Makonde - Music and Dance

I would greatly appreciate any more information about Makonde music, especially Sindimba dances, and a wind instrument called lupembe.
In this page:
Mwandeisha - a harvest song
The Mapiko dance


Mwandeisha - a Harvest Dance

(there's a playable version of this in "sound clips"; see the index on the left)

Mwandeisha is a harvest dance from Mwatate at the foot of the Taita Hills, and is sung in Kikonde. It's the only recording I have of Kenyan Makonde music, and was recorded by Harrison Mwachala of Wundanyi in the Taita Hills in 1983. The occasion was a local music festival.

The song is traditionally performed after a good harvest, when the people have received and gathered it in. Mwandeisha is a corruption of the Kiswahili word Wandisha, whose dictionary definition is "causative of wanda, get fat, become stout". Difficult to translate exactly, the meaning though is clear - it's a song of celebration!

The dance has three segments - drums, then girls singing (no drums), then drums again. Some musicians play drums, others beat pairs of sticks together. The dancers, who twist and turn on very on very high stilts, are greeted by wild applause and excitement at the start of the recording when they appear before the crowd. The stilt-dancing is characteristic of the Makonde (and unique in Kenya).

The dancers are disguised with ochre smeared on their faces, so that "even their mothers can't recognise them", explains Harrison. I presume that the dancers would originally have worn masks.

Makonde stilt dancer Makonde drum Makonde drum

The Mapiko Dance

I'm grateful to Elsa Dionísio for the following images and description, which I've translated from the Portuguese and edited slightly. The original version is at Click on the images for full versions.

Makonde Mapiko dance

The mapiko is the most important figure in Makonde society, a figure of fear who represents evil or bad things. Some ethnologists believe that the mapiko is a means used by men of dominating women and uninitiated children through fear, but the highly theatrical dance itself appears to point to a more symbolic relationship, for both the men and women feign fear. The masks which are worn are also called mapiko, and generally cover the dancer's entire head so as to hide his identity from the crowd. For more information about the masks, and images of them, see the page on Masks.
   But despite the fearsome aspect of the dance and of some of the masks, the dance is also performed on happy occasions which involve entire villages. Two kinds of drum are used: large ones, which are played with the palms of the hands, and smaller ones which are struck with small thin sticks.
   The vibrant rhythms of the drums mark the beginning of the ceremony and the arrival of a masked dancer who is the mapiko. The mapiko takes up position in the centre of the arena facing the musicians. At either side is a line of young unmarried women, and next to the musicians are the men who will dance, bare chested and dressed in skirts made of leaves. Their bodies glisten with castor oil, which highlights their muscles and tattoos, and in their hair they wear ornaments like little combs.
   As the drums begin, the men join shoulders and together make threatening gestures towards the mapiko, hurling words and short phrases at him, presumably in a show of mock bravado. Their courage up, the men advance towards the mapiko chanting, but the mapiko does not move. Suddenly, the men show fear, and flee back to the musicians, where they jump and shriek loudly. The mapiko runs after them, but as he gets close, turns around and begins a frenetic dance in which his entire body shakes, in turn ringing the little bells of his costume.
   Meanwhile, the two flanking lines of women dance slowly and with serious expressions, moving only their arms and shoulders. When the drums announce the arrival of the mapiko, they drop their heads towards to ground, as though they cannot face the figure of the dancer. But they continue to accompany the rhythm with their heads and shoulders, and once the mapiko moves away, raise their heads once more.

Makonde Mapiko dance
Makonde Mapiko dance
Makonde Mapiko dance


Apart from drums, which you can hear on the mwandeisha dance, the Makonde are also superb xylophone players, although I am unaware of any such tradition surviving among the Kenyan community.

These log xylophones are called dimbila, and are played using a highly advanced interlocking technique similar to that used by central Tanzania' Gogo people in their ng'oma drumming. The odd thing is that this style is also practically identical to that of the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire and Kru of Liberia, and that the dimbila itself has its almost exact replica in the form of the Baule jomolo. This would suggest that the instrument has been known and played long for an incredibly long time, quite possibly over thousands of years.


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