theartsdesk at the Busara Festival: Africa’s long song of defiance

Zanzibar’s annual music festival offers an uplifting platform to Africa’s disaffected voices

The hotel reverberates with the sounds of women: a half-open door reveals Sudanese women covered in henna, singing while doing each other’s hair. Da’Affallah, the leader of the Sudanese group Camirata (pictured below) and director of The Music and Arts Academy in Khartoum laughs: “We never ever stop singing!” he says. “Music in Sudan is absolutely everywhere, and has been for many, many centuries. Music is life in Sudan, from birth to death. When the woman makes tea or coffee in the morning she has a special song [he starts singing]. She has a song and she grinds out the pestle in time as she grinds coffee. Then we have special “albaramka” for tea, this is a group song, using our voices.” It sounds like Mongolian throat singing. “If we have problems in the community, we bring together everyone to solve the problem, we consult the elders, we talk, we sing, we talk more!”

In his elegant embroidered long tunic and Islamic ‘kufia’ (skull cap) Da’Affallah is emphatic that it is not only the content of the music that is important, it is the ritual of performing it that is vital. “In the West you are obsessed with the problems of Sudan. In fact it’s like at the market: one stall is having a problem, that doesn’t mean the whole market is destroyed! In our group we have people from the North, The Nuba, and the South. The fact we sing together is showing people there is a huge amount more to Sudan than just war, Darfur, and death. A musician must be the leader of the community. We are the social critic. The real musician does not go out to nightclubs, but he leads the community to the right way. This means peace, unity, understanding, communication. We must reflect the reality. This chance to play to international audiences is a real chance for us.”

Although museums such as ILAM at Rhodes University, South Africa, have been assiduous in their efforts to chronicle oral music and its role in Africa, there are huge gaps. Says Freddy Massamba, drumming out the point on the floor: “Franklin Boukaka, an artist in Congo who is locally very well known, is unknown in Europe or the rest of Africa. He sang in the Sixties. His song was a revolutionary classic: ‘Some people who eat only meat, compared to those who only can afford vegetables.’ He was saying: ‘Me, I would love to eat meat, it’s a luxury!’ He was asking us to look at the basic differences between us as people – some of us can only eat vegetables and can’t afford meat. Meat is also a reference to rights, to justice, to freedom. Because of this song he was murdered, back in the Sixties.” Manu Chao re-released this song in the Eighties, but it’s still relatively unknown. In the markets of East Africa you can still see the stark contrast, between those who can afford to buy meat and those who stick to maize, spinach and beans.
The tradition of using similes, metaphors or allusions to address problems is as old as the earth. Says Hanitra, the Madagascan singer/songwriter (pictured right), “You can’t say anything directly. We specialise in being indirect, we sing in riddles. For example, when I sing about flowers not being able to bloom, I am referring to the Malagasy citizens, how we are not being allowed to flourish.” She elaborates: “I have a song, ‘No Freedom Here’. I am talking about my personal freedom, liberty for all – of life, of existence,  but I am singing in English! This is for the international market. We have demonstrations, but the Malagasy people don’t really say what they want to say, because there’s no structures for change.” Ironically the current president of Madagascar, Raojolena, is a DJ.

Where music has been committed to vinyl, things get a little easier. Bands such as the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band were very popular in Zimbabwe in the Seventies. The singers were working miners, practicing when their shifts had finished. Like Thomas Mapfumo and Lucky Dube, also from Zimbabwe, they borrowed sentiments and beats from their heroes Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, whose “Get Up Stand Up” was a massive pre-independence hit.

Academics Mark Pedelty and Herman Wasserman go so far as to describe these musicians as “the new journalists” in Zimbabwe, where the non-government media is spectacularly weak and the public sphere a vague concept. Yet the markets of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kenya rarely stock their records: instead, small corrugated iron lean-tos where pirated CDs or cheap copies are sold are rammed with cassettes.


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