Dances of the Salampasu, Zaire

Goodbye 2011, welcome 2012. Best wishes!

so have you enjoyed the holidays? Just like last year my visit to the colonial museum in Tervuren, Belgium was a special experience. The Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren  is one of the most fascinating and beautiful African institutions in the world. The exhibition “UNCENSORED. Colorful stories behind the scenes”, is the last exhibition before the major renovation  begins at the end of 2012 and is your last chance to visit a traditional ‘colonial museum .

elephant in the snow The Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren B

This time my interest was stirred since I received these rare recordings  as a Christmas present, made by Jos Gansemans in 1973 in Zaire, sponsored by the Royal Museum for Central Africa. The recordings come from a people called the Salampasu, which are distinguished by the use of the  xylophone, similar to the music of the  Mchopi tribe or Chopi, a Bantu-speaking people of northern Mozambique on the borders of Tanganyika. See also my previous post more African tribal dances from the Witwatersrand Gold Mines …

Mask Sakashya Makondi

Dances of the Salampasu, Zaire

The territory of the Salampasu in the south of the Kasayi province/Zaire is bordered by the Lulua and the Kasayi-rivers. Their neighbouring people are the Lunda in the South, the Kete in the north and east and the Lwalwa in the west.

Because of their bloodthirsty behaviour and because of the headhunting, in the past frequently attended by cannibalism, they became very feared. Consequently they remained a homogeneous people that succeeded in keeping its traditions, language and customs free from foreign influences.

To dance, the Salampasu dress up themselves with all kinds of skins, head-dresses and body paintings. The ritual characteristics find their best expression in the head-hunting dance matambu, the mask dances and the dances held during the healing rituals as there the Luanda, the mfuku, the utshumbu and the kabulukuta, the latter exclusively being performed by women. On the organological level they differ from the Lunda, Kete and Luba by the apparent preference they give to the xylophone madimba, the most important instrument of their orchestras.

From the liner notes of the album ‘Zaire, Musique de Salampasu’ Radio France BRT 1981 by Jos Gansemans

Zaire -Salampasu -Nazuji

Zaire -Salampasu -Sanza Ensemble

Salampasu -Misengu dance

Zaire -Salampasu -Misengu

Misengu dance

The misengu dance, Mukasa Nsaka, is one of the most impressive dances of the Salampasu.

The quantity of dancers easily amounts up to around a hundred, separated in two groups.

Now and then the groups are facing each other, they run around while dancing and threaten each other with their fightful swords, meanwhile they stamp loudly on the floor and made resound their ankle-rattles isuka. The xylophone and drum orchestra accompanying this dance is composed of four madimba xylophones, two ngoma drums beaten with the hands and two cylindrical drums ikandi on which they play with two sticks.

 Zaire -Salampasu -Kalesa

All recordings from the album ‘Zaire, Musique de Salampasu’ Radio France BRT 1981

3 Hugh Masekela essentials

  Hugh Masekela -Do Me So La So So

from a great, rather underrated 45 single from 1975

Hugh Masekela -Excuse me please / Ashiko (A-side)

Hugh Masekela introducing Hedzoleh Soundz -Nye Tamo Ame                  see also previous post Masekela introducing Hedzoleh Soundz

Play Of The Day -Bula Sangoma -YoYoiwe 1985

Chris Joris is a Belgian musician who  has contributed to numerous projects like Aksak Maboul’s holy grail ” Onze danses pour combattre la migraine (1977)”,  various Jo Lemaire albums and jazz-legend Toots Thielemans a.o. and who has released a few   albums in his own right. Most of these titles will be unknown to some listeners but the music definitely deserves your attention.

Chris is a remarkably talented musician who combines authentic West African percussion with unusual sound-scapes on piano, accompanied by the voices of the African members of his band. The album ‘Usiku mu mgini (A night in the village)’ by the group Bula Sangoma was released in 1985 on an obscure Belgian label African export, probably a private pressing. It has been on my turntable ever since I found this gem, just a few weeks ago.

Bula-Sangoma – YoYoiwe

Members of Bula Sangoma are

Cecile Kayirebwa (vocals) born in Kigali, Rwanda. Her father comes from a long line of artists, dancers, poets, storytellers, singers.

