Chuka - Music and Dance


Sadly, in the same way that Chuka traditional culture has disappeared, the Chuka musical tradition is now also completely extinct. I scoured Chuka Town and Chogoria for cassettes of music, but with no success. In fact, most people seemed never even to have heard of the music. I presume that it disappeared several decades ago. With everyone now professing the Christian faith, there seems little hope of things surviving even in people's memories.

Chuka drummers Chuka drummers Chuka drummers

Chuka drummers

Nonetheless, one can still hear 'genuine' Chuka drumming at the Mount Kenya Safari Club near Nanyuki on the northwest slopes of Mount Kenya, although the group that plays there (with various personnel changes since the 1970s) performs almost exclusively for tourists, their repertoire consisting primarily of medleys and the excruciating tourist anthem of "Jambo Bwana!". Steep admission charges (and shockingly expensive room fees), an exclusive contract with the Club that prohibits their performing elsewhere, and their location in Kikuyu territory, have ensured that the group - albeit excellent musicians and really nice guys - have become divorced from any remnants of Chuka tradition that may yet survive. The only other possibility of hearing Chuka music is in the tourist-resort hotels on the coast, where multi-tribal troupes occasionally perform one or two 'Chuka' numbers, though these are far from authentic.

I've presented a few pieces of Chuka drumming from the Mount Kenya Safari Club, whose inclusion is especially important seeing as the almost identical Embu tradition of drumming is equally dead, as is - as far as I can tell - that of the Kamba.
   The recordings were made at night in November 1998, as the group performed their routine 'after dinner entertainment' for the club's guests. As the air was cold and damp, the residents stayed in the lounge, whilst the group played outside, dancing barefoot on the carefully manicured lawn. Between the audience and the drummers were plate glass windows, which you might hear as echoes in the recordings (I was outside, of course).
   There were six drummer-dancers in all, each wearing eagle's wings on each arm Icarus-like, colobus monkey head dresses and grass skirts. The whistles you can hear were worn on strings hung about their necks.

One drummer explained to me that the tradition of drumming had come originally from the Embu, but that over time the Chuka had gotten better than the Embu. In the past, the drum music had traditionally been played for a largely unmarried female audience, during and through which the women were supposed to choose their partners. It wasn't just the rhythm that attracted, but the strength of the drumming as well as the athletic prowess of the drummers as they danced with their drums. The drums are called muriembe.

Other music (no drums) was played for circumcision ceremonies, and there were songs classed and played according to age group: children's songs (mbomboi and mburi, and nkuani when they grew older), songs for mature but uncircumcised boys and girls (kibuco), songs by warriors, and those sung by elders. There were also Nthuke songs like mugwiria which were danced by everyone on ceremonial or sacrificial occasions.
   I found no surviving traces of any of these songs, though it is possible that some traditional music is still performed on private occasions.


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

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography