Taita - Feature Articles

The Ngoma Healing Ritual of the Taita People

The following superb (and supremely detailed) thesis by Brandon Judge touches on virtually every aspect of Ngoma among the Taita (ritual, musical, social and historical), and was first published in September 2003. The thesis is reproduced here by Brandon's kind permission, and remains his copyright; the usual restrictions on further reproduction apply - please read the copyright notice.
In this page:
Peter Wekesa: Professor of History at Kenyatta University
The Ngoma Healing Ritual
Claudius Magange: Taita/Taveta District Cultural Officer
Kitivo: Jini Ngoma Group
Mbara Mghondi: Mwangeka Kishawi Ngoma Group
Mgange Nyika: Mwasandika, Jini, Mushondo and Bura Ngoma
Kwaya Mbanga Ngwale: Mwasandika Ngoma Group
Myokech Boys Band: Ohangla Group (Western Kenya)
Bibliography of References
Related pages:
Taita feature articles - In Remembrance of Pepo
The Use of Drumming as Cure for Children with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, by David Akombo

The Ngoma Healing Ritual of the Taita People, by Brandon Judge

Brandon Judge travelled to Kenya in June of 2003 on a Richard Bangs Memorial Scholarship awarded by the University of Puget Sound. The purpose of this annual award is to fund a research project that focuses on uniting social and physical sciences. As a continuation of his summer 2002 research on the scientific application of sound vibration as therapy, he sought to further understand the use of sound and music healing through a cultural perspective. Brandon graduated from the University of Puget Sound in December 2003, and is currently completing graduate studies in sound/music therapy. Brandon can be contacted by email at:


Philosopher Ernst Cassier has attributed certain "formative principles" within a culture to the creation of a predominant reality system. Whatever can be argued as truth in one society may essentially be myth in another society. Byron Good calls this perceived reality of a culture the "common sense reality" because it is characterized by the natural attitude, one in which objects are taken for granted rather than submitted to critical attention, as in the scientific attitude (Good 1997: 124). Unfortunately, the progression of knowledge within a society and the resulting confidence that it builds often creates a barrier between potential complementary reality systems. A main concern of a society is the health and survival of its people, making the formative principles of that society's medical model some of the most culturally relevant. My goal for this study is to integrate two distinctly different yet potentially complementary medical models of music therapy: the biomedical model, and the Ngoma healing ritual of the Taita in the coast province of Kenya.

For biomedicine, the power of music therapy lies mainly in the vibrational nature of sound. The overall vibratory rate of an object is the harmonic result of all its smaller vibrational frequencies, and is referred to as its resonant frequency. Within the human body, the complexity of vibration increases as the vibrational frequencies of different cells, tissues, and organs are combined. When in optimal health, all of the constituent parts of the body vibrate at their natural frequencies, giving the body an overall harmonious resonant frequency. When the human body is weakened or out of balance, it oscillates at a different or less harmonic frequency, reflecting a general state of imbalance (Gerber 1988). Vibrational medicine corrects this imbalance by attempting to interface with primary vibrational frequencies that underlie and contribute to the functional expression of the physical body (Gerber).

The Taita of South Eastern Kenya attribute the legend of creation to musical powers, and similar to many native African tribal groups, approach healing through music and dance. Because music is such an integral part of Taita culture, Moreno (1985) explains that it is capable of transforming the mental state and infusing a supernatural healing in a patient within a cultural context. According to the Taita, illness is a result of sprit entities known as Pepo that present themselves in certain individuals, and the cure lies in the drumming, song, and dance of the ngoma ritual. For the Taita, those who wish to benefit from the supernatural powers of song and dance in the Ngoma ritual (similar throughout sub-Saharan tribes, pre-dating the Bantu migrations according to Janzen) must participate in the healing ceremonies for other individuals. This cooperation creates strength within the community and provides the musical and spiritual energy for the patient to enter the trance state that is necessary to calm the Pepo. This is what Janzen refers to as the "social reproduction of health."

The positivism of biomedicine's approach to music therapy opposes the claim of cultural relativity, which is a key component of music's healing power. By observing the social context in which music healing takes place among the Taita people, I am seeking to find cultural relativity in (1) the cause and condition of sickness, (2) the clinical setting in which the sickness is addressed, (3) the methods used to cure the sickness, and (4) training and experience of the healers. I have used an ethnomedical approach to studying Taita traditional medicine and ngoma groups (as well as an Ohangla group in Western Kenya) by comparing it with characteristics of biomedicine. I will then use this information as evidence of subjectivity within cultural healing models, specifically in the field of music therapy. The purpose of this will not be to further increase the distance between Western and non-Western approaches to healing models, but rather to show that the ideal application of music therapy to heal any human pathology must integrate, or at least consider, the merits of both approaches.

Peter Wekesa: Professor of History at Kenyatta University

My initial contact in Nairobi was Wilberforce Akombo, the brother of David Akombo at Music Therapy International. After arriving in Nairobi, we went to Kenyatta University in Nairobi to interview two professors on their knowledge of the culture of the tribes within Taita. PhD candidate Peter Wekesa briefed me on the history of the Swahili culture as well as the Ngoma ritual, and the second professer, Bernard Wafula, was unable to meet with me. Wekesa began by stating the importance of recognizing the historical component of any area of research, a point validated by the constant change present within any culture. The evolution of Taita communities is highly relevant to the current state of their ngoma traditions and how the degree in which the ritual has been retained in their lives. While the music of each community retains elements of individuality, it is influenced by, and has influenced the music of other Taita communities. There are even some similarities between Taita music and music of other Bantu and Swahili communities.

The gradual infusion of people from the dhow countries (East African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania as well as Arab and Hindu countries bordering the Indian ocean) causes debates about the exact date of the establishment of the Swahili culture. Traders would establish seasonal dwellings in East Africa as they waited for the shift in the trade winds, and they interacted with the native culture through music as well as marriage, trade, and religion. The integration of musical styles involved the borrowing of instrumentation, compositional style, and method of transmittance. Eventually this cultural integration led to the crystallization of the kind of music that exists in Taita today. Presently, it would hard to find a community unaffected by this integration, although different aspects of cultural influence are found within different regions. Some local traditions have altogether been replaced with others, while regions (such as the Taita hills) far from seats of political power were not as affected by other Bantu tribes.

Wekesa provided three explanations for the resilience of the Taita culture. First, the culture of the West never completely contradicted with their own, allowing both cultures to coexist simultaneously. Secondly, this coexistence was embedded deeply within the family lineage. Some elders that I interviewed recalled a history of coexistence with Christian followers around 1920, when their great great grandfathers were healers within their communities. The third explanation for cultural resilience in Taita, Wekesa described, is the institution of the elders. Even those individuals who have adopted a Westernized lifestyle, upon return to Taita, respect the council of elders regardless of their faith because they possess the most knowledge and history of the community. Common among Taita and other Bantu communities is the recitation of the people's history by the elders when someone very respected dies in a community.

The Ngoma Healing Ritual

Taita music is utilitarian and serves many purposes in addition to its role in healing ceremonies, including those concerning spiritual matters, entertainment, and cultural preservation. Wekesa explained that it is rare to see a healing process that does not involve music, because the stress or trauma accompanying or causing illness is recognized equally along with the pathological explanation. If a patient has an illness that is entirely pathological, he or she may be sent to a hospital, although Taita people believe that emotional or spiritual trauma caused by an event such as a death of a loved one or bewitchment will not allow one to be healed in a hospital. The perspective that spirit, mind, and physiology must all three be satisfactory is the primary explanation concerning music's role in the healing process.