Chris Joris (berimbau, percussion, piano) from Belgium

Dieudonné Kabongo (percussion, vocals) born in Congo, Brazzaville

Jean Mutsari (bass gitar, contrabas, vocals)

Ken Ndiaye (vocals) comes from Senegal

Rifi Kythouka (percussion, vocals) from Congo Brazzaville.

Other releases by Chris Joris

-Oratorio Ishango (2003)
-Bihogo (1995)
-Songs for Mbizo (1991)

even more African tribal dances; Shangaan & Makishi dancers & singers

The so called Shonas (named by the Ndebeles) are a mixture of the Ndaus, Karangas, Korekore(kwerekwere). These people  migrated to Zimbabwe from Tanzania (Tanganyika) as the Bantu. They split into many groups , some live in SA, Mozambique and Zimbabwe eg the Shangaan people. The Shangaan are a mixture of Nguni language group which includes Swazi, Zulu and Xhosa, and Tsonga speakers (Ronga, Ndzawu, Shona, Chopi tribes).

Mambuaulela Makhubela & his Shangaan Drum Dancers -Park Station

about Shangaan Dance

In the Shangaan tradition, the storyteller is the grandmother or elder woman of the family who is the respected transmitter of the old stories. The old woman, called Garingani, or narrator, begins her storytelling by saying “Garingani, n’wana wa Garingani!” – “I am Narrator, daughter of Narrator!” after which the crowd cheers “Garingani”. The crowd chants her name after each line of the story.

With a love for music, the Shangaan people have developed a number of musical instruments. The ‘fayi’ – a small, stubby wooden flute that produces a breathless, raspy, but haunting sound, and is often played by young herd boys. The ‘xitende’, is a long thin bow tied on each end by a taut leather thong or wire – which runs across a gourd. This was often used to alleviate boredom on long journeys.

Amakwaya Shangaan Choir

The Shangaan is well known for their mine dances, carried out to the beat of drums and horns and wide variety of musical instruments such as the mbira. Shangaan male dancers performed the muchongolo dance, which celebrated the role of women in society, war victories and ritual ceremonies.

see also previous post Shangaan mine dances at the Witwatersrandmines

about Makishi Dance

As with most African customs, song and dance is crucial to their ceremonies. The makishi are shrouded in secrecy and it is taboo to ask who hides behind the mask. The makishi are spirits that represent the ancestors and they command the utmost respect. The makishi normally appear during the mukanda (circumcision ceremony), then return to their graves immediately afterwards. Their appearance creates an eerie but fascinating atmosphere.

Makishi dancers & singers

Makishi dancers have intrigued and intimidated audiences for centuries. The Makishi attach themselves to the world of spirits and demons and, while dancing, lose their personal identity, becoming the character they portray. The Shangaan, by contrast, are fighters and hunters, boasting of their bravery and strength in vigorous authentic group dancing, stamping their feet on bare earth, raising the dust and rushing at the audience in mock-attacks.

See video Makishi & other dances

A selection of different dances from the Shangaan, Makishi and Nyau tribes.

Musical selections taken from the EP ‘Shangaan Musa’ Gallo FP1 Johannesburg, South Africa.

Pics by Falls Promotion, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Content taken from various sources including the linernotes.

The Future is African -interview with Michael Baird -SWP Records

Last March in South Africa I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Baird, an Englishman born in Zambia, living in Holland. He was playing percussion with some fellow musicians around a campfire during a braai, celebrating the birthday of a friend. Our meeting was a pleasant surprise as  I had reviewed one of the CD’s which Michael releases through his label SWP Records, ‘Lesotho Calling -lesiba & sekhankula music’ (SWP 033).  See my post Sounds & Basotho songs from Lesotho

I became even more fascinated by the fact that Michael also re-releases the famous Hugh Tracey field recordings that are part of the ILAM archives in Grahamstown, South Africa.

So here is an exclusive interview with Michael Baird about his label, his music and his many travels throughout Africa.

Michael Baird & Aaron & 22-06-08

Tell me when you started your label and why?

