mexico – Invitation by Mexican Government
2008 South Korea – Invitation by Korean Government
2009 Canada – Invitation by Canadian Government
2009 Jerusalem – Invitation by the Israeli Government (20-28 August)
2010 Golf Tournament – Otukpo Golf and Country Club of Benue State Vs Achimota Golf Club of Ghana
2010 France, Paris
2010 United States of America – Atlanta (August)
2012 Malaysia, Kota-Kinabalu
2012 South Korea, Yeousu
Sources: BSCAC Performing Troupe of Nigeria at Nigerian Week of Arts & Culture, Tel-Aviv, Israel (Events’ Programme), 20th-26th August, 2009 and Oral Interviews.
Swange Dance Troupe in Paris
Beforehand, Swange began to receive patronage from the government, especially the then Benue-Plateau State, under J.D. Gomwalk as Governor. Swange dance was then featured at various Nigerian national festivals and ceremonies like Independence Day celebrations. According to Mbatyerede, it was due to the dexterity of Swange dance troupe that Aliyu Akwe Doma, the then Director of the Benue-Plateau State Council for Arts and Culture in Jos chose the troupe and handed them to the governor for screening and final preparations for departure to perform internationally in Algeria and Canada, which gave the troupe recognition above some of the traditional dances in Nigeria (Oral Interview).
This kind of cultural diplomacy highlights the necessary ingredients that this diplomatic venture brings into diplomatic ties that bring development. In recognition of the diplomacy, first of all, it brings about recognition and understanding, appreciation of various cultures that were previously comprehended with prejudices. This process of cultural diplomacy brings cultural equity/democracy, which is described as a set of related commitments: protecting and promoting cultural diversity, and the right to culture for everyone in our society and around the world; encouraging active participation in community cultural life; enabling people to participate in cultural policy decisionsthat affect the quality of our cultural lives; and assuring fair and equitable accessto cultural resources and support.
This methodology of cultural diplomacy and exportation ensures that each society, nation or race recognizes the distinct cultural dynamics of the other. This recognition affords equal human rights on equal terms. In the area of understanding, the parties gain understanding of the traditions, history, language and general way of life that is pertinent to the engaging party. This does not necessarily mean that all aspects of culture must be accepted. The concept here is merely to be understood that cultural diplomacy respects the traditional communication requirement of encoder vs decoder. Swange dance, in this regard, becomes one of the folk media that is constantly negotiating the cultural diplomacies between Nigeria and other part of the world as be seen from the records above.
Swange Dance as performed by the BSCAC
Deducing from the above, one sees that other countries sponsor the BSCAC troupe to perform Swange dance in their various countries. In communication, this presupposes that while the other person is speaking, others should listen. Symbolically, in dance, this means while the other party is presenting her performance, the other party watches and thinks about the intricacies. After the presentation, dialogue is opened where comparisms and analyses are made. This brings out possible areas of cooperation between nations. Sometimes, this dialogue is held with the aid of an interpreter which logically leads to cultural exchanges with the sole aim of playing a critical role on the cultural diplomacy of a government. It seeks to develop cultural understanding between citizens of different countries.
For instance, in the United States, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State sponsors in whole or in part many exchange programmes, such as the Fulbright Programme and the International Visitor Leadership Programme. Nigeria is already doing this but it is not yet formalized. For instance, in 2008 when the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture toured Mexico, at a time Professor Iyorwuese Hagher, a Theatre Arts practitioner was Nigeria’s Ambassador to Mexico, it resulted in Mexico sending an artist, a female choreographer, by name Mary Carmel, to visit and learn from BSCAC Swange dance and, on her part, she taught the group Chinese, Mexican, India, and Japanese dances for a period of one year which actually began diplomatic links between Nigeria and Mexico.
BSCAC arranging musical ensemble for Swange dance while a foreigner watches with keen interest
Furthermore, cases of Swange dance in Nigerian diplomatic missions are enormous as outlined above. Benue State, like any other state in the country, has been actively involved in using Swange dance in carrying out the mandate of cultural diplomacy as expected of all ministries of cultures in the country and their agencies like the Councils for Arts and Culture. With the source from Department of Research and Documentation of the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture, and other sources from oral interviews from key officers and the immediate past Executive Director of the council, Richard Tsevende, this paper will attempt a graphic view of what the Swange dance, as managed by the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture, has been doing in the area of cultural diplomacy for nearly thirty five years. From the year 1980 to 2014, the council has been engaged internationally for varying diplomatic reasons. The above illustration shows some of these diplomatic engagements of Swange dance from the troupe.