The lack of adequate resources for bio-scientific development also helps explains the reliance of the Taita people on spirituality and music as a source of healing. Although the efficacy of their practice has not been scientifically tested, they are confident that traditional healers are more effective with patients suffering from trauma or emotional problems. Patients are even removed from hospitals and taken to these traditional healers when they have been confined to hospital beds for long periods of time to treat these problems. After five to ten months in the hospital they insist that there must be some other explanation for their unchanging condition. Wekesa has seen several cases where patients are removed from modern medical care and taken to traditional healers for emotional care and leave better than they came, even patients with HIV/AIDS. Despite the terminal nature of their illness, the emotional strength that these patients receive enables them to live longer than if they had to endure stress of being in a hospital bed.

Patients who go to visit a traditional ngoma healer (mganga) to be healed from Pepo will be charged for a diagnosis and elaborate treatment that consists of singing and drumming. The healer may use paraphernalia such as a gourd (a dried, hollowed out fruit with seeds inside), charms, and herbs. Utterances from unseen forces will come as a response to the healer's words, and the language may or may not be understandable. After about 30 minutes the music will heal the patient, who is then prescribed herbs that will provide psychological strength. However, Taita people believe medication is inadequate alone as a follow up, so emotional encouragement is provided to strengthen the patient's ability to heal him or herself. Similar to Western medicine, the healer will schedule a return visit to assess the effectiveness of the medication.


After consultation with Peter Wekesa at Kenyatta University, we returned to downtown Nairobi and then get on a bus to Kibera (an impoverished village on the outskirts of Nairobi) for a visit with a healer from Taita (Mganga Kutoka Taita). These healers in Kibera have adopted a practice where they receive payment for a session or drill that treats the visitor as if he or she were a patient suffering from Pepo. Professor Wekesa knew two of of these healers (Waganga) who would conceal the client in a dark room for a short time while drumming, doing work with charms and medicine, and communicating with unseen forces. The utterances that respond to the healer's questions were said to come from different "dark forces that cannot be rationally explained."

Modernization has required the movement of some traditional healers from rural areas to Nairobi because they have had to follow the movement of people to the city. Wekesa noted that these particular "waganga" are not completely authentic because of the commercialization that has taken place in the city. Although the people who have moved to the city may have undergone significant lifestyle changes, they have all come from a culture with particular formative principles that constitute their realities. Many of them still believe that the healing ceremonies using ngoma are necessary to maintain complete health, so there is a definite population in need of these healers. An explanation is needed then regarding the lack of authenticity that Wekesa attributes to those practicing Ngoma rituals in the city. After experiencing both environments, I would suggest that a major difference between city and rural life is the more dominant role of money within Nairobi. An urban lifestyle requires specialization, professionalism, and reliance on a cash economy, whereas community and bartering are more existent within the rural tribes.

Although we searched for one of these Waganga in Kibera, none were found. To supplement the purpose of our journey, I paid visits to two herbalists with kiosks (stands or shops) on the street. The first herbalist was suspicious of my intent, and nervously directed my guide me and to consult with another herbalist a short distance away. When we arrived at the other kiosk, the man welcomed our curiosity and we were invited to sit down. I could immediately tell that this herbalist was very popular, as clients stopped by for their medicines about every five minutes throughout our visit. His financial status was also well illustrated by the level of knowledge that he possessed (and the fees he was charging patients for this knowledge), although the efficacy of his practice could hardly be known.

This herbalist, Dr. Jaseme, was also very skeptical of my curiosity in his profession when I began to record the names of a few plants he was telling me about. He saw my curiosity as potentially advantageous to him, and immediately requested 5,500 Kenyan shillings (about 80 USD) for all the knowledge that he possessed. When I asked the man what the basis for this fee was, he insisted that if I wanted to learn to become a healer I would have to make a sacrifice. With this fee, he also explained that the network of healers that he was associated would become a potential resource for my research. The appeal he was trying to make was that I would be accepted into this guild as an apprentice for this "entrance fee." Jaseme also mentioned how he would hesitate to send me to someone else because of his or her desire to gain only my money. His practice, he stated, was to prescribe the necessary herbs to a patient first, and then accept a payment thought appropriate by the patient after the effectiveness of the treatment has been proven. However, he seemed to be making an exception in my case by requiring payment even before consultation, most likely because it was apparent to him that I possessed more money than the average Kenyan that visited him. However, my travel itinerary would not allow me to see the benefit of such a network while he would see immediate benefit of accepting my money.

In addition to the fact that I doubted it was even possible for me to learn everything he knew at that point in time, the price was out of the question. Unfortunately for myself however, my guide persisted with questions when it was quite obvious that more money was expected for each reply. My focus now became an escape from a potentially expensive situation while evading the bewitchment of Mr. Akombo, who believed that if we made the man angry he could cast a spell upon us. Mr. Akombo was not the only individual that I met who held a fear of crossing a "magician" (someone involved in herbs, ngoma, or other spiritual healing), so I respected his assertion and continued to negotiate with him.

Dr. Jaseme described his ability to diagnose a problem on the spot by observing and feeling a patient's skin. In addition, he said that he knew "every single plant" in the book Medicinal Plants of East Africa by J.O. Kokwaro, which numbered in the thousands. His confidence in his abilities made him seem like either a gifted healer, or a successful entrepreneur within the slum of Kibera. Regardless, he insisted on 3,500 shillings (50 dollars) for the words that were exchanged in addition to herbs for the "mild rash on my skin" (acne). What I learned, however, was more significant than whether or not this man could heal me if I were ill. Rather, I learned what was the most effective way to bargain with locals for information that I was seeking (although in this case I learned how not to go about it). I told him that I was unhappy with his willingness to bargain the fee, but my guide was worried, so I did not argue. I paid him and we departed.

Claudius Magange: Taita/Taveta District Cultural Officer

Claudius Magange, the director of culture at the Taita Taveta district office in Wundanyi, was my initial contact within the Taita Hills, where the majority of my research was conducted. We discussed the ethical and legal considerations of my work as a researcher, and I learned about the particular tribes and dialects within the Taita Taveta district. As a researcher, I was obliged to obtain official permission from the district officer if I was to conduct my research. Unfortunately, the district officer said that I must obtain a research permit from the ministry of education in Nairobi to ensure cooperation within the local communities. However, I would not able be to return to Nairobi until the end of my stay, so Mr. Magange recommended that I pursue my project as a tourist that was interested in the music of the Taita people.

Kitivo: Jini Ngoma Group

Wilberforce's earlier visit to Taita provided my second contact there, Eluid Nyangala. Nyangala arrived at the District office toward the end of my visit with Mr. Magange and he would later serve as my guide and translator in the town of Mwatate. Mwatate is a community a half hour matatu ride down from Wundanyi, and all three Taita dialects, Sagalla, Dawida, and Kasigau, are used in the community. Although the District officer had not yet been contacted at this point, Mr. Akombo had obtained a written letter of consent from the chief of Mwatate during his earlier visit, so my research could begin in this area with the permission from this local authority.

Mr. Nyangala was unaware of the specific focus of my research, so my first day in the field was mainly to survey the multiple facets of the music within the lower Taita region. I was exposed to five groups on this first day, all of which were entirely different in ability, style, and apparent authenticity. I communicated to all groups that I would pay no money for demonstrations because I needed first to gauge the relevance of each group or individual to my particular project. I only followed up on one of these five groups, as the others either did not use music for healing or played music that seemed out of practice enough to suspect their authenticity as an ensemble. The one group that I did pursue was the only one I saw that day possessing the large ngoma drums described by Janzen, and was also the only group referring to the existence of Pepo and knowledge of how to treat it. An initial interview was arranged for two days later with the 70-year-old healer and his 20-year-old son Jackson, the inheritor of the practice.