That was in 1986. I had produced an album’s worth of recordings of my percussion trio Sharp Wood, having spent a lot of time and trouble getting a good sound and performances, and I looked around for a serious label to release it. It was so frustrating – one said “phone back in ten months”, another said “it’s really interesting music, but if only you were the latest thing from New York…..”, yet another said “if you change some things we’ll sell more…..” So I released it myself and we sold the lp ‘Percussion’ at our concerts. In my opinion the existing record business lacked vision.

What is your release policy? You state that SWP releases music that the big companies won’t touch. What makes SWP different from the rest?

SWP stands for Sharp Wood Productions. I release my own music – I am first and foremost a drummer and composer. I want to retain at all times the final artistic responsibility for my music, I don’t want some halfwit money-motivated producer looking over my shoulder telling me what to do! My music is ‘independent’, I think it sounds like nobody else’s. And then there is all the African music I have released: I don’t do it just to make a profit, I do it because I care about the music – and nobody else is releasing it. If SWP doesn’t release this beautiful music, you aren’t going to get to hear it!

Nyeleti Mukkuli – Nchembele Musimbi Wangu (from SWP 036 ‘The Kankobela of the Batonga Vol.1’, recorded by Michael Baird)

You were born in Zambia. Describe your first encounters with the music of that country?

The first encounter was still in my mother’s womb. After that I had a black nanny and she took me down to the compound or village, where singing and dancing is a normal state of affairs, and I’m strapped on her back getting swayed back and forth, you know – music is everywhere in Zambia, because it’s an expression of ‘being together’. I grew up with African music.

What is your most memorable African music experience?

So many. Falling asleep in the evenings as a young kid with drums pounding in the distance. Hearing the magical tinkling of an approaching thumb-piano as the guy accompanies himself while walking through the bush. Sitting-in as a 7-year-old playing the basic patterns with drummers and xylophone players from Zambia’s Western Province. Hearing the thunder of a Rwandan drum ensemble as a 5-year-old. Being totally mesmerized as a 9-year-old by a Chopi xylophone ensemble from Mozambique. All in all, it’s the time patterns, the unity of beat. African music is a communal thing – you can join in if you know the tune or rhythm, but if you mess up you’ll get a clip round the earhole and told to listen!

You describe your style of drumming as ‘voodoo jazz’. Explain

It’s just a name, you know. But it refers to my music as a whole, and not just specifically my drumming. Some German journalist in 1988 wrote a review of a Sharp Wood concert and posed the question: “Is it jazz, or is it voodoo?” Wow, I finally knew what I was doing – I was playing voodoo-jazz! No, I kinda liked it because there is a ritualistic, exorcistic element in my music. Good rhythm is hypnotic, as you know. I try to blend musical concepts from both Africa and Europe into some kind of new music; the tag ‘voodoo-jazz’ will do fine for the time being.

Tell us more about the project The Ritmoloog? How does that fit into your catalogue?

The Ritmoloog Continues – it’s one of my albums, the continuing story of…..Michael Baird. Recorded in 2005, together with guest musicians. I had mixed midi and live playing together already on my cd ‘On Remote Patrol’ in 1996, and I wanted to pursue that. In between I had done other albums – ‘Sirenians’ was distilled from a composition commission for octet and ‘Gongs and Bells’ was all about overtones and sort of buddhists along the Zambesi. But in September I’ll be releasing ‘Ends and Odds’ which is like a continuation of The Ritmoloog concept. The final mixes are just finished, the mastering next week. Now that, folks, is a cd worth checking out! Afro-ambient grooves with weirdness thrown in. I play a lot of instruments on it – kalimbas, keyboards, drums – and again some guest musicians. The new is as old as the world, but I see myself as a ‘modernist’, and all that means is that I am in a position to steal from all over the place. But it definitely is still my soup!

Michael Baird – Heritage Groove (from SWP 029 ‘The Ritmoloog)

Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?

I am a musician. I am a colonial kid. Zambians say to me, well if your umbilical cord is buried in Zambia then you are a Zambian! All my live music experiences were African until the family moved to England when, as a 10-year-old, my parents took me to see a european classical concert. I couldn’t figure out where the fun was – no sweating, no dust, no masks, no drumming. It was Hugh Tracey’s recordings which inspired me to also make field recordings. I am self-taught as a musician and if I am also seen as an ethnomusicologist, then I’m self-taught there as well. I have thoroughly researched a lot of African musics – by now I know quite a lot about African music, even if I say so myself, but I approach it all as a musician and not as an academic. Let me add that by making field recordings, I practice ethnomusicology – the people working in university departments just teach the theory!

