Taita - Feature Articles

In Remembrance of Pepo and the Ancestors

As I've said elsewhere, music reflects a society and its traditions. If those traditions cease to exist, so the music that was associated with it will disappear. The following piece is not just about the disappearance of an entire musical tradition, but also about what I learned of the Taita's traditional beliefs through enquiring about and - eventually - finding their music. It is a piece about remembrance, and the link between the past (ancestors), the present, and the future.
   For much more detailed information about Taita pepo, see Brandon Judge's superb thesis, The Ngoma Healing Ritual of the Taita People, reproduced on this website in its entirety. Also related, and making passing reference to Taita music, is David Akombo's The Use of Drumming as Cure for Children with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, also included on this site.

In Remembrance of Pepo and the Ancestors, by Jens Finke

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.

The Taita gave me good vibes right from start, when I gave a lift to two ladies and a thin man. One of the women was holding a small baby, who needed medical treatment in Voi, but the women were in jovial mood. "My husband has two wives!" joked the older lady without the child. "Oh! Does he want any more?" I asked. "Ooh hée, no no, two is enough!" she laughed, as the man grinned and remained silent, sandwiched between them.

The road up to Wundanyi, too, was a delight, in the company of an old man who didn't speak English but was happy to point out all the hills and recite their names as we rounded each hairpin: Chawia, Mbembwa, Susu... I felt lightness in my soul as we left behind the dusty orange plains for a land of towering outcrops, small shamba plantations, patches of forest, exposed rock faces and clean air. The sky was clear, the sun low, the colours vibrant and bright, soothing.

After dropping off the old man and parking the car, I made a beeline for a cassette shop I'd seen on the way in. This was the first of many attempts at tracking down a tape of traditional music. I tried everywhere: four music stores, all the barbers' shops, I asked at the matatu stage, I harried bus drivers, enquired at several cafés, and even asked people in the street. But no one knew anything or anyone remotely concerned with traditional music. In fact, some people seemed almost embarrassed by the spectacle of the white man reeling off names of old dances and instruments that they had probably all but forgotten about.

There was Gospel music galore if I wanted it, and dozens of tapes of modern Congolese Lingala and Ndombolo dance tunes. Bob Marley was of course in attendance, as were a motley crew of North American soul divas, and even a smattering of Country & Western, but traditional... Two tape shop owners claimed never even to have heard of pepo dances, and the man in the Holy Fish Music Store swore blind that he had never, ever, in his twenty years of doing business, come across a single tape of traditional Taita music. He did know about pepo, though, and laughed when he asked how on earth I'd come to know about it.

How I came to know about it was through George Senoga-Zake's superlative book Folk Music of Kenya (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1986), but even this was out of date: more than a century of Christianity has ensured that Gospel reigns supreme.

The beautiful sunset, with the sun's rays striking upwards at the houses of elevated Wundanyi, was some compensation as I headed off to locate an obscure guesthouse which I needed to check-out for my work.

The road from Wundanyi to Mbale is narrow and unsurfaced, and winds along a narrow valley and its small stream. I drove at little more than walking speed, passing women carrying firewood and large lumpy bundles of produce on their heads. Others were clustered around a well by the roadside, and waved back. Most walked in groups, and these seemed amused at seeing the passing mzungu. Others, usually older women, walked alone, and scuttled out of the way without even looking up. On stopping for directions, I was told that I'd pass the owner on the way.

Harrison Aggrey Mwachala is a most charming man, who with his equally charming wife and children run what remains of the Mwasungia Scenery Guest House. It has clearly seen better days: there's no longer any electricity, and not much water, either, but the welcome was warm, the sun had set, and I was happy to spend the night in their company.

The couple's living room is covered with certificates awarded to their eldest daughter, Lucy, for song and poem recitals. Her parents were punch proud, and we quickly got to talking about music. In the light of the hurricane lamp, Harrison showed me a couple of yellowed newspaper articles about traditional music, together with a cyclostyled tourist flier from 1973. It read: "Mwasungia Scenery Guest House - the centre of TAITA TRADITIONAL DANCES and the youths of TODAY with voices that make SWEET MELODY CHOIRS."