Upon later reflection, I realized that because I had not bargained the price for the interview, Jackson saw it possible to request 6,000 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) for me to observe a rehearsal. After discovering that ngoma groups in Mgange charge from 1,000 Ksh to 4,000 Ksh, I called Nyangala to inform him that the 6,000 Ksh agreed upon earlier was unreasonable and that I wouldn't be coming to the Sunday rehearsal unless the price could be negotiated. He called the next day to tell me "they were human" and did not want money to get in the way of my decision to come. They would gladly accept in exchange a fee I felt appropriate to the group's performance.

There used to be two types of Pepo in this community: Mwikabwi and Jini. When the healer of this community was a young boy, his grandfather used to see Mwikabwi pepo disturb many people and this was very hard to treat. It was difficult for the healer to say how long Mwikabwi Pepo existed in the region, although he guessed that it existed more than 300 years ago, originating in the coastal city of Mombasa. This recollection corresponds with documentation of spirit entities coming from Arab nations when traders arrived on the East coast of Africa. History books cite its existence dating before that, although they do not provide an exact date. Eventually, a healer with special abilities in healing this pepo was found, and with time it has become very rare and very weak. A person with Mwikabwi Pepo has no illness apart from talking to him or herself.

The pepo that is now common in this community (and entire coastal region) is called Jini, and it's origin is similar to that of the Mwikabwi Pepo. People can send a pepo of Jini to someone's home to disturb him, making him behave like he were mad (schizophrenic). The Pepo can come into the person's house, take him or her away and control the afflicted person's behavior (an example being a person who went to work in the offender's farm for a whole night).

The Kitivo group explains their resilience to the pressures of Christian missionaries as imperative to the survival of their culture because ngoma is a primary component of their community. In the past, however, those who became "saved" saw ngoma as "ungodly" and were highly critical of their practice. There were also those individuals who remained faithful to the tradition and did not believe in Christianity but went to church because they wanted to be on both sides. The effect of the church has largely come and gone, and no difficulty presently remains in maintaining the ngoma tradition in the presence of Christian followers. Today, even churchgoers are interested in the tradition and will come to see the ritual. The bigger population, the healer stated, has always remained in the tradition.

Both boys and girls begin observing the ngoma ritual at age seven and begin participating around age nine, although I only observed males playing the drums. The healer observes the interest of children and grandchildren in the practice, and looks for those who are keen on herbs and ask many questions to determine who will be the most able to inherit the position of healer. Healing knowledge is ancestrally passed, and healers are not merely cured patients who pursue the field as a result of their experience with illness. The healer's son Jackson's outstanding interest and ability, as well as his own request to learn the practice, enabled him the opportunity to learn the necessary skills for becoming a healer. He is currently being observed while he learns how to treat different ailments with multiple combinations of herbs. His father can heal diseases that no longer exist today, possessing as many treatments as his memory will allow. After Jackson's training is completed, there will be a ritual with an animal slaughtered and roasted in recognition of the man handing over the practice to his son. As part of the ritual, the blood of the slaughtered animal will be poured on the ground to return it to the ancestors, cleansing the community and blessing the new healer.

On the day of the healing ritual as well, the participants eat the meat from a slaughtered cow or goat. Traditional dress used to be worn in the past, and for men consisted of animal skin and for women consisted of papayras (skirts) made of sisal fiber or banana fibers. Now men wear their daily dress (consisting of trousers and t-shirts) while women maintain a great deal of coloration in their dress. The reasons for the abandonment of traditional dress include modernization and religious influence. Influenced by those around them accepting the church and western culture, they have slowly changed with the culture around them by abandoning the traditional costuming. In a slightly comical tone, the young one, Jackson Mwagnea, described his lack of interest in seeing his 70-year-old father in an animal skin loin cloth.

Everyone (including the patient with Pepo) is in a normal state when the ritual begins (contrary to what I observed in the Kwaya Mbanga ritual described later). The dancers move counterclockwise in a circle, sometimes surrounding the drums. The healer has the duty of observing the dancers in the group to discern who possesses the pepo (if they have not yet been identified). This person will be affected by the music and start dancing different rhythms than the others, making him or her easily identifiable. In other cases, patients may request the ritual because they already know they possess the Pepo, although they may not know which type. Then it is the role of the healer to observe the behavior of the patient and their response to the songs in order to determine which Pepo type they have.

The drummers will build to a climax until the patient falls down shaking with Pepo. At this point, the pepo within the patient may cause him or her to request a certain song (immediately identifying the pepo type), although this does not always happen. In such cases, the drummers will play a variety of songs until a response is generated from the patient, who will rise after the healer administers the appropriate medicine. The patient may either go to a drum or behave in an uncharacteristic way. For example, someone who has never smoked may want a cigarette, or they may smoke at a very high rate (even a whole pack of cigarettes). The healer has even seen cases where the person may want to do something as irrational as eat a piece of soap.

Although he does not need to go the level of understanding of an herbalist, the healer has learned what medicines to use for treating all Pepo types (and how to prepare them), and he is now teaching his son, Jackson. Because Jackson is younger and more fit, he gathers the herbs from the bush (as opposed to getting them from an herbalist at a market) and brings them back to his father who he will observe mix and prepare them. The prepared medicines take a number of different forms, including a powder, a paste, or a liquid form. One particular type of the latter they will share with everybody at that particular function, including the affected person (homebrew).

It is not uncommon that after one or two weeks in a hospital a person will withdraw from a hospital to visit this man to receive traditional medicine because they suspect that the cause of their illness is spiritual. Illnesses such as malaria and stomach discomfort don't involve ngoma because they are not caused by pepo. In cases where someone needs treatment for such illnesses, the healer will speak in the local language, Kitaita, to the forces that control or guide him on the use of herbs or medicines that will heal the patient. For some sicknesses, however, he will suggest hospitalization.

A unique characteristic of this culture is that patients are not charged for the treatment that they receive from the healer or the ngoma group. However, the last ritual actually used to heal someone was three months before my visit, making this ngoma group the least active one that I visited. Although they rarely performed the healing ceremony, they rehearsed every Sunday so that if their service was needed they would be prepared.

Members of the group take roles either as drummers or dancers, each person having a particular role as vocal soloist, guide drummer, or on the position of principle Mwasandika drum. These drums were the larger one of two types of drums that were used by the group, and were carved out of a single log cut into sections and hollowed. A cowhide was stretched over the top and secured by pegs around the rim. The other smaller type, the kengele, had a metal body and served as the guide drum. The Kitivo group asserted that they had the biggest ngomas in the region, while two other Taita dialect communities, Kasigau and Sagala, used smaller drums.

When I arrived in Mwatate for the rehearsal, the elder was awaiting my arrival outside the village. He escorted Nyangala and me to the drum site where the drummers were warming up. Without verbal introduction, the five drummers began to play and the healer came out shortly after with shakers made from tree bark (njuga) on his legs that kept a steady rhythm while he danced. In other communities, I observed the same instruments as well as smaller, quieter ones used for accompaniment by multiple dancers. One by one, the female dancers emerged from a hut and began to dance with small shuffling steps in a counter clockwise circle in front of the drummers. The women wore decorative clothing and the men did not, emphasizing Jackson's point regarding "modern traditional dress."