Why release the historical recordings of Hugh Tracey?

When I walked into the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1996 at Rhodes University, South Africa, where Tracey’s archive is kept, there was nothing available on cd. His original field tapes were literally just sitting on an academic shelf gathering dust, doing no one any good. Such beautiful music should be made available to the world! You see, if a piece of music moves me, I want to let you hear it. It then turned out that the condition of the old reel-to-reel tapes was pretty bad – after playing a tape through, there was a little pile of red dust next to the magnetic head: the goddamn coating was just coming off! No time to lose – after all, Hugh Tracey’s unique collection of recordings constitutes the musical memory of half a continent. Two years later I released my first four albums in what ended up as a 21-cd series ‘Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey’. That took the best part of eight years of my life.

Rwakanembe – Nyoro Royal Horns (from SWP 008 and also SWP 034, recorded in 1952 by Hugh Tracey)

Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?

That’s not totally accurate, as I have released two compilations with Zambian pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. But SWP releases music that no one else does – I never planned to do my Hugh Tracey series, but because no one else apparantly had the vision to do it, it fell to me to do it. Life is like that sometimes! If the music is already out there on the market, that’s fine, then I don’t have to do it. But if I know about some great music that no one else seems to know or either care about – which often I had had the priviledge to have heard as a child – then I reckon I should release it. On top of that, the traditional music is dying out.

In what way do you feel that it is important to preserve the music that you record?

The music I have recorded in Africa – 4 cds released so far and a 5th coming before the end of the year – is dying out. You see, first the missionaries arrived and forbade the devil’s music, then in the colonial era, into which I was born, there was this incredible arrogance that all African music was primitive, then in the post-colonial era the new governments had the idea that everything Western was superior anyway, and nowadays most countries don’t have the means to care for their cultural roots. ‘Music Conservatory’ is an interesting name because it contains the word ‘conserve’ – there are only very few African countries that conserve their musical traditions.

In what way do you see the loss of traditional society vs the modern industrialised society?

Well, it’s all about cultural diversity. We need cultural diversity on this earth, because the alternative is a mono culture – and that’s a sad place to be. Vive les differences! Once you’ve got people eating the same, they’ll soon all be thinking the same. Yeah, macmadness… there is so much musical genius to be found in traditional music – it took centuries to create it for godsakes. We can learn so much musically from this music, so don’t let it just disappear. I am a contemporary person, I’m not a purist, I like to mix things up, but there is a cultural tragedy going on and we should care about it! If some young musicians from Zambia are making ‘new music’, then I want to be able to hear that they are from Zambia, i.e. that they are creating from their own rich musical roots, and not copying hiphop or whatever. MTV is destructive for local creativity. But I just love the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa and Jagwa Music from Dar-es-Salaam – examples of new music from the cities but coming from their own roots.

What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?

The biggest challenge is financial. Malaria, crocodiles, paranoid policemen, I can deal with – but I can’t continue making field trips to Africa because it costs too much money. Meaning SWP is not selling enough of those cds! And I don’t get any funding, I have to pay out of my own SWP pocket. Funnily enough, finding funds to continue his fieldwork was also Hugh Tracey’s constant worry throughout his life. It’s a pity – there are trips to parts of Mozambique, Zambia, Congo, Central African Republic, that I would like to do. The biggest reward is the music itself – finding it, and then making a technically good recording of a great performance. They are my music colleagues you know!

What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?

Words are also sounds. Languages are also music. Mwa-bu-ka-bu-ti! Kaf-e-keni-po-mu-kwai! You don’t have to understand the meaning of a lyric to enjoy the organic whole. However, if a song has a real social or spiritual message, you’ll miss out on it if you don’t get the translation. But for example, one time I heard this great drumming and there were a couple of sentences repetitively sung in the groove – turned out all they were singing was “yes we’re all here, if you are not here, then where are you?” I was already enjoying the music okay, but when I heard that, it brought tears to my eyes. Words can detract from music, but they can also add to it.

