2.2  IN PRAISE OF THE WORD: Traditional African Oral Arts
HUM 211 Online Course Pack - Winter 2010  Fall 2007
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SHORT CUTS on this web page: In Praise of the Word | Orality and Literacy: Different Ways of Knowing | Twi Proverb |
Ikemefuna's Song [from Things Fall Apart] | Fulani Poetic Genres | African Music and Culture |
African Tribal Dances & Music
(CD) | Works Cited


In many traditional African cultures, oral arts are professionalized: the most accomplished storytellers and praise singers are initiates (griots or bards), who have mastered many complex verbal, musical, and memory skills after years of specialized training.  This training often includes a strong spiritual and ethical dimension required to control the special forces believed to be released by the spoken/sung word in oral performances.  These occult powers and primal energies of creation and destruction are called nyama by Mande peoples of Western Africa, for example, and their jeli, or griots, are a subgroup of the artisan professions that the Mande designate nyamakalaw, or “nyama-handlers.”  Following a traditional griot performance of a spiritually-charged oral epic like Sundjiata, a Malian audience might ritualistically chant, “!Ka nyama bo!”-- which could be translated something like, “May the powers of nyama safely disperse!”  This power of the spoken word is expressed in the following praise poem of the West African Bamara (AKA: Bambara) peoples:

Praise of the Word

The word is total:
it cuts, excoriates
forms, modulates
perturbs, maddens
cures or directly kills
amplifies or reduces
According to intention
It excites or calms souls.

--Praise song of a bard of the Bamara Komo society
(Louis-Vincent Thomas and Rene Luneau, Les Religions d’Afrique noire, textes et traditions sacres, as cited in Gleason xxxvii).

However, this sense of the spoken word’s awesome power has largely been lost in writing-based societies of the West.

Learn more about the Bamana people: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Bamana.html 
and Mali: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Mali.html 
Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html


Orality and Literacy: Different Ways of Knowing
See also Orality vs. Literacy Chart (Word doc):

            Human culture encompasses all that is learned, and language is a primary means for learning and transmitting one’s culture, as most Western anthropologists would maintain.  Furthermore, linguistic theorists like Walter Ong maintain that a culture’s dominant means of communication shape its people’s consciousness and ways of knowing the world.  Ong ascribes fundamental differences among cultures—and the arts and technologies they create and value—to whether those cultures are oral or literate (writing-based). 

  Orality vs. Literacy: Different Ways of Knowing
(derived from Walter Ong, Howard Gardner, Chinua Achebe)

Traditional Oral Cultures

Literate (Writing-based) Cultures

1. Knowledge is sacred, secret, magical power, immanent in the spoken word (God’s/gods’ word initiating creation and destruction)

1.  Knowledge—both sacred and secular--largely resides in books and writing-based repositories of a culture’s information, which many can freely access (e.g. in a democracy)

2. Time is cyclical, non-linear: you live in the “always” of inseparably intertwined past, present, and future (the community = all past, present, and to-be-born members)

2. Time is conceived as linear; history is written down with clear demarcations separating past, present, and future events and communities

3.  Knowledge must be
re-called, re-created,
re-interpreted constantly, or you lose it; orature “lives” only as long as it is repeated, performed by the community, passed on to the next generations

3. Knowledge is preserved by writing it down, collecting it (e.g. in libraries, archives), organizing and cataloging it
so that it can be retrieved by readers and researchers.  

4. You are (know) what you can remember, so you must strive to remember, think and orally perform memorable thoughts.  Sophisticated oral memory systems requiring years of “saturated listening” and oral performance training are developed so that people can remember and thereby ensure the culture’s vitality and survival

4. Memory is devalued, as are skills of hearing, listening, speaking; instead, people rely on ‘literacy” skills of reading, writing, and conducting research to become educated and knowledgeable—i.e. we need not “remember” everything: we can “look it up” (e.g. in dictionaries, encyclopedias), read about it, write it down

5.  Elders & spoken word specialists (griots) who have mastered these memory systems and the community’s repositories of collective wisdom are revered; they are like “human libraries” or walking sacred texts, capable of astonishing feats of remembering for the benefit and survival of the people and their culture.

5. The magical, spiritual powers of the spoken word, and its skillful verbal performance, are devalued.

(And the elderly are more likely to be devalued and confined to “rest homes,” than elevated and reverently consulted for their life experience & wisdom)

6. "Orature" (e.g. recitations of proverbs, praise songs, stories, epics) denotes living performance "texts," versions of which vary a/c to performer & audience, relevantly adapted to time, place, circumstances & need. Oral "texts" depend upon direct engaged interaction between performer & audience for their transmission & power. If oral texts lose their relevance, value, skilled performers &/or receptive audiences, they may cease to be performed; when their "memory" is thus discarded, they are often irretrievably lost.

