Fascinatin' Rhythms

This piece by Jens Finke was first published in Rough News issue 9, published by the Rough Guides.

Fascinatin' Rhythms, by Jens Finke

The convulsions that have shaken Kenyan society since the British arrived just over a century ago have changed life beyond recognition. Tribal societies that were based on centuries-old and often highly sophisticated systems of beliefs, customs and cosmologies, are now often preserved only in textbooks, if at all. For many Kenyans, the link with the past has been broken, and old ways - including music - are being lost at an alarming rate.
   Traditionally, music served to accompany rites of passage, from celebrations and praise at a baby's birth and lullabies to sooth it, to growing songs of adolescence and warriorhood - an assertion of both tribe and individual identity. There were songs for marriage, seasonal cycles like rains and harvests, war, religious rites, for pleasure and for death.
   Nowadays, the majority of Kenyans are Christian, notably in the centre and west of the country, though missionary activity continues relentlessly to convert the remaining "pagans" of the far north and west. Which means that Gospel now reigns supreme; not the uplifting version of the southern US, but a tinny, synthesised and homogenous version of it which in many areas has all but obliterated traditional genres.
   Among the Kikuyu - numerically Kenya's largest tribe - I found only one tape of traditional music, whilst the Kalenjin, who comprise most of the government, came up with nothing except two very scratchy gramophone records picked up in a Nakuru auction house. Thankfully, I had more luck elsewhere.
   The Luo of Lake Victoria are famous as the kings of Benga pop, a classic crossover of traditional rhythms and modern dance. Despite having almost wholly converted to Christianity, traditional music and instruments are widely played. Best-known is the nyatiti, a double-necked 8-string lyre with a skin resonator, which is also struck on one neck with a metal ring tied to the toe. To play it, the musician seems to shackle himself into it, and then rocks forwards and backwards with the rhythm. It produces a tight, resonant sound, and was originally played in fields to relieve workers' tiredness. The lyrics cover all manner of subjects, from politics and gossip to moral fables and tribal legends. I bought three tapes in a barbershop which also sold cassettes, the first of 130 tapes I managed to collect from around the country.
   Cousins of the Luo, the Maasai are known for their resistance to change. Their nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle precludes the carrying of large instruments, and as a result they have developed extraordinary vocal techniques, including polyphonous multi-part singing, most famously in the songs of morani (warriors). In these, each man sings only part of a rhythm, more often than not from his throat (rather like a grunt), which together with the calls of his companions creates a complex and hypnotic rhythm, and at times even a sensation of sanctity. It's difficult to find on tape, but one of the perks of my work - staying for free in otherwise overpriced hotels - provided the opportunity to tape their singing live, as the Maasai trooped on night after night to perform for the red-faced tourists. Not exactly authentic, but the sound quality was excellent, and a good introduction, at least.
   It's a similar story with the Samburu, despite having been comprehensively "discovered" by authors of glossy coffee-table books. Like the Maasai, whom their singing closely resembles, I was told that they didn't play instruments. This little lie was delightfully broken by a blacksmith in Maralal, who promptly hauled out a roughly-made wooden guitar with a square resonator, and plucked out some lovely delicate rhythms whilst singing in a hoarse voice.
   Related to the Samburu guitar is the chamonge of the Borana, which I heard in Isiolo, at the tarmac's end north of Mount Kenya. I'd spread word that I was willing to pay up to 250 shillings for cassettes - news spread quickly, and I was mobbed with boys offering dozens of grubby tapes, most lacking boxes, some blank or with dire sound quality, some even repaired with used cigarette filters. I bought fifteen, including recordings of the Samburu, Somali, Gabbra and Rendille, and some fantastic Borana chamonge, which I'd persistently refused to buy at first on the grounds of it being an electric guitar. It took a while to believe the boys' protestations that the sounds really did come from old cooking pots strung with loose wires - it sounds just like early blues, with which it cannot possibly have any relation - weird, and great to listen to.

I'd been looking forward for months to visiting the Taita Hills, which rise out of the dry and dusty orange savannah near the Tanzanian border, as I'd heard that the Taita played a kind of music called pepo, which combined both spirit possession and exorcism.
   My information was 30 years out of date: all I found in Wundanyi - the main town - was Gospel, Bob Marley, Congolese Ndombolo (the latest dance craze), and a sprinkling of American soul divas. My enquiries for pepo drew blanks from all but the man in the Holy Fish Music Store, who laughed and asked how on earth I'd come to know about it.
   I spent the night in a cheap hotel outside town, whose owner Harrison had managed a Taita dance troupe in the 1960s. Did he have any cassettes? He thought for a while, then said yes. We found them the next day in a dusty chest in Voi, 100km away. On opening it, he stroked some of the tapes - "I haven't heard these for many years". We played a couple on my walkman, stopping every few minutes as I write down what he said about each song (I dubbed a copy later). And I was overjoyed to finally hear a pepo song, which I'd been certain had been lost forever.
   That morning, Harrison showed me a "cave of skulls". With his three children, we clambered down a slippery ravine grown with banana plants and maize, until we got to a narrow rock shelter on which some 30 human skulls had been placed. The site was one of many, one for each clan or subdivision of the Taita people. It's next to a mvumu tree, which always grows near water, and so might have acquired a reputation for life or eternity, or a link with the past. The mvumu is sacred, and it is here that elders in times of illness, drought or war, came to make sacrifices in the hope that their ancestors - represented by the skulls - intercede.
   "You see," explained Harrison, "the people believe that even when dead, the ancestors are never completely gone - they still exist, out of their bodies - so long as we remember them."
   Music is like an ancestor - a spiritual and temporal link to the past as well as the future - that must also not be forgotten.

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Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

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