Why is it important to save traditional African music for the world?

Because it is so beautiful. Also, in African traditional music you find a collectiveness that you will probably find nowhere else in the world: on your own you are nobody, together we are someone. Now that’s a strong philosophical message which us Westerners with all our individualism can learn from! Historically speaking, we are in a crucial fase as far as African music is concerned, many traditions are disappearing as you read this article. But I’m optimistic – I actually think that the future is African.

another gallery of South African music on 78

Umtale Chipisa Band -Zuwa Rachona

Alfred Mchunu -Amadumbe 1965

Freddy Gumbi -Jika Jika Jive -1967 Sax Jive

Spokes Mashiyane -Banana Ba Rustenburg

The Lower Buttons – Intogeymy 1967

The Makala Singers -Championi

Three Petersen Brothers -Sugar Candy Cane

thanks to ILAM, Grahamstown SA

Freedom Fanfare -The Band of the Nigerian Police

I bought this 10″ by The Band of the Nigeria Police,  from my recent SA haul, just for the cover but boy, the music was a real eye-opener! I had expected some ordinary military march music but to my surprise the music is varied and above all, half of this collection is authentic Nigerian highlife. Imagine bagpipes and highlife from West Africa in one band! The first side offers music of a ceremonial and military character, and side two provides entertainment with a selection of highlife tunes, the favourite dance music of all West Africans.

One of the greatest  and most inspiring events in Africa’s history is undoubtedly the achievement of Nigeria’s Independence, Nigeria being the most heavily populated country in Africa with over 35 million people. The Band of the Nigeria Police pay their own tribute to this historic event with the proud presentation of their first long-playing record ‘Freedom Fanfare’. Formed in 1938, the band have gradually risen to their present strength of 72 Nigerian bandsmen of various ranks, i.e. military band, supplemented with drums, bugles, and even bagpipes. This record shows the musical skill and range of the Police Band in all aspects.

Freedom Fanfare -Highland Warpipes

a more African background is heard in tunes like ‘Uta’ and ‘Tso-o-boi’. The Nigeria Police have many marching songs, very old tunes loved and remembered by all West Africans, but the most popular is, without doubt, the spontaneous ‘Tso-o-boi’ (on the alert). Each man in turn, while marching along, attracts the attention of his company with the shout ‘Tso-o-boi’…which is answered in chorus with ‘Hoy!’. After this introduction follow extemporised lyrics, invariably of an insulting nature towards superiors…but all in good fun!

Freedom Fanfare -Uta

Freedom Fanfare -Tsoo Boi (on the alert)

excerpts from the original liner notes of ‘Freedom Fanfare’ 10″ by The Band of the Nigerian Police, Philips P 13402 R Made in Holland 1968

Ensigo ‘East Africa in Binaural’ -interview with Aaron Appleton

sometimes great music comes as a digital download. After listening to the content of the album  ‘East Africa in Binaural’ I became enchanted by the music and also intrigued by the question why a young American would travel to the heart of rural Uganda and record traditional music in uncertain conditions.

‘East Africa in Binaural’ is an outstanding album of authentic traditional music from Uganda and Rwanda, compiled and recorded between August and December 2006 entirely on location using churches, mud huts, bedrooms, town halls and the outdoors as the studio.

Rwandan Teachers on Lunch Break

The intended purpose of this album was to bring unity and reconciliation among the divided people groups of the communities where the recordings were made, to be used as source of income for the musicians recorded, and to help to document and preserve the traditional music of Uganda & Rwanda.  Now released to the public as a way to raise funds for the non-profit organization Ensigo.

Click here for listening to the full album and downloads.

Here is an exclusive interview for Soul Safari with Aaron Appleton, an ethnomusicologist/producer working in Africa, Central America and South East Asia who produced and recorded  ‘East Africa in Binaural’

Why record music from Uganda & Rwanda?