6. Written texts are published in “definitive” versions and become static--frozen in print and in time.
Author and readers do not interact directly; their relationship is distanced and individualistic.
The written word can indeed be powerful—so long as it is still read & studied.
Most written texts - old and new - are preserved (e.g. in libraries & archives) and so are not lost (even if out of print & ) & can be retrieved in future.

Ancient writing traditions do exist on the African continent, but many Africans (today as in the past) are primarily oral peoples, and their art forms are oral (and usually meant to be shared/performed with others) rather than literary (written down for reading often silently and alone by another individual).  In contrast to written literature, orature” (a term coined by esteemed Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o) is orally composed and transmitted, and African oral arts are often created to be communally performed as an integral part of dance and music.  The Oral Arts of Africa are rich and varied, developing with the beginnings of African cultures, and remaining living traditions that continue to evolve and flourish today.  

 “…Oral cultures produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances
of high artistic and human worth which are impossible
once writing has taken possession of the psyche.” –
Walter Ong

A Twi Proverb

One important oral art form of African cultures is the proverb.  Study of African proverbs (which Achebe uses frequently in Things Fall Apart) can give us important clues to rich wisdom traditions and cultural values.  In a Twi language, mmebuo is proverb-making (a proverb is called ebe in the singular, and mme in the plural form.)  Here is a Twi proverb, first given in Twi language and then followed by a literal translation into English by Kwame Anthony Appiah:

Asem a ehia Akanfoo no na Ntafoo de goro brekete

A matter which troubles the Akan people, 
the people of Gonja take to play the brekete drum. 

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a multi-linguist and philosopher now teaching in the U.S., grew up in Kumasi, Ghana, where one dialect of Twi language, often called "Akan," is the major language spoken.  (Akan refers to a cluster of Twi languages spoken by peoples of southern Ghana and adjacent Côte d'Ivoire.)  Appiah selected the above proverb from "the 7000-odd proverbs that my mother has collected over roughly the period of my lifetime, and she and some friends have been trying to understand them for the last decade or so; latterly I have joined them in setting out to prepare a manuscript that (as we say) reduces many of these sayings for the first time to writing, that glosses them in English, and that offers also, in each case, what I have offered you: what we call a literal translation."

"A translation aims to produce a new text that matters to one community the way another text matters to another," states Appiah, but literal translation cannot begin to give us the full sense a proverb's "rich cultural and linguistic context."  Given only the above literal translation in English, we would also miss the interplay of sound-rhythm-meaning [try saying the Twi proverb aloud], since a "whole class of proverbs . . . depend on playing with similar-sounding names of dissimilar objects" (Appiah, n. 2). Appiah explains that brekete "is the (Akan) name of one of the main Dagomba drums, which accompanies dancing" (n. 1), of the "people of Gonja."  A "typical use" of the above Twi (Akan) proverb, Appiah explains, might arise in a situation like this: 

I might utter it [the proverb "Asem a ehia Akanfoo no na Ntafoo de goro brekete"] in the midst of an argument with my father about whether it matters that I do not want to go to church with him one Sunday; our contrasting attitudes, he will infer, are being likened to the contrasting attitudes of Dagomba ["people of Gonja"] and Akan peoples--for the brekete drum is one they play for entertainment at dances, and represents fun.

Work Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony.  "Thick Translation."  Callaloo 16.4 (Fall 1993): 808 (12 pp). Rpt. Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A14865099.

Learn more about the Akan people:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Akan.html 
Ghana:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Ghana.html 
Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html

Ikemefuna’s Song

African writers like Chinua Achebe often introduce into literature, stories from their culture’s oral traditions—e.g., narrative proverbs, song-tales, myths, folktales, fairy tales, animal fables, anecdotes, ballads.  One example is this proverb-song given in untranslated Igbo in Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Ch. 7, p. 42:

Eze elina, elina!


Eze ilikwa ya
lkwaba akwa oligholi
Ebe Danda nechi eze
Ebe Uzuzu nete egwu


Call and Response: Call-and-response forms, found everywhere in Africa, entail a caller or soloist who “raises the song”--as the Kpelle say--and the community chorus who respond, or “agree underneath the song.”  In the case of the Igbo stories, the storyteller “calls” out the story in lines; the audience “responds” at regular intervals with a “sala” (Igbo for the chorus’ response). One common Igbo “sala” is “amanye,” roughly equivalent to American English expressions of agreement like “amen,” “indeed,” “it is true,” or “right on!”  Traditional African storytelling is a communal participatory experience.  Everyone in most traditional African societies participate in formal and informal storytelling as interactive oral performance—such participation is an essential part of traditional African social life. 