It seemed that I had finally struck luck.

I asked Harrison about the 'sweet melody choirs'. "Oh, that!", he exclaimed with a touch of wistfulness. "That was a long time ago." I asked whether he had any cassettes. At first he said no, but after thinking for a while, remembered that he might have some in his house in Voi (the Wundanyi place was his wife's). As the next day was Sunday, the matter was settled - I'd drive him and the family to Voi or wherever they wanted to go, and Harrison would see if he could find the tapes.

Next morning, first stop was church to drop off Lucy. Next, we headed up towards the summit of Chomoto Hill, but the jeep stalled so we walked up instead through people's farms, past their front doors, between their cows, and once actually straight through someone's kitchen - it seemed that this was the only way up!

Chomoto is unusual for two reasons. The first is that, right at the top, there are a number of exposed boulders which bear cup-sized hollows which have obviously been made by people. This was one of two such sites that I saw in Taita-Taveta (the other was at Rukinga; there must be plenty more), and it seems pretty certain that they predate the arrival of the Taita, perhaps by many centuries or millennia. No one knows for certain what these holes were made for, and as ever archaeologists have as many theories as there are 'experts'. Harrison didn't know for sure, but suggested that they might have been used to grind seeds or millet, or crack nuts, which seems possible. Alternatively, they may have been used to sharpen tools or hunting weapons. For more on these 'cup marks', see The Mysterious 'Cup-Marks' of Chomoto Hill & Rukinga.

The other remarkable thing about Chomoto is a tree which grows out over the void from a deep cleft in the cliff face. It seems to be hanging on for dear life, but has been there for centuries. In the past, convicted thieves were taken there by a council of elders for punishment. First, their fingers were beaten to a pulp. Then, they were then tied by a rope to the tree, and thrown down into the crevice. The elders went away, leaving the thief to his fate. They usually died, either from their injuries, or by being eaten by wild animals. But once, said Harrison, there was a man who somehow managed to climb out of the hole despite his useless fingers, and reappeared down in the farms in the valley below. Having escaped fate, the elders let him go. It was the will of God, or perhaps that of the ancestors.

The cave of skulls

Last stop in the Taita Hills was a narrow rock shelter, well hidden on the steep slope of a banana grove near a small stream. There, some thirty exhumed human skulls had been placed on a ledge under the sheltering outcrop.

It is a shrine for the ancestors. The site is one of many apparently still in existence, one for each clan or subdivision of the Taita people. This one was next to a sacred mvumu (or mvumo) tree (also called Deleb, Palmyra or Borassus palm), which always grows near water, and so might have acquired a reputation for life or eternity. The fruits are large and edible, and the sap can be used to make wine. But the really strange thing about the mvumu tree is its sound: its tall head of fan-shaped fronds makes a rumbling sound in the wind, which to some sounds like talking, and to others like the roll of a drum.

The mvumu is never cut down, and it is here that elders came in times of illness, drought or war, to make sacrifices in the hope that the ancestors - represented by their skulls, and possibly talking through the tree - interceded.

"You see," said 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." For this reason, too, the skulls had never been removed or deliberately broken.

This is what I mean about the Taita still respecting their ancestors and their past, even though their religion and their ways have changed beyond recognition. And, as was only fair, Harrison did of course find the tapes of music; in a small metal chest that to both of us possessed all the magic and allure of a pirate's treasure chest. It hadn't been opened for fifteen years.

Taking out the tapes, he stroked the dust off them one by one - "I have not heard these for many, many years". We played a couple on my walkman, stopping every few minutes as I wrote down what he said about each song (I dubbed a copy later). And I was overjoyed to finally hear a pepo dance, which I'd been certain had been lost forever.

Music is like an ancestor - a spiritual and temporal link to the past as well as the future - that must also not be forgotten.

You can listen to the treasures we found by clicking on "sound clips" on the left of your screen; there are also quick descriptions of each song.

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

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