This is fairly difficult to answer because there are so many factors that have led to my work in Uganda and Rwanda, so I will try to answer this question through a story from my journal:

“September 2006
It’s amazing how the seemingly small action of one person can change your life forever. Radiant sunbeams shone through the crack in the front door washing my face in its brilliance and waking me from my peaceful slumber. The small Ugandan mud hut suddenly became a bustle of activity as the able bodied women hurriedly prepared breakfast for the family over an open flame. Meanwhile Mbaziira, Aboki and I waited in the sitting room. Aboki was a gentle and kindhearted woman. Years of hard labor grinding millet, fetching water, and working in the fields showed in the wrinkles on her delicate face and calloused hands. She was in desperate need of surgery to have a kidney removed. Unfortunately the family was unable to afford the doctor’s fees so she has been in constant pain for the last several months. Daily tasks like physical labor and even talking were an arduous chore for her to perform taking its toll on her now fragile body. Yet there was a vibrant spark of life that I caught from the twinkle in her eye and radiant smile when I asked questions of her favorite memories from childhood.

“Aaron you have been a blessing to us and are most welcome in Uganda.” Said Aboki, as she presented me with several meticulously handcrafted baskets which had taken her weeks to make. These baskets were her main source of income and she freely gave them to express her love. I struggled to hold back the tears, as I was moved by this incredible act of generosity. After regaining my composure I made the simple promise to Aboki and the rest of the Upendo family that I would be back to Uganda to help musicians like her and others in her country.”

I was first drawn to East Africa because of the richness of its musical history.  Located on top of the African plateau, Uganda’s moderate climate, fertile soil and strategic location drew all three of Africa’s major people groups to settle there thus creating many secondary cultures and musical forms.  The pygmoids brought their intricate vocal styles and body percussion, the negroids brought their heavily rhythmic music and aggressive dancing, and the hamites brought their intelligent and poetic musical lyrics.  With this unique intermarriage of cultures and music from all across the continent one can say that Uganda is in essence the microcosm of Africa.  In this climate of diversity and cross-cultural interaction many creative musical forms and instruments have emerged positioning Uganda as a melting pot for musical innovation.  Equally as intriguing is the traditional music of Rwanda…with its hauntingly beautiful minor melodies sung over the top of complex polyrhythmic beats.

Aside from the research of legendary ethnomusicologists Peter Cooke, Gerhard Kubik, and Klaus Wachsmann on Kiganda music of the Baganda tribe, there has been very little research or documentation of the music of the more than 60 tribes in Uganda.  This also helped to fuel my curiosity of discovering and recording music that has never been heard by Western listeners.

Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?

For this particular project I was working as a student, producer, humanitarian and ethnomusicologist.  I did this project through Food For The Hungry, which is an international relief and development organization.  I recorded and researched for it between August 2006 and December 2006.  It was recorded entirely on location in Uganda & Rwanda using churches, mud huts, bedrooms, town halls and the outdoors as the studio.  Initially the album was used as benefit and academic project in which I produced both a research paper and an album.  It was replicated and distributed to the musicians in the primary villages where the recordings were made (Piswa & Bukwa Uganda) which are members of the Sabine tribe. The intended purpose of the album was to bring unity and reconciliation among the divided people groups of the communities where the recordings were made, to be used as source of income for the musicians recorded, and to help to document and preserve the traditional music of Uganda & Rwanda.  But I am now releasing it to the public to be used as a way to raise funds for the non-profit organization Ensigo.

Acholi is the name of a tribe from Northern Uganda

Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?

In my honest opinion the contemporary music of Uganda and Rwanda is some of the worst music I have ever heard.  The vast majority of popular artists create sequenced instrumental tracks in a Digital Audio Workstation called FruityLoops and mimic Jamaican reggaeton styles.  Many of the musicians and professors that I interviewed in my research voiced a concern with the loss of Ugandan culture.  In conversation with Professor John Ssempeke (son of the famous Kiganda musician Albert Ssempeke) at Uganda’s national Museum the professor of traditional African music expressed “Slowly our culture is being lost to westernization.  I believe that one day in the near future our precious Ugandan culture will become totally lost, and people will long to have it back.”

Through interactions with local musicians and reading about the history and variety of musical instruments across the region I discovered how truly intricate and complex Ugandan music is.  Experiencing the complexities and perfected artform of the music made me even sadder that so many youth are forsaking their traditional music roots for western pop music.

In what way do you feel that this project is different from other aid-organisations?

