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Research project

Verba Africana

The project "Verba Africana: African Languages and Oral Literatures: DVDs and Internet Materials" aims to document African oral genres (poems, narratives, songs etc.) for teaching and research. This project was developed by D.Merolla.

The Verba Africana series publishes video recording of oral performances, on CDRom's, DVD’s and the Internet, for documentation, research, and the e-learning of African oral languages and literatures. The video recording of African oral genres, such as poems, songs and tales, is integrated into the presentation of relevant aspects, such as language, form, content, performance, literary, social and historical context. The videos and the accompanying material allow researchers and the interested public to approach oral literary productions as ‘total event’ distributed in several 'layers' (short information and full articles).   

Crucial to Verba Africana is the method of interviewing performers, their public, and people who have knowledge and/or experience about the recorded verbal arts. Collecting "digital personal narratives" allows to enrich - and sometime to create the first one – documentary materials that enable researches to understand texts and social contexts of the recorded verbal arts. Video recording of verbal arts and digital personal narratives are integrated into the Verba Africana series together with their analysis and with (published or unpublished) research papers. The series adopts a web page model - with videos, texts and hyperlinks – which makes it possible for general public and researchers to choose among several levels of description and analysis. 

The technical support is offered by the ITC of Leiden University. Ideation and Coordination of Verba Africana: dr. Daniela Merolla, African Literatures, African Languages and Cultures, Leiden University.

There are 5 volumes of Verba Africana at the moment. The video documentation and the accompanying materials are available on the Internet through the Portal and the webpage located on the Leiden University Web. See: 

Verba Africana PORTAL

CDRom's and DVD’s offer subtitles with transcription and translation, while the video fragments on the Internet are available without subtitles in the case of the first two volumes and with subtitles with translation in the case of the other volumes. Transcription and Translation are always available in the accompanying textual materials. 

The Video Documentation offers audio-video recording with subtitles (trascription and translation). It presents examples of documentation collected by researchers and students during their fieldwork. We hope to be able to offer professional video recordings in the future.   

The volumes are free and intended for education and research. African Libraries can obtain the volumes on request and free of charges.   

Verba Africana is presently integrated in the project "Multimedia Research and Documentation of African Oral Genres: Connecting Diasporas and Local Audiences" coordinated by Daniela Merolla and Jan Jansen (Leiden University) and funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific research (NWO). The project takes place at Leiden University in cooperation with the African Departments of partner universities in Europe and Africa.   

The importance of studying oral literature has been recognized by interdisciplinary research and international organizations alike (see in particular UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Declaration). Folktales, myths, poems and many other oral genres represent a cultural harvest of human and artistic worth, addressing and giving form to fundamental questions and the acquisitions of individuals and societies alike. As oral literatures are a fundamental part of the intangible heritage of African cultures, it is hardly surprising that the urge to document and understand classic and new forms of oral genres has animated African cultural studies over the past decades. 

While written transcription remains a key element in the textual analysis of oral genres, new forms of video documentation and research are thus needed to give greater space to the intonation, the gestures and the eventual musical accompaniment, to the interactions between performer and public, and to all those elements that usually get lost in written forms of documentation and study. Indeed, films and new media technologies such as digital video recording, websites, mobile phones, weblogs and chat-boxes have revolutionized the production of oral literature in Africa. 

A growing number of African ‘artists of the word’ – storytellers and singers – make use of new media technologies to create and spread their songs and poems. They perform in ‘classic’ oral situations as well as for the radio and in music halls and make use of the microphone, audio-cassettes and video. While storytellers and singers still create their performances through oral improvisation, they increasingly record their texts (or others do it for them). Storytellers and their pupils increasingly make use of recorded materials to teach, learn and to create oral performances. Audio-video recording has thus become a fundamental tool for studying oral performances and documenting them for future generations. At the same time, video documentation is not the ‘ultimate solution’ since it only covers a part of the performance; as is the case with written transcription, it implies a process of selection and thus contains the risk of manipulation. 

Audio-visual recording technology is not only a mechanical tool to record events; it affects what is documented. Kaschula (2004 a, b) has proposed the new term ‘technauriture’ which integrates technology, auriture (the aural aspects of producing and receiving oral literature) and literature. Technauriture is proposed as a paradigm for engaging with the interplay of orality, written word and technology and its contextualization ‘within a post-modern milieu that has historically undervalued the spoken word’ as well as for maintaining the central role of orality in discourses on technological media (see Kaschula and Mostert 2009, Mostert 2011). Another positive aspect, it seems to me, is that ‘technauriture’ – as term and paradigm – offers the opportunity to bridge the arguments pivoting on loss and innovation in previous debates. 

The electronic tools indeed offer opportunities to share African oral literatures locally and internationally by reformulating scientific research to address multiple publics. Thanks to the use of hyperlinks and sub-pages, websites can diversify the information they offer to academic publics as well as the ‘grand publique’ increasingly interested in African culture because of migration and globalization. Moreover, to avoid the risk of ‘talking back’ rather than ‘talking with’ the partners (scholars and artists) in Africa, new forms of partnership can be launched that make use of virtual chat-boxes, village foundations, and digital museum displays for mapping oral genres and storytelling in video documentation and online research. 

Verba Africana Series is an enlarged publication that repsonds to the challenges of the orality-technology cirrent interactions. 

Text above is from: 2012. Merolla, D. Reflections on the Project: "African Oral Literatures, New Media, and Technologies: Challenges for Research and Documentation." The Global South, 5/2: 154-162

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