Below is a literal translation into English of Ikemefuna's song, offered by Igbo scholar Emmanuel Obiechina.  But even with the English translation--which Achebe does not give in Things Fall Apart--it is difficult for U.S. readers to make sense of this song-proverb without learning more about the cultural context of Igbo beliefs and the folktale on which Ikemefuna’s song is based.

[Singer’s call:]
King, do not eat [it], do not eat!

Sala [Chorus response]

King, if you eat it
You will weep for the abomination 
Where Danda [White Ant] installs king
Where Uzuzu [Dust] dances to the drums

Sala [Chorus response]

This Igbo proverb-story sung by the character Ikemefuna is based on an Igbo wisdom story of a perverse, headstrong king who breaks a sacred taboo by eating roast yam, from the first fruits of the harvest, which is reserved for and offered in sacrifice to the gods.

The song speaks in the communal voice of the elders’ collective wisdom and carries serious social and ethical weight.   It warns the king not to break a taboo that would compromise himself, his high office, and the continued prosperity of his people. 

A dishonorable death without proper burial rites is predicted by the last two lines: only white ants and dust will claim this headstrong king after his human death.  Thus, he will be denied reunion with ancestors and clan and be forever alienated from his community, believed to encompass the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be-born. 

Breaking this sacred taboo could seriously unbalance of the Igbo world--the kind of “abomination” for which the Igbo gods could deny future good harvests and bring devastation to Igboland.

In the context of Ch. 7 of Things Fall Apart, Ikemefuna's song offers a weighty parallel warning to the protagonist Okonkwo.  Like the headstrong king, Okonkwo is on the verge of committing a serious "abomination"--the "kind of action for which the goddess [Ani] wipes out whole families," as his friend Obierika points out (Ch. 8, p. 46).  

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Expanded edition with notes. London: Heinemann, 1996.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel. (Special Issue in Memory of Josaphat Bekunuru Kubayanda) Research in African Literatures 24.4(Winter 1993):123 (18 pp). Rpt. Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A14706083.

Learn more about the Igbo people: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Igbo.html 
and Nigeria: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Nigeria.html
Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html

Of related interest:  African Storytelling

Fulani Poetic Genres” [from article by Abdoul Aziz Sow.]

Abstract: The Fulani people of the northern Senegal River have songs which fit poetic genres. There are different songs for fishermen, weavers, warriors, hunters, cattle drivers, women griots, merchants, nomad entertainment, shepherds, lullabies, eulogies, rejoicing, mockery and special occasions.

"As elsewhere in Africa, literature among the Fulani is essentially oral and musical. It is lyrical, and it is by its very nature literary, as is every word that transcends the merely denotative or communicative functions of language. Sung, chanted, declaimed, recited, set to rhythm, or supported by gestural or musical accompaniment, it is magnified to the status of art - 'a verbal art so pure and so complete that writing, far from assuring its diffusion, merely impoverishes and weakens it by restricting its range of expression' (Seydou 178)" cited in Sow.  

"The most striking aspect of Fulani oral poetry is its rhythm. Indeed, rhythm is the most important defining characteristic of African poetry: It is its very essence. The skillful use of numerous linguistic resources in this poetry is obscured in English, which is insufficiently flexible to convey many of the verbal and aesthetic nuances of the Fulani originals. In any case, the poet is as indispensable to Fulani society as any other individual.  Steward and artisan of the word, crystallizer of the people's collective memory, eulogist of the ancestors' noble deeds and exploits, he remains the genuine promoter of cultural and social values" (Sow).

 Work Cited

Sow, Abdoul Aziz.  "Fulani Poetic Genres." (Special Issue: Oral Literature.) Research in African Literatures 24.2 (Summer 1993): 61 (17 pp).  Rpt. Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP: Article A13891469.

Learn more about the Fulani people: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Fulani.html  
and where they live:
Guinea-Conakry: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Guinea-Conakry.html
Burkina Faso: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Burkina_Faso.html 
Mali: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Mali.html
Nigeria: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Nigeria.html 
Niger: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Niger.html 
Cameroon: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Cameroon.html 
Chad: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Chad.html 
Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html


Some generalizations about African musical cultures can be hazarded even amid the continent’s rich and dizzying diversity, according to scholars J. H. Kwabena Nketia and Ruth M. Stone.