I feel that Ensigo is unique in that we choose to focus on music as a potential avenue of overcoming both economic and spiritual poverty.  We believe that music is one of Africa’s greatest resources.  If you look at many of today’s contemporary music styles you discover that many of them can be traced back to Africa. Multiple genres ranging from: hip hop, blues, jazz, rumba, bluegrass, funk, soul, R&B, rock & roll, swing, reggae, and many others have emerged from the African diaspora and richly blessed the world. It is our hope to focus on this area of music by deeply investing in, and partnering with virtuous musicians from the developing world.

What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?

I would say that the biggest challenge is adjusting to the various cultural norms in the countries where I work…and tyring to find out how NOT to offend people as fast as I can:)  It is also kind of hard trying to adjust to the differences in how time is viewed in East Africa as opposed to how it is in a Western context.  So I usually have to work on growing in my patience quite a bit:)

There are so many rewards!  The people of Uganda are some of the kindest and most hospitable people I have encountered.  On several ocassions I have found myself meeting a stranger on the street one afternoon then spending the rest of the day with them, meeting their family and eating with them at their home.  I have also been overwhelmed by the appreciation shown to me in some of the rural areas where I recorded, with whole towns coming together and throwing a party…and in one situation giving my friend and I a goat as a present 🙂

The ‘Aids’ song; is this song a warning or promotion for the use of condoms?? Teached in schools probably?

The AIDS poem was recorded on a mountaintop in the very rural village of Piswa Uganda.  It was recited by 4 female students from the Kapchoros Secondary School.  The poem mentions nothing about being for or against condoms.  While abstainance is a widely taught method for HIV/AIDS prevention in primary and secondary schools, I found that condom usage is strongly promoted for adults in Uganda and Rwanda.

Who is the singer on ‘Luganda Improv’? and what is the song about?

This singer on the track “Luganda Improv” is my good friend Ntare Davis.  This song was recorded in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.  Ntare and I would often write and record music together.  One day I came up with this guitar part and started recording and Ntare started singing the first words and melodies that came to his head.  It is sung in the language of Luganda, which is the language of the Buganda tribe.

The Nnabagereka (queen) of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is adorned in traditional Samburu jewellery.

The Nnabagereka (queen) of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is adorned in traditional Samburu jewellery.

What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?

I believe that both the lyrics and musical structure of a song are vitally important.  However for me personally the thing that I notice first about a song is the musical structure.  For some strange reason it seems that the songs which ignite my creative imagination most are ones sung in languages I don’t understand.  Groups and artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Muzykoterapia, Oliver Mtukudzki, 椎名 林檎, and Sigur Rós demonstrate a wonderful ability to transcend barriers and divides. Their music stands out as a form of communication that has an incredible ability to initiate intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.

I think what draws me so much to African and “world” (I hate the term world music…because it always makes me think of cheesy synthesizers and way too much reverb:) music is the creativity and the utter joy you feel when first encountering that music and realizing that you’ve never heard anything like this before in your life; it transports you to a place where words seem to be irrelevant.

Why is it important to save this music for the future?

These songs are beautiful artifacts of a vibrant culture that I believe are not only important for the tribes where they come from to preserve but for the world to hear.  The raw beauty and honesty portrayed in these songs that reflect a nation’s pulse should be as important to preserve to Ugandan’s and Rwandan’s as Spirituals like Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Oh Mary Don’t You Weep are to American culture.

An excerpt of a poem by 19th Century American poet  Augustine Joseph Hickey Duganne titled The Poet And The People aptly describes this:

“Songs are a nation’s pulses, which discover
If the great body be as nature will’d ;

Songs are the spasms of soul,

Telling us when men suffer :
Dead is the nation’s heart whose songs are still’d.”