In a co-authored paper, Don Saa-Aondo Iorngurum and Richard Tsevende give explanations regarding the diplomatic potency of Nigerian dances. First and foremost, in 1983, the Commonwealth Institute in collaboration with the British Council organized a World Music Festival. It was a one-month long fiesta, which was held within the premises of the Commonwealth Institute, London. Nigeria was one of the countries invited for the festival. The British had this idea of reuniting their former colonies through this forum even though they could not accommodate all of their former colonies because of their large number. The objective of the festival was however to acquaint Member States of the entertainment culture of each other, and entertain people within London and its environs. This experience was also a basis for cultural diplomacy which this paper is agitating for.
This exercise provided a good market for the music industry world-wide. BSCAC was even test-recorded as a pre-requirement for the festival on compact disc by manufacturers of the compact disc system, which launched its presence soon after the festival. For this recording BSCAC was paid five thousand pounds. Performances were scheduled in two major places: an indoor theatre and an open air arena. Every day, people converged at these two venues to watch performances from countries. Each session of the events, was chaired by a prominent citizen of Britain. Symposia were also organised. The press was heavily present, representing the interest of their various organisations national interests. It is, as expected, that after this festival, some of the Commonwealth states that participated maintained their contacts and cultural collaborations in many ways. As already stated, this is a clear avenue that binds the member nations together.
Again, in 1992, there was a World Trade Mission, an exposition of trade potentialities of the different nations despite their political leanings. Countries from the North, South, East and West were all represented. The economy was the main focus. The Fair was meant to pave way for the economy of the state. Benue State troupe represented Nigeria at this event. For BSCAC, it was quite an experience in that for the very first time, Blacks from the South Pacific (Papua New Guinea) were performing along side with the Benue troupe. According to Tsevende, a close interaction with these Blacks revealed that they were the last slaves that were in transit to the United States of America when the abolition of the slave trade was announced. The slave merchants had to find a nearby island to abandon them; thus, they are a black nation in the middle of whites (Oral interview).
Subsequently, in 2008, the Cuban government invited the Benue State troupe to visit. This was the period when Fidel Castro was indisposed and he later handed over power to his brother. The Benue contingent performed in Cuba alongside some local Cuban theatre troupes. All the places they visited were pre-arranged by the Cuban authorities. It was not very clear why the government had invited Nigeria; but one reasons that there was a political undertone since all the venues were filled to capacity. The performances provided some kind of relaxation to the nation that was obviously tensed up, probably as a result of Fidel Castro’s indisposition as was alleged.
In addition, in 2009, the BSCAC Swange troupe had a trip to celebrate Nigeria Day in Israel. The invitation came from the Nigerian Embassy in Israel. Members of Nigerian film Industry were also invited. During the occasion, the Nollywood team talked about the Nigerian film industry while the Benue State Council talked about Benue people, their dances and movement. It is on record that the Benue State Swange dance was the first dance that brought out the Mayor of Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem to dance publicly, along with the troupe.
As pointed out earlier, whenever there is a visitor to Benue State from the oriental countries, BSCAC thrills them with their own Swange dance steps to their amazement. It was during this visit that the Government of Benue and Mexico saw the need for the troupe to visit Mexico again. This second visit resulted into the two countries signing an agreement for the development of a wild part in Kyogen, Kwande Local Government Area of Benue State. After this, the troupe was again invited to Mexico for the third time to attend the Gwuanagwato International Festival in 2007. This exchange was and is still mutually beneficial to both countries. It served as a catalyst for cooperation between individuals and organisations in Mexico and Nigeria that is still vibrant.
Through cultural exchanges such as dance, nations are brought to appreciate their differences and common interests. It is this importance of culture that has informed all diplomatic entities to incorporate cultural specialists on the list of their corps. Cultural dance performances open up salient areas such as belief systems or world view which in turn explains why nationalities take certain decisions of which country to relate with and what relationship it should be and the extent of mutuality that the relationship should attract. It exposes countries to cultural aesthetics of one another which is generally brought about by mode of costuming and make up.
This justifies the fact that Swange dance like any folk dance is a good diplomatic instrument. It speaks volumes during performances as it conveys the message through music, movements and the attendant gestures and facial expressions. Seeing the potentials and power of dance as an export product capable of cementing relationships with other countries, it is therefore not an over statement when one concludes that Swange dance like most cultural dances is an exportable commodity just like other solid products but the advantage of cultural export is that it intricately communicates with the importing community in unique cultural idioms that also entertains.
It is the submission of this paper that, more effort should be made by the states and federal government in such a way that folk and popular dances are promoted abroad, thrust into visibility in foreign markets, in order to attract tourist dollars. Because they also constitute sites and events where local governments carry out the role of facilitating national culture for foreign consumption on the one hand, and scrutinizing, controlling, and policing public spaces where manifestations of that culture are exhibited on the other.
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BSCAC Performing Troupe of Nigeria at Nigerian Week of Arts & Culture, Tel-Aviv, Israel (Events’ Programme), 20-26 Aug. 2009.