Two men maintained a small burning brush pile that the drums were placed next to when not in use. The heat from the fire tightens the drumheads so that they will reach the appropriate pitch. One of these men brought the drums to and from the fire to replace drums as they will have the proper head tension. He would set the new drum next to a drummer, who would decide when to switch to it, and the man would return the other to the fire.

During an established rhythm, the drummers, dancers, and some observers would sing either in unison or call and response initiated by one of the elder drummers. The healer maintained a position in front of the drummers and danced with a steady galloping step. Occasionally he would interact with one of the dancers by opening his arms wide and getting close, as if to share his energy with her. Only about every 12-15 minutes did all drumming stop, as the drummer playing the kengele would use a break in sound to begin a new beat. During this time, the dancers would slow or stop dancing (the latter for the healer, due to the loudness of the shakers on his legs), clearly showing the dancers' dependence on the power of the drums as the driving force of their movement.

Older men had priority over the young ones on the drums. The oldest three men played the guide drum for the majority of the rehearsal. If an elder drummer took a break from one of the other drums, a younger one would seize the opportunity to fill in the vacancy. However, when the veteran returned, he would not hesitate to take back his drum, sometimes even by physical means (although never violently). The subordinate would not resist, although he would express obvious disappointment. A comparison that kept surfacing in my mind was with the American teen-age experimental rock band in the basement of a party, and the less skilled or less familiar musicians capitalizing on the opportunity to play when another took a break. Similar to the Kitivo group, the aspiring rock star must forfeit his spot to the original player upon his return. This observation corresponded with Jackson's comment regarding the member turnover and the format of rehearsals, which involved a slow integration of young ones for the purpose of teaching them this integral part of their culture.

An illustrative and slightly comical example of this age/experience factor that I observed was of a young (approximately four year old) child seizing the opportunity to play the guide drum while the senior players took a break. He began playing a surprisingly steady beat, and the other drummers (also young ones taking advantage of drum vacancies) quickly joined in. The eldest dancer soon began to complain that the young boy's hands would get too tired to sustain persistent rhythm. An older drummer replaced the young boy and the drumming continued immediately with the eventual reinstatement of all veteran drummers.

At the end of the session I thanked all of the participants and, at the request of the old man, proceeded to pay him in the company of the whole group (as well as the entire crowd). There was discussion among the members of the group (although there seemed to be the most interest within the children as to how much money was involved), and the consensus was that they were satisfied with my offer. They asked when they would see me again and I offered to return as a friend the following Sunday if no payment was expected. They accepted and asked me to bring friends, promising to have more group members present. After many goodbyes, Jackson escorted us to the outskirts of the village. At our parting, he brought Nyangala and me close and expressed his sincere thanks on behalf of the group for the opportunity to perform. I returned my thanks, and we parted.

Mbara Mghondi: Mwangeka Kishawi Ngoma Group

My third local contact was borne out of a conversation about my research that took place between a local man and a friend of mine (whom I stayed with in Wundanyi). This man expressed my interest in ngoma to his daughter Lucy, who paid a visit to my place of residence on my fourth day in Taita. The opportunity for multiple more informants was immediately apparent as Lucy and her husband Peter described their knowledge of healers and musicians in the town of Mgange (which is 45 minutes further interior in the Taita hills). For a stipend of my own choosing, they would serve as my translators as well as make arrangements for meetings with multiple ensembles and healers. This new contact allowed me to send Mr. Akombo (who did not speak the local language, Kitaita) back to Nairobi earlier than expected, and I would meet up with him again three weeks later.

Two days later I heard back from Lucy with a proposed date and time to meet with a Kishawi Ngoma group, and I agreed to meet them at the Matatu stage (public transport hub) in Mgange. When I arrived, I visited their home and was given lunch before our scheduled meeting time with the ensemble. We returned to the village center, and the meeting time came and went without the appearance of the group. Fortunately while we were waiting, the leader of another ngoma group called Mgange Nyika appeared, and we agreed on a time and fee for a performance and interview. We then resumed our wait for the Kishawi group, and this particular experience turned out to be one of my first experiences with "Kenyan time." Our patience was slowly rewarded, however, with the gradual appearance of the group members. We began walking toward Peter and Lucy's house so that I could observe the group before agreeing on a fee for an interview and full performance. I immediately noticed that there were no drums in the group, and to my understanding at that time, ngoma was the word for drum (ngoma also refers to any rhythmic chant or body percussion). At this time I learned that this Dawida group specialized in a particular type of ngoma that used a board and sticks to provide the rhythm for the singing and dancing. Their demonstration was quite satisfactory, and we agreed both upon a fee and date for an interview and performance.

Mbara Mghondi is known as a Mwangeka Kishawi ngoma group. Around the 1920's, Mwangeka was the leader of a Mwasandika ngoma group called Mgange Nyika. I was fortunate to observe and conduct an interview with this group, and discovered that it was founded in the late 1800's. The great great grandfather of the present Kishawi group leader, by comparison, received the insight to form the group in a dream only 30 years ago. This suggests that there may be a possible derivation of this newer ngoma group from the older Mgange Nyika group.

The tradition of Kishawi ngoma has been passed along through its generations as older members pass away. Their group was very unique from all the other ngoma groups I observed, the primary difference being the method of music production. Whereas all other Taita tribes used the Ngoma drums recognized by Janzen, they used a board (Mugongo) and sticks (Mlingo)- the former being the instrument in which the sticks were driven onto by the players in a steady quarter note pattern to accompany the voices of the dancers. One instrument that was similar to the other groups were the leg jingles (jugha) worn by the lead dancer (in this case the healer's son and apprentice).

The survival of the ngoma ritual is crucial for them, and they said it must exist for their community to retain its culture. As something they have inherited from their ancestors, they see that the loss of ngoma would decrease the significance of their very lives. The greatest challenge to the ngoma ritual has been from the Christian missionaries, with a peak in resistance in 1982 (much later than Taita ngoma groups not as far interior as this one). No one in the group has converted to Christianity (in fact my asking of that question was regarded as rather comical to them), nor have they seen a decrease in the number of patients who come seeking their treatment. Those in the community who have converted do not visit them openly. They enjoyed telling me of the instances in which some converts within the community will come at night to be healed so that they avoid being seen by other Christians. The next day, the group explained with great amusement, the converts go back to their community and say "Praise God!" as if they had never been to see them the night before.

The ten members of the group meet regularly on Saturday nights for practice, and it is not uncommon for patients with illnesses to visit at this time because they are aware that the group has already gathered. However, when a patient has an emergency, the group will call all the members to gather immediately, regardless of the day, preferably during the daylight hours.

The power of witchcraft is recognized in the Mbara Mghondi group for cases of illnesses in which a person has caused harm to another through the casting of a spell. However, they also attribute certain physical illnesses to allopathic causes (such as malaria and viral infection for example), in which cases they will advise the patient to seek treatment at a modern hospital. The most notable aspect of this tribe that I observed was their immense knowledge of the use of herbs for treating illnesses caused by food or allergies, curing physical pain, and even for promoting personal fortune (see table 1). The last person whom the healer treated was a woman in the group who for two months had been suffering from a headache and stomachache. The healer had prescribed some herbs for treatment, and as of her last checkup a week before my visit she had been feeling better.

Sometimes patients may come for help because treatment at a hospital is ineffective, and they are "guaranteed to get well" if they seek this traditional medicine. Affirming Peter Wekesa's account, those patients who come to seek consolation from the despair of an HIV/AIDS infection are given herbal treatments and provided with music to renew their emotional strength. The healer explained that this emotional strength in turn increases the patient's physical strength, helping him or her with the mental toil accompanying the disease.