Recommended Listening

To download or stream the album “Ensigo: East Africa In Binaural” click here

dances from the Witwatersrand Gold Mines

gumboot 1 gumboot dancers are commonly sighted on the streets and plazas of tourist areas in South Africa, such as the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The dance likely originated among South African gold miners , and especially among their tough working conditions. ‘Gumboot’  hit the charts in the early to mid-60’s through the popularisation by white South African bandleaders like Sam Sklair and Dan Hill a.o. who scored big hits with adaptions of gumboot song themes.  See my earlier posts on the music of  Sam Sklair  and POP goes the gumboot.


about the origins of gumboot dances…

the floors of the mines were often flooded, with poor or non-existent drainage. For the miners, hours of standing up to their knees in infected waters brought on skin ulcers, foot problems and consequent lost work time. The bosses discovered that providing gumboots (Wellington boots) to the workers was cheaper than attempting to drain the mines. This created the miners uniform, consisting of heavy black Wellington boots, jeans, bare chest and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat. Many of the steps and routines are parodies of the officers and guards who controlled the mines and workers’ barracks.

gumboots 2

The gold mines of the Witwatersrand reef, which runs east-west through Johannesburg, have drawn thousands of African men from South Africa and nearby countries Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana and Malawi to work since the late 1800’s. From early days, one of their main off-duty recreations was dancing. ‘Inter-tribal’ dances were open to the public, but it was only in 1943 that the first semi-circular arena was specifically built for the purpose ‘so that the art of African dancing should receive its proper recognition from white and black alike’ as Hugh Tracey wrote in his illustrated book ‘African Dancing of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines*

witwatersrand cover
Each ethnic group’s dancing could be better shown off both to the other miners –some of the mines employed over 10.000 men- and to visitors and tourists. It was not long before scores of dance arenas appeared along the whole line of gold mines. The Mine Dances became a huge tourist attraction, and with good reason; the dances of southern Africa are among the most dramatic, energetic and exciting of the whole continent, and this was the one place where so many of them could be seen together.

onlookers at reef gold mine watching mpondo dancers
onlookers at reef gold mine watching mpondo dancers

However, it was soon the Apartheid era, when all inter-racial relations became obsessively fraught with political tension. By the 1980’s the separations inherent in this hugely popular event began to be suspect with liberal thinkers in the mining houses, not only because white and black watched from separate parts of the arenas, but even because each ethnic group present on the mines danced its own styles separately. There are now no more Mine Dances, except at Gold Reef City, a nostalgic retrospect with professional dancers.

  • published by the African Music Society. Gives full details and photographs of the dances. Available from ILAM

witwatersrand dances 2
Ndhlamini–by Baca men. The Baca are related to the Swazi, but live further south in the Cape Province of South Africa.  The singers start the performance, and once the rhythm and tempo are established the dancers begin their routine. The end of each movement is marked by the dancers turning to one side and kneeling on one knee, with sticks pointing over the shoulder of the man in front.

Malira –by Zingili men. The Zingili clan from the northern end of Zululand and the southern part of Swaziland are the most popular exponents of the Ndhlamu dance. A group of friends of the dancers provide the dance music by singing, humming and clapping.

Wo Yo Yo –by Mpondo men from Pondoland in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

The Mpondo version of the Ndhlamu dance is taken at a slightly faster tempo. The nonsense words sung by the leader are intended to reinforce the rhythm rather than provide a lyric.

The Muchogonlo Tumbling Dance –of the Ndau from the Mpanda district of Mozambique.

The dancers perform a series of athletic steps and routines to the accompaniment of drums, most of which are intended to evoke laughter either by their antics or by the brilliant syncopation of their performance

The Umeyo Shaking Dance–of the Xhosa from the Ciskei in the Cape Province of South Africa.

The sound of the leg rattles and of small bells which are strapped across the chests of the dancers enhances the urgency of the action. By rapidly flexing and unflexing alternate knees the dancers appear to ripple the whole length of their bodies. They take their orders from the whistle player, while the concertina provides the simple ground music that keeps the team dancing in unison

Xhosa dancers
Xhosa dancers

The Isicathulo Gum-boot dance –by Baca men from the Cape Province

The dancers exploit their Wellington rubber boots to the full by slapping them with their hands or by clapping their feet together. Each syncopated routing is given a name that the leader calls out to his men so that they will know which action to perform on the word of command. A single guitarist who strums one chord only provides the simple background music.

teenage Xhosa boys in costume for umtshotso dance, a dance for the youth

photographs courtesy of ILAM

Recommended reading

‘African Dancing of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines’ by Hugh Tracey

Recommended listening

African dances from the Witwatersrand Gold Mines part 1 and 2

Music from Africa Series 12 & 13

published by ILAM