African music is woven into the fabric of daily life, performed often inseparably with games, words, drama, ceremony, visual art, and dance in both special and everyday activity.  A.M. Ipoku, director of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, tries to achieve the performance ideal of dance and music so interlocked that one “can see the music and hear the dance.” The Western idea of music as a thing of beauty to be admired in isolation is a foreign concept to many Africans.  Music promotes group participation, strengthens social cohesion, and infuses collective activity--spiritual rite, prayer, ceremony, festival; the work of building new hourses or putting out fires, the games and entertainment of leisure and recreational hours.  Individuals sing songs of praise and criticism, well-wishing and war, cradle rocking and food preparation, grinding and pounding tasks.  Call-and-response forms, found everywhere in Africa, entail a caller or soloist who “raises the song,” as the Kpelle say, and the community chorus who respond, or “agree underneath the song.”  

        Many African oral traditions include accounts of how music originated.  For example, the Kpelle people of Liberia maintain that, in the distant past, a hunter got the idea to make a goblet drum from a chimpanzee beating his chest, and the chimpanzees then showed the hunter how to hollow out a log for the body of the first drum.  To be a fully adult person in many traditional African societies means learning to perform music, song, and dance proficiently: to be a social person is to be a musical person.   In much of Africa, musical notation is heard--conveyed and learned in mnemonic phrases and vocalizations--rather than written.  Akan master drummers may teach children the talking drum by tapping the rhythms into the children’s shoulder blades and having them chant sentences of nonsense syllables in the same rhythm.  Acquiring music, like acquiring a first language rises from early and regular exposure and participation in musical situations; further training may come through apprenticeship systems for the young, individual tutelage for the especially talented, and/or special spiritual training in music for initiates into secret societies and caste professions. 

Many Africans are more sensitive to timber and pitch than most Westerners, and African instruments are characterized as human “voices,” not just sounds or rhythms.  The Shona of Zimbabwe call the lower register of the instrument mbira (a hand piano) “old men’s voices,” the middle register “young men’s voices,” and the highest register “women’s voices”; and keys are given names like “mad person,” “swaying of a person going into a trance,” and “to stir up” to show how the key works in the music.  The Yoruba speak a tone language (the pitch of a spoken syllable determines its meaning, a change in pitch can drastically change its meaning), and they have reproduced speech in their “talking drums,” the special example of musical signaling that has long fascinated Westerners.  Africa’s rich variety of drums, as well as many other types of instruments less familiar to non-Africans, are understood to sound as “voices” of interpenetrating tone colors and pitches--not simply as rhythms.  Musical sounds are typically organized against each other in conflicting and sophisticated ways, interlocked and balanced in a kind of interactive tug of war binding performers to each other and their instruments, creating togetherness out of the segmentation and fragmentation of musical elements. 

Sound is everywhere noticed, admired, and shaped--e.g., postal workers in Ghana cancel stamps in deliberate rhythm.  Everything is subject to portrayal in sound, and African music may imitate many things, including nature, bird, and spirit sounds. Music may be symbolic and representational: the Akan etivie specialize in imitating the snarl of the lion.  Even if very different, African musical performance demands and aesthetic criteria are no less exacting than those of Western musical cultures.  Performance criteria for a Dagomba hour-glass drummer of Ghana include knowledge of innumerable chants and traditional history--especially chronicles of chiefs and their praise names--demands on the oral memory unfathomable to Westerns shaped by literate-based cultures.  So too must the Dagomba performer have a sweet voice and the supple wrist needed to perform the tones and dynamics of the hourglass drum skillfully.  Members of nindo vocal groups of the Gogo people (Tanzania) must be skilled at “interlining” (feeding singers the first few words of stanzas).  Lead singers and master drummers of the Akan (Ghana) must have a formidable command of language and memory, in addition to fine strong voices and the kind of “good ear” that will not be distracted from their specific musical roles by other performing parts of the chorus--called gofomma (or “the children”).

Performers--singers, dancers, storytellers, actors, instrumentalists--are vital to ceremony, individual and communal life.  Their participatory audience may also count ancestors and spirits among these exacting judges of performance -- dangerously so, for example, if a virtuoso musician’s tutelary spirit ultimately requires the performer’s life in exchange for the spirit’s aid in achieving especially fine playing.   The player may offer sacrifices to his instrument to please and bond with instruments considered part-human, part-spirit nature.  The kora (harp-lute) is considered a personal extension of the Western African griot--itinerant praise singer, historian, and social commentators of Mali, Senegal, and Mande-speaking traditions stretching back at least to the time of Sundjata (1230-1255 A.D.), the first emperor of Mali.  (We’ll be studying this topic in connection with the film Keita: Heritage of the Griot.)  Contemporary Africans’ search for identity and awareness of past cultural achievements has given new urgency to promoting, preserving, and re-creating African musical traditions.