Table 1. Herbs used by the Mbara Mghondi tribe




Isenge Vughu
Na Mvume
Kifu cha Nb'ombe

chew or broth
dry and grind
dry and grind
dry and grind

Promotion (of job)
Promotion (of job)
stomach pain
allergy of meat
body pains
curing injuries
for riches
diarrhea & vomiting
coughing & flu
curing wounds
stomach worms
coughing e.g. T.B.
skin disease
skin disease on head

The oldest man was the healer, and his son (about 40 years old), was his apprentice who collected the herbs for him while gradually adopting more responsibilities in the group. Individuals become healers not through their own choosing, but are visited in a dream by a close ancestor who wishes that he inherit the practice from him. Healers can skip a generation, and the apprentice chosen by the healer can be any succesor (not necessarily the first born) that is "humble, good hearted and honest." In the case of the current healer and his son, the latter was chosen because his brothers were unfit for the responsibilities associated with being the healer, while he showed a superior potential for becoming a healer. Unlike the social status of a western doctor, healers in the Dawida community do not have any special recognition making them superior to others. This healer's primary profession, like everyone else's in the community, is farming his land to provide his own food, and to sell at the local market. If a patient comes to him seeking to be healed, he will take a break from the farm to treat them, and when finished, will return to the farm and continue working.

All of the group members must pay a type of share or registration fee initially to join the ensemble. After a performance or an ngoma healing, they will split the earnings so that their participation serves as a (part-time) paid profession. The fee this group charges for a treatment depends on the particular illness, not on how long it takes for the patient to respond. There are no treatments provided to patients free of charge- everyone must pay something for the work involved in collecting the herbs, making the homebrew, and gathering the members of the group (when Pepo is involved).

When a patient arrives at the hut where the healing takes place, he or she is first welcomed in by the healer or whole group (when ngoma is needed), and is then expected to pay money up front for both the homebrew involved in the cleansing of the sacred herbs and group consumption in addition to the gathering of fresh herbs for their treatment. In my case, no healing was actually taking place and the power of fresh herbs was not needed, so the money I paid initially (300 Ksh or about 4 USD) was necessary only to pay for the homebrew. The healer's son immediately placed the money underneath a kishoo (animal hide from a cow or goat), poured some of the homebrew into a bowl, and then walked over to where the bag was hanging inside the hut. After saying a few sacred words, he sipped some of the homebrew, and sprayed it from his mouth onto the ground underneath the bag. He repeating the words again and then removed the bag from its hanging spot and brought it back to the center of the group. He emptied the herbs out onto the kishoo and refilled the bowl of homebrew, this time passing it around to all people present. Each person then took a sip and held it in their mouth until everyone had done the same, and the young apprentice motioned forward. Everyone followed his cue and simultaneously sprayed the herbs with the liquid, cleansing them so that they would work properly. The man said more sacred words, and the cleansing act was repeated once more. Lucy informed me that some of these words were warnings to me as a visitor. If my intentions were to steal their knowledge and take it to the government, I would be bewitched by the power of the herbs. I responded with an impression of one nervous of being suspected, and light laughter ensued. Finally, each person was given the bowl filled with homebrew to drink for him or herself.

Once this preliminary ritual is completed, the group begins the music either inside where there is very little space but free from weather, or outside if weather permits (such was my case, luckily). Three men took roles keeping a steady beat on the mugongo while the remaining seven members danced primarily in a counterclockwise circle, occasionally alternating to a formation with males lined up facing the similarly organized females (I did not observe dancers of other Taita groups do the latter). One woman served the role as lead singer, initiating the call and response with the group while accompanied by the men keeping a steady beat on the mugongo. I observed two songs, the second of which was used to cure the Kishawi pepo. They thought it was extremely comical that I wanted to see them enact this particular song despite the fact that they did not have anyone to heal. Toward the end of the enactment, they could not restrain their laughter (nor could I for that matter) from the impressive acting abilities of the woman who was pretending to be ill from the pepo within her. However, their performance was very informative, and I did not doubt the authenticity of the ritual because the actions of the ensemble were very well orchestrated and the process was very familiar to all of them.

In a typical healing ritual, it will take anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour for a patient to respond to the ngoma, after which time he or she will fall to the ground. The explanation the healer's son provided for the cause of a person falling was that the excitement generated by the music overtook them and maybe "raised their blood pressure." The healer will then carry over a container with water to be poured over the patient's neck and follow by applying a treatment of herbs. Continuing the music, the patient will slowly get up as they are "energized by the music." The healer's son compared the fallen patient to an "addict" that needs the music to continue playing in order to get up again. Through this process, the bad thoughts associated with the Pepo are washed away, allowing the Pepo to subside.

Mgange Nyika: Mwasandika, Jini, Mushondo and Bura Ngoma

Leader Fredrick Walhenje describes his group as being "the best ngoma in the Taita Hills." When they go to competitions and festivals, other ngoma groups will go before them, because their "ability to add more harmony to the music, their extraordinary rhythms, and their performance" make them the superior entertainment. In fact, Walhenje emphasized that some people are even scared to come to Mgange because of the power of their drums. Although he could not recall the exact year, Walhenje said that this ngoma group has been passed down from his great great grandfather who saw the turn of the 19th century.

The group performs regularly at night mainly for the purpose of entertainment, although they play music for treating individuals with Pepo, in which case they will go during the day to a healer that is practiced in the use of herbs. Walhenje is not himself a healer, whereas all three of the other ngoma group leaders in Taita were healers. When someone needs to be healed from Pepo, the group will provide the singing, dancing and the drumming while the healer prescribes the necessary herbal treatments. In the past, there were enough healers to treat each of the Pepo types, but nowadays healers are typically younger and fewer, so one individual will treat all types. Walhenje attributed this change to the impact of foreign education and Christianity.

The missionaries came long ago when ngoma was very popular (about 1920-1930) and attempted to stop them from drumming and follow Christianity. There was one elder in Bura (a town outside of Mgange) who cooperated with the missionaries in exchange for some gifts, allowing them to pass through Bura into Mgange. However, an elder in Mgange named Mwangeka wa Malowa (referred to as "King of the Taitas"), was more knowledgeable on the use of herbs (and was actually the teacher of the elder from Bura) so his strength allowed him to resist their advances. When Mwangeka heard them coming, he used the local medicine to chase them away. His statue stands in the coastal city of Mombasa today as a symbol of their culture's survival. To this day, they insist that the ngoma will continue on.

The members of the group have other jobs, and don't depend on the income they get from this group to live. The members are in the group strictly based on their ability, with those most talented in ngoma or dancing taking precedence over those with less ability. The dancers wear traditional hats that have a tassel on them, and each one carries a sombe (tail of a cow braided into a rope) - which the first president of Kenya (Kenyatta) carried to signify peace. The final other piece of traditional dress worn are called Bura (known as njuga by the Kishawi and Kitivo groups), and are tied to the legs of the dancers to provide a steady shaker beat. Non-traditional dress worn by the dancers includes t-shirts and lasos. The t-shirts have the band name "Mgange Nyika" on the back and the words "Kitamaduni" (culture) and "Mwasandika Ngoma" on the front and were purchased so that their name could become known outside of Taita. In the past, the women wore the same type of short beaded waist skirts (demos) worn by the Mbara Mghondi Kishawi group, but decided to replace them with lasos (wrap around skirts) to retain their own individual style (although I observed that the women in the Kishawi group wore the lasos as well underneath their beaded waist skirts).

