Power and the Praise Poem


by Landeg White and Leroy Vail
James Curry Publishers 1992

Highly regarded for their interdisciplinary approach to the history of central and southern Africa, Leroy Vail and Landeg White now provide us with a thorough study of the political role of the poet in the oral societies of southern Africa.


“For example, the continuity that binds the oral tradition to modern expression in African literature has been convincingly demonstrated by Leroy Vail and Landeg White in their study Power and the Praise Poem (1991), a study that has the special merit of indicating the possibility of arriving at a unified vision of the entire field of African literature by proceeding from structural analysis of formal features to the conventions they enjoin and the apprehension of the world they entail.”

F. Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi
The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature

“An eloquent and masterful presentation of the voice of the voiceless in southern Africa for the past century, the voiceless who are not just ‘the masses’ or ‘the people’ or ‘popular culture’ but distinct groupings within the population with different concerns and interests and also different views on the past. To me this message is crucial for any historical understanding, and because it does so and does it so well, this book far transcends its stated goal … I have little doubt that it will become a classic.”

Jan Vansina, University of Wisconsin

“This book represents the mature fruit of a pair of original and penetrating minds applying a virtuoso range of talents and academic disciplines to produce a tour de force of African intellectual history … The substantive conclusions are entirely novel (sometimes profoundly revisionistic), inherently interesting, often explicitly suggestive of points of broad resonance through the disciplines in which they are working, and presented with an intensity and conviction that easily carries the reader through all their intricacy … There is no comparable work in terms of the substantive subject and the hypotheses argued. Their conclusions represent a significance advance on anything else around.”

J. Miller, University of Virgina

“ … destined to be a major reference in African cultural studies. It is a marvel of the interdisciplinary approach to African oral literature, involving African history, politics and culture. They present their observations from perspectives that accord significance to the intentions of African composers, and their study will certainly help to put to rest any lingering doubts aboun the qualification of foreign scholars to research African subjects.”


“This impressive book offers a general interpretation of the role of poetry and song in southern African societies … In placing southern African oral literature squarely within its varied social and historical contexts, Vail and White have not only helped to understand that literature, they have simultaneously illuminated myriad aspects of recent social and political history. Their book shows us the way forward to a better understand of both poetry and politics in southern Africa.”


“Power and the Praise Poem is an academic watershed … It has liberated studies of sub-continental oral literature from the thrall of Proppian structuralism and performance studies … It has an invaluable function to play by placing questions of intellectual activity on the agenda … The book also offers an exciting model for an understanding of gender and culture … It should play a crucial role in attempting to reactivate the ‘Cinderella’ discipline of African literary studies and should be compulsory reading for any student in the area … Vail and White have a great deal to offer for those interested in questions of literature and history. The models implicit in their work may also be salutary reminders of the rigour that such interdisciplionary studies demand … A highly readable, wry and remarkable text.”

Journal of African History