Music is expressed in a dazzling variety of instruments, creative forms, and performance styles in Africa today, as in the past.  And the forms of African music continue to evolve and multiply as cross-cultural influences within and outside Africa meet and combine.  For example, modern mergers of indigenous and Western musical forms have produced such uniquely African styles as East African beni and West African “highlife” drawing on brass band music; soukous, which echoes soul and disco music, of Zaire; the early forms of Nigerian juju and fuji which incorporated electric guitar and banjo; and South African makwaya which fuses Xhosa rhythms, European vocal harmonies, and ragtime.  Growing international audiences count themselves enthusiastic admirers of the “African World Beat.”  The township jive chorals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the juju beat of King Sunny Ade, the Afro-funk of Angelique Kidjo of Benin, the Algerian rai syle of Chaba Fadela, the soukous of Tabu Ley Rochereau (Zaire), the Caribbean-Parisian zouk band Kassav, and the South African anthology  Indestructible Beat of Soweto are only a few tributaries feeding the vital new river of musical inspiration and influence flowing out of the rich talent and diverse cultures of Africa.

Adapted from (1) The Music of Africa by J. H. Kwabena Nketia (NY: Norton, 1974), and (2) “African Music Performed” by Ruth M. Stone (in Africa, 3rd ed., ed. by Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995], 257-272).  

African Tribal Music and Dances
Featuring Music of the Malinke, Baoule and Others

(1993;  CD: Laserlight-Delta Music, Santa Monica, CA; licensed from Tradition Records)

This CD includes traditional music of the Mande or Malinke (Senegal and Guinea, West Africa); the Baoule (Cote d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast, West Africa); and “Sonar Senghor and His Rhythms,” including sicco dance rhythms of Guinea; music styles originating in Cameroon; Senegalese sicco; Walof (or Wolof) songs and rhythms of Senegal; and cross-cultural songs and rhythms combining sou sou dialect of Guinea, “goombay” dialect of Gambia, and Walof rhythms of Senegal.  Sicco, originating in French Guinea, is the name of a very practical, simple dance, accompanied by a distinctive rhythm created with rectangular and square drums, maracas, cowbells, a bottle struck with an iron pestle, and/or a ridged gourd rubbed by a wooden stick. 
Content and occasions for some of the songs:
  (1) a joyous song of a people returning to rebuild their village ruined by fire: “we have come back to rebuild our village and plant new crops, and resume once again the happy life we knew here”; (2)  a sentimental song “we are going back,” of a young man whose people have been feted by another far-away people for two days, but now must leave a pretty young woman; (3) a happy song of a young girl who has convinced her mother to let her go out and play and have fun, rather than do her chores—such songs are often accompanied by whistling, an expression of freedom and happiness; (4) a love song of a young man wooing a beautiful Gambian maiden.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Expanded edition with notes. London: Heinemann, 1996.
[Edition used in past Hum 211 sections but NOW out of print! ~ C. Agatucci, Dec. 2009]

African Tribal Music and Dances Featuring Music of the Malinke, Baoule and Others .  CD.  Santa Monica, CA:  Laserlight-Delta Music-Tradition Records, 1993.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony.  "Thick Translation."  Callaloo 16.4 (Fall 1993): 808 (12 pp). Rpt. Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A14865099.

Art and Life in Africa Project.  School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa. Rev. May 2003.  11 Aug. 2004 <http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart>.

Gleason, Judith, ed.  Leaf and Bone: African Praise-PoemsNew York: Penguin, 1994.

Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa.  New York: Norton, 1974.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel. (Special Issue in Memory of Josaphat Bekunuru Kubayanda.)  Research in African Literatures 24.4 (Winter 1993):123 (18 pp). Rpt. Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A14706083.
Abstract: "'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe exemplifies the use of narrative proverbs in the African novel, reflecting the synthesis of oral and written traditions. Narrative proverbs are stories or other forms derived from the oral tradition which are embedded within the novels and perform the function of proverbs. Achebe's novel incorporates nine embedded narratives, seven of which are folktales or myths. Narratives discussed in relation to the novel include the quarrel between Earth and Sky, the locust myth, Ikemefuna's song, the mosquito myth, the tale of the tortoise and the birds, the Abame story and the kite myth."

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. 

Sow, Abdoul Aziz.  "Fulani Poetic Genres." Research in African Literatures 24.2 (Summer 1993): 61 (17 pp).  Rpt. Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP: Article A13891469.

Stone, Ruth M.  “African Music Performed.”  Africa.  3rd ed.  Ed. Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara.  Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995.  257-272.  

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