Anyone with Pepo may come to be healed; paying whatever they feel is appropriate (and affordable). In the past, the group would accept goods in exchange for their service, but due to the communities movement to a cash economy, will only accept money. There are no free services for the community, as every service must be paid for.

Walhenje explained that the pepo is felt in the heart (chest) and it does not cause any other illness. A woman in the group has had a problem with Pepo since May. They have to beat the drums daily, weekly or monthly depending on whenever the Pepo possesses her. Unless someone with Pepo is treated with ngoma whenever it arises (it is reoccurring and can never be completely rid of), they may talk to themselves and will shake constantly - sometimes very subtlety, and sometimes strong enough to make them fall down. The types of Pepo they see are Jini, Bura, Mushondo and Mwasandika. Similarly to the Kitivo group, they explained that Jinis are not visible, and can be kept in people's homes and used to cause harm to others.

There are some with Pepo who come when they hear that the group has gathered for another person; so multiple people can be treated at one time. If some members of the group are not present when an urgent case arises, the ones who are around will still gather to provide the ngoma. For the performance I observed no one possessed Pepo, but they simulated the process of treatment as it would normally proceed. After about ten to fifteen minutes after the drums started, the patient (who was dancing in a counterclockwise circle with the other dancers) fell to the ground. Some of the dancers then brought that person near to the drums and sprinkled water on her head and face. If the type of Pepo within a patient is unknown, the drummers must observe the requests of the patient so that they can determine the necessary song for healing the Pepo. The patient's request may be a desire to hear a particular song, for example, or to have a certain person to sprinkle the water on his or her face. If the patient is unable to talk, the drummers will try different songs until they get a response from him or her (similar to Kitivo and Kwaya Mbanga groups). After this happens, the patient will slowly get up and continue dancing for one or two hours in order to build courage and strength in overcoming the Pepo within them.

Kwaya Mbanga Ngwale: Mwasandika Ngoma Group

The leader of the group estimates the origin of the group to be around the late 1800's although the exact history is unknown. He began learning the practice himself in 1940 when his father inherited the practice, and inherited it himself three years later when his father passed away. Currently, he is teaching both his son and nephew so that if one of them is away, or if something happens to one of them, the practice will continue as it is needed. Throughout time, the group has learned new songs through dreams and individual compositions, although they use only the traditional songs for healing Pepo.

The Christian missionaries came to them around the early 1920's when the man's father was alive and he was not yet born. The missionaries accused them of playing satanic music and said that it must be stopped. However, their leader, a man by the name of Mchilo, initiated resistance immediately after their arrival and assured the community that the missionaries would be gone the following day. He prepared herbal medicines and brought them, in addition to a gourd (essential instrument in the practice of what Westerners know as "witchcraft"), and cast spells upon them while they were sleeping. It is said that they imagined heavy rains, hordes of safari ants, lions and hyenas during the night, and consequently departed the next day in fear of their lives. Other missionary teams came later, but departed under similar circumstances within a day or two. Since then, the diversity of tribes, communities, and denominations has led them to believe that the missionaries no longer feel obligated to convert them, leaving them free to practice ngoma in peace.

The members of the group don't depend on the resulting income for daily living, sustaining themselves through their own farms and some through work as laborers on other people's farms. However, they will share what money and/or goods are generated through performances as additional income. Anyone interested in (and willing to commit themselves to) the group can join, although the more experienced members will play the drums during a healing ritual, because they know the songs the best. The others will help contribute through dancing and singing, both of which are necessary to provide the energy in overcoming the Pepo within the patients.

This group sees the most patients in the harvest months of June and July (when I visited), for reasons they could not explain. They meet regularly on Sundays to play at a cave near the village of Mwanda, primarily for practice and entertainment for passersby that stop to observe them. Quite regularly, patients will drop in for treatment when they hear the ngoma far away (a phenomenon I observed about a mile and a half across the valley in Mwanda after leaving a performance). Due to the possibility of these unplanned patient visits during these gatherings, it is customary for the group to have the appropriate herbs and the homebrew already prepared. For these unexpected patient visits, money is not used for payment. Most frequently however, the patient will pay with a 5-kilogram bag of sugar (250 Ksh or 3.50 USD) to make the essential homebrew (mbangara) necessary for herb cleansing and consumption by the group. Alternatively, the patient will bring milk if he or she does not "take" homebrew. In all cases, payment must be received before the healing of Pepo can commence.

On some occasions, a person in need of immediate treatment will ask to gather the group as soon as possible. In such cases, the patient will be asked to pay 250 Ksh for the homebrew, but if this amount cannot be met he or she will bring the remaining balance the following day. These emergency treatments usually always take place at the cave that I visited, although in cases where someone has a very strong case of Pepo and has difficulty traveling, the group will go to the patient's home and play for him or her there. They do not charge more for this, however, because it would "be unfair" to charge them more for the same treatment.

The four herbs used for the treatment of all types of Pepo are the same for everyone. They are first blessed and cleansed with a spray of homebrew from the healer (similarly to the Kishawi group, except the healer is the only one to do this). Three of them, Kisachi, Mwawala, and Mboghori are then ground between two rocks and mixed in a gourd with water. This medicine is prepared for every performance, and the patients must drink it before the music starts, especially in cases where someone with Pepo has waited too long for treatment. The drums are then "beaten until they have touched the deepest place in the [patient's] heart," causing him or her to fall to the ground shaking with the aggravated Pepo within them. The drums that were currently being used were 7 years old. They are created from a single tree that is cut down and sectioned. Each section is then hollowed out so that one single piece of wood forms the body. An animal hide is then stretched over the top and secured with hand carved pegs around the perimeter.

The fourth herb, Kidungadi, is a grass-like herb tied into a bunch at the base used to "brush away the Pepo" while the patient lies on the ground. If the drummers are unfamiliar with the type of Pepo that is acting in the patient, they will have to search for a song that will cause him or her to rise and continue dancing with the others allowing the ngoma to subside the power of the Pepo. If a particular song has no effect, they will continue searching until the right song is found (a process that they have seen take as long as 45 minutes). There is no way to differentiate what Pepo a patient has through physical characteristics or behavior, only through observing the patient's response to different songs.

After a treatment on Sunday, a patient will usually be able to return to work the following Monday, although with stronger cases of Pepo the patient may need to rest for the following day. If a person does not recover from an illness after having ngoma played for them, this indicates that the illness may not be a result of Pepo. The leader of the group does not consider himself to be a healer of anything but Pepo, so if a patient possesses some other illness, he will advise that the person to visit another healer or go to a hospital, depending on the nature of the illness. He says that he is able to determine the cause of illness supernaturally through the use of a gourd. During my first day with Eluid Nyangala I met a traditional practicioner named Dr. Nyakiti who used a similar instrument to foretell the dangers of my project, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate although I was rather skeptical initially. After shaking the seeds within the gourd, the healer will remove the cap, give a sharp blow of air over the opening, turn it upside down and count the number of seeds that come out. Repeating this process a few times will tell him what treatment the patient needs, although he will not be able to tell the exact illness that he or she possesses. If the illness is a result of another person wishing harm to them through witchcraft, the healer will send them to a traditional healer for treatment. If he sees that the illness is due to natural causes (malaria, etc.), he will advise the patient to go to the hospital.

