Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Casual Stereotyping?

Just finished reading an article by a history professor, Laura Fair, entitled Ngoma Reverberations: Swahili Music Culture and the Making of Football Aesthetics in Early Twentieth-century Zanzibar. No laughing at the back, there. Yes, I do this for fun.

The article is crap and to be honest I'm not sure how Richard Giulianotti allowed it to appear in his recent collection of articles on African football. It's not a bad piece on the early history of football in a particular corner of East Africa, but the empirical basis to conclude that football aesthetics in Zanzibar were influenced by ngoma (a local form of competitive music, drumming and poetry) is next to nil.

Her prime pieces of evidence are: 1) both football and ngoma provided ways for socially marginal people to become famous; 2) both football and ngoma begat regional rivalries based on class and ethnicity; 3) both football and ngoma caused large numbers of middle-aged men to sit around discussing tactics instead of doing productive work.

Words fail. Has the author never been around men in groups larger than two? The number of activities that men and boys can use to elevate the useless, fight each other and bullshit about tactics is almost endless - scrabble, drinking games, hockey, Pokemon cards - you name it. Someone needs to tell this woman that correlation is not causation.

Towards the end, she actually gets to the point of saying that the Zanzibar "style" of play is more about individual brilliance rather than efficient team play. And I got to thinking - you know, I've heard that before.

I can't, offhand, think of a non-Confucian third world country whose playing style is ever described as being "team-oriented". Virtually all of Africa is described as being "flair-oriented". So, too, is most of South America, with the exception of Argentina (which is, of course, probably the "whitest" of the South American countries). Sometimes, in pop anthropology not far removed from Dr. Fair's efforts, anglophone commentators ascribe Brazilian brilliance on the pitch to their love for capoeira. This, as far as I can tell, is nonsense. Anyone who tried any vaguely capoeira-like moves on the pitch would either be sent off (e.g. Cantona) or laughed off.

One can make the case, of course, that because young people in poor countries don't have proper training facilities, they rarely learn the fundamentals of team-play from an early age and therefore must needs become flair-oriented individualists. I can accept that.

But ascribing Afro-Brazilian flair to things like ngoma and capoeira... isn't that just a fancy way of saying that "Blacks have rhythm"?

Just Asking.

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