The performance that I observed was initiated by the healer circling the entire area reciting words while showering the grass with home brew by dipping a bunch of Kidungadi into a sectioned gourd containing the liquid. A woman arrived and asked, in the local language, why the group hadn't started yet. She had brought a gourd filled with some liquid and was shaking almost imperceptibly, and my guide pointed out that this woman had Pepo. When the healer finished cleansing the area, he began a song that was followed by the voices of the others (within the group as well as the visitors who were observing) in a call and response. The drumming began, and four dancers moved slowly at first to the rhythm in a clockwise circle. Almost immediately the woman with Pepo removed stumbled away from the circle and collapsed in the grass a short distance away. She was shaking as if having an epileptic seizure, and remained there for the remainder of the song. After the song was over, another dancer came to her with the gourd that the woman had brought and poured some of the liquid over the back of her head and neck. The woman proceeded to get up with the assistance of a cane and returned to the circle of dancers once they had resumed playing. I was later told that this woman had the Mwasindika pepo.

A few songs later, another woman dancing had the pepo of one of the tenor drums as the song reached a climax. She staggered over to one particular drum and passionately leaned with both hands onto the drumhead pegs while the drummer greatly increased the force that he pounded into the drum. The woman moved her body violently in synch with the rhythm as if connected to the drum. When the song concluded, this woman went and collapsed in the grass accompanied by the original woman suffering from Mwasandika pepo, both of them shaking with the presence of the pepo within them. The other two dancers came to assist them by pouring a cup of water over the head and neck of each.

Although there were significantly long breaks between each song (about 5-10 minutes), the dancers complained that this particular song was ended too abruptly at its climactic point. The next song started sooner as a response to the comment, beginning with a vocal call and response led by the man on the drum affecting the second woman. It was apparent that the power of the Pepo force within her was subsiding as she gained control of her movements and resumed dancing with the others in a counterclockwise circle. The original woman, however, remained in her position on the ground shaking with the pepo (as she had done continuously for the greater part of the first two songs). After this song concluded, a third woman was struck with the Pepo and, as a result, demanded a "Sportsman" brand cigarette. The grandson of the healer ran quickly away to fetch it.

I was informed that this third woman had a pepo of Bura (a second of four Pepos that I observed in Taita). The next song played was for healing the Bura pepo, and all four dancers arose and began their counterclockwise motion. When the song was over, all three of the women suffering from Pepo went and collapsed in the same spot on the grass a short distance away. The fourth woman then assumed the task of pouring water over the back of the woman's necks while the healer came over with the big leaves of Kindugdi to brush the Pepo away from them. The music began again, and two of the women got slowly to their feet, assisted by canes. The original woman remained on the ground still shaking, this time less violently as she had been before.

The members of the group never changed roles, and throughout the 90-minute performance only one drummer gave his role to another man. Unlike other ngoma groups, the man (who happened to be the mzee's nephew) tending to the fire where drums were placed also had a specific role on a drum.

The special significance of this group was in the practical usage of the ritual within the community as a part of everyday life. This was especially discernable through the observation of children, who did not appear overly surprised by the possession of the women by Pepo, although their attention was fixed on her abnormal condition. Allowing members of the community to help empower and maintain the spiritual health of one another through the ngoma seemed to contribute to their sense of community.

Myokech Boys Band: Ohangla Group (Western Kenya)

After three and a half weeks in Taita I returned to Nairobi, where I boarded a night bus to Bondo village in western kenya. My guide Wilberforce was from this area, so language was not a problem and three contacts had been prearranged. Unfortunately, only one group showed up for a performance, but time and budget constraints made the circumstances ideal. The group was called the Myokech Boys Band, and whereas the Taita groups referred to their music as ngoma, they called theirs "ohangla". The group was composed mainly of family members (all of whom were male) while two came from other families. One of the main roles of this particular group was to perform at the homes of people who have recently experienced the death of a family member. A person's resulting loneliness through the loss may cause him or her to believe that the spirit that has made the person die will come again for someone else in the home. The fact that they have seen cases where someone dies the day following the death of another within the house provides efficacy to this belief, so they see a necessity in cleansing the home of the causal spirit. The dirges (wendywak) that they perform provide a source of energy for emotional catharsis by consoling that person with music while surrounding him or her with people who are still living. This suggests a link between emotional health and physical health, a phenomenon increasingly recognized in Western medicine.

The traditional dress worn by the group consists of sisal skirts (owalu), hand décor (yier lwedo) and head dress (ogudo), however only one set remains because the others were sold to another white person (mzungu) who offered 20, 000 Kenyan Shillings (about 280 USD) for the other five sets. They only perform at night, as they believe that the spirits do not work during the day. A typical ritual may begin at nine o clock at night and continue until five the next morning. Due to the length, a typical funeral ceremony may have multiple groups in order to provide continuous music while allowing the musicians to take breaks. They will all perform different songs, but all will be oriented toward cleansing the home of these spirits, a process that takes anywhere from one to five days. The fee that the group charges for a service depends on the financial status of the home, and although their preferred form of payment is cash, they will accept a trade of animals or sacks of corn, especially during times of hunger. Essentially, they will agree to perform a funeral service for a fee that is affordable for the requesting party.

In addition to providing music for funerals, they also perform publicly for pay at events called Harambees. When people hear the music, they will come to the home expecting to see these rituals, and will find that a small charge is requested for seeing the performance. In these cases, each group member initially contributes a small amount of money to rent a venue for the performance with the hope that enough income will be generated to make a profit. Sometimes the group will play at a function for someone they know without pay, although this will be unknown to the visitors. They will be provided with food and drink, and the incentive is that potential employment opportunities will be generated through their exposure to those people present.

They also play patriotic songs at such celebrations as well as sacred songs for wedding ceremonies appropriate to the particular religion of the hiring party. The particular month before my visit, they had performed six times- five for funeral ceremonies and once on Madaraka day to celebrate Kenyan's independence from English colonization. Sometimes they have been invited to schools for handicapped children to assist in healing and relieving emotional trauma within the mentally disoriented children. Children who are in wheelchairs will start moving like those who are dancing, and children who are normally silent will speak out while the music plays. However, the leader, Mr. Gregory Onyango, cannot provide an explanation for how the music achieves this response, only an explanation that it does.

One of the younger brothers in the group had "the sickness that makes people fall down and shake," and the translation of this condition was epilepsy. Onyango had never heard the term Pepo used to describe this, instead using the term nduleme. I found it most interesting to note the similarity of nduleme symptoms to symptoms of one suffering from Pepo in the Taita region. This younger brother had suffered from this illness until his mother and father passed away, both of whom had given up after trying every imaginable way to cure him from it. He could not sit for more than 30 minutes without falling down shaking and speaking to unseen spirits. Initially after joining the group, this brother would play for a short time and reach a point where he seemed to enter a state of shock. He would stop playing and rest for a long time, staring off in a state of silence. His recovery from this state was often associated with him losing control of his bladder and urinating in his clothes. However, his state slowly improved so that he was eventually able to play uninterrupted by the nduleme and now his condition has completely disappeared. They will see him go up to a week without playing and not experience a return of symptoms.

Onyango initially started the group for his own family needs. He was the first born, so when his parents died at a very young age, he was left as an orphan with the burden of caring for younger brothers. He picked up the orutu (one stringed instrument) from his grandfather, and slowly learned the skills necessary to create the group as he was growing up. He then trained his brothers to play other instruments in the band, and as the villagers recognized his talents his reputation spread to other villages. The members of the group all contributed their different talents, and Onyango recognized the importance of allowing each member to specialize in different instruments so that they feel that their membership is essential to the existence of the group. The involvement of younger brothers has maintained a solid core of individuals dedicated to the group, although there has been a loss of a couple members to job opportunities. Because of this, Onyango is now requiring all members of the group to learn the other instruments so that if one member is absent when their service is requested, other members can cover the part. The members of the group all sustain themselves primarily through the practice of farming, and some provide public transportation on their bicycles (a common occupation in Bondo village).

What has motivated most observers to see this particular group is the diversity of talents that the members possess. They all possess elements of slightly different communities and have unique instrumental abilities. The instrumentation was very different from the Taita ngoma groups that I observed, all of which used similar drums. The lead instrument in the Myokech group is the Orutu, which provides the melody of each song. The mother drum, the Ohangla, is a long and thin carving of a single hollowed out piece of wood. One member played a set of five drums called Bul that were made from large metal cans with hide stretched over them. Auxiliary instruments consisted of a metal bar (Ongengo) and a harmonica (kinanda). In addition to this impressive orchestral arrangement, Onyango claims that the biggest attraction for audience members is the man in the group that has no use of his legs due to polio. When a climax is close to being reached, he gets off of his chair and walks on his hands to the center of the group and dances on his hands, often raising his body in a handstand and hopping on his hands with his legs retracted into his chest. Another superior quality to this band, Onyango argues, is their African style arrangements of popular tunes that other local groups frequently borrow.

The performance I observed took place in an outdoor hall and the repetoir was a sample of all three musical genres: dirges (Wendywak), patriotic songs, and sacred songs. The performance lasted over two hours, and throughout the entire time, a crowd had developed as individuals attracted by the music came and went. They were all noticeably entertained by the event, and their greatest excitement, discernable by laughter and applause, came from watching the dancer with polio move about masterfully on his hands. Another highly positive crowd response came from the observation of a song composed for the purpose of educating people about AIDS. Onyango and the dancer enacted the method of transmittance between two lovers, and the crowd could not contain its laughter. The song was highly informative despite the group's comical approach, however, as the lyrics were an account of life through the voice of a person suffering from the disease. Unlike the four Taita ngoma groups I observed, members of this group changed instruments occasionally, although Onyango was the only one to play the Orutu.


A main commonality in all Taita tribes is that the songs used among them to treat Pepo are either similar or even the same. When the characteristic of Pepo as a regional entity is considered, it is logical that different tribes would have similar songs for the treatment of each Pepo type. All Taita groups used the leg jingles, although the spelling used varied slightly between groups (njuga and jugha). With the exception of Mbara Mghondi, all groups also possessed similar ngoma drums, the larger ones carved from a single tree and hollowed to create a one piece body, and the guide drum, kengele, with a metal body. For rituals, all Taita groups (except the performance oriented Mgange Nyika group) required the corn and sugar derived homebrew for drinking and herb cleansing. Although the Myokech Boys Band did not drink this homebrew, their explanation for drinking cane spirits before their performance was that it "gave them energy to play the drums."

The Christian resistance was the strongest challenge to each group's cultural resilience over time, and although cultures are constantly subject to outside influence, the method in which Christian missionaries attempted to convert these ngoma communities was considered a threat to their traditions and unanimously resisted by all groups. Presently, no conflicts remain within any of the communities.

The word Jini is borrowed from the Arabic word, Jinh, which are entities the Koran recognizes in addition to three other subjects consistent with Christian belief: angels, devils, and man. Jinh are more powerful than man, less powerful than God, and can be either good or bad. Some Jinh are said to have accepted Islam, and in a couple scriptures they are said to have helped the Prophet Mohammed when he fled his enemies. In another place in the Koran, it says that Jinh takes truth, mixes it with a thousand lies, and pours it into the ears of men. These Islamic legends have been corrupted by European accounts and have led to such tales concerning magic "Genies" in bottles.

Overall, the use of music in each group relied upon the belief that there was an inherent a link between emotional and physical health, and that the complete health of an individual requires both of these to be maintained. This mind-body connection is a phenomenon increasingly recognized in Western medicine, and this cross-cultural evidence suggests that a conclusion could be drawn with respect to an individual's control over their own health and ability to heal. A scientific explanation explaining this mind-body connection is near, although I would suggest that gathering more data within various cultures on this topic would increase the power of the theory because it would show its efficacy within separate communities.

Ngoma (and Ohangla) groups do appear to make and reinforce social ties among group members and between the group itself and the surrounding community as a whole. Informants all identified the necessity of these traditions in maintaining the substance of their culture. In addition, the role of the social environment was an imperative component to the healing process in all groups, implying another possibly significant component to health and healing that Western medicine may not be sufficiently recognizing. However, a question that may be in need of further research is whether or not the maintenance of the ngoma ritual actually perpetuates the existence of Pepo within the community, and if so, if the cultural incentives outweigh the effort involved in maintaining community health.


Bibliography of References

Akombo, David. Music and Healing: A Comparative Study of the Taita of Kenya and the Balinese of Indonesia. M.M Dissertation. Bowling Green State University. 2002.

Campbell, Don. The Mozart Effect. New York. Avon Books. 1997.

Campbell, Don. The Roar of Silence: Healing Powers of Breath, Tone, and Music. The Theosophical Publishing House. Wheaton, IL. 1989.

Cousto, Hans. The Cosmic Octave. Origin of Harmony. Mendocino, CA. Life Rhythm Publications. 2000.

Erdtsieck, Jessica. Pepo as an Inner Healing Force - Practices of a female spiritual healer in Tanzania. Royal Tropical Institute - Dar es Salaam. University Press. 1997.

Finke, Jens. Traditional Kenyan Music and Culture. Last accessed 3/16/03. http://www.bluegecko.org/kenya. Copyright Jens Finke 2001.

Gaynor, Mitchell, L. M.D. Sounds of Healing. New York. Broadway Books. 1999.

Gerber, Richard. Vibrational Medicine. New Choices for Healing Ourselves. Santa Fe NM. Bear and Co. 1988.

Goldman, Jonathan. Healing Sounds: The Power of Harmonics. Rockport, MA. Element Books. 1992.

Good, Byron J. Medicine, Rationality, and Experience. An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Hahn, Robert A. Sickness and Healing. An Anthropological Perspective. New Haven and London. Yale University Press. 1995.

Janzen, John M. Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central And Southern Africa. Berkely, Los Angeles, Oxford. University of California Press. 1192.

Judge, Brandon. The Effect of Sound Vibration on the Human Body. Undergraduate Research Project. University of Puget Sound. 7/28/03.

Keyes, Laurel Elizabeth. Toning: The Creative Power of the Voice. Marina del Rey, CA. DeVorss and company. 1979.

Leichtman, R. Nikola Tesla Returns. Columbus, OH. Ariel press. 1980.

Marieb, Elaine N., R.N., Ph.D. Human Anatomy and Physiology. 5th ed. Benjamin Cummings. 2001.

Mattingly, Cheryl and Garro, Linda C. Narrative and the Cultural Construction of Illness and Healing. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford. University of California Press. 2000.

McClellan, Randall. The Healing Forces of Music: History Theory and Practice. Element. 1988.

Siegmund, Levarie. Levy, Ernst. Tone: A Study in Musical Acoustics. Second edition. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press Publishers. 1980.

Skille, Olav. Vibroacoustic Manual; The Complete Empiric Results in 1990. http://members.tripod.com/~quadrillo/VAT/e_manual-2.html. Updated June 1998. Accessed 6/5/02.

Wilson, Pancheta B. Inside the HMO: America's Health Care in Crisis. Coral Springs, FL. FOUR-G Publishers, Inc. 1999.

visit bluegecko.org

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

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