Late in 1988 the British Council arranged a two week visit to Tanzania by the four-person Mellstock Band. With no recent history of Council managed music tours in Tanzania, choosing the Mellstock Band was something of a gamble. But folk music fascinated large and wholly Tanzanian audiences. Wherever there were workshops with Tanzanian musicians, discussions quickly progressed beyond the superficial. The Mellstock Band debated the role of traditional music in a culture increasingly influenced by modern popular music; thus, similarities in outlook rather than differences in musical expression were always evident.
The band’s itinerary covered Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Zanzibar, Iringa and Mzumbe. That the schedule was adhered to was something of a miracle. It felt like an act of faith when we finally stood in a crowd around the seafront bandstand in Zanzibar. The bandstand hadn’t been used for performances since the early 1960’s, yet a 500-strong audience was there and obviously entertained by what it saw. The Band’s programme included traditional instrumental dance music, vocal unaccompanied carols, a mummers’ play, the Dorset broom dance and an acted and sung ballad featuring one of the characters in drag. Audiences appeared to enjoy the variety. Attention only wandered when someone fell from the harbourside in Zanzibar into the sea; all the children in the front rows ran from the performance to peer at the police fishing out the unfortunate non-swimmer.
The Bwawani Hotel, Zanzibar was the venue for the most bizarre event of the tour. In return for free accommodation the band had agreed to give a concert which turned out to be a televised ‘English Night’. Publicity for the event read: ‘We had an Indian Night (they said it was wonderful); a Chinese Night (they asked how we managed it) ; a Fisherman’s Night (they asked “When again?”). Now we have an English Night with the Mellstock Band.’ A stage was built in the garden of the hotel and lit with red and blue fairy lights. The British flag was hung as a backdrop, and ancient posters of National Trust properties were pinned on trees and around the stage. A buffet was served, with surprisingly good English food, including the best bread pudding we had ever tasted!
As the tour progressed we realised that the repetition and mesmeric rhythms in the dance music had a wide appeal. Displays of virtuosity were greatly applauded, whether on the tambourine or in physical dance movements. The Broom Dance, planned as an encore, became the highlight of the show.
The mummers’ play, a traditional Dorset Christmas play, began with the four characters shrieking and banging long sticks as they stormed onto the stage. Children in the audience scattered in all directions and we realised later why they did this, when we saw the police keeping order with similar sticks. The mummmers’ play tells of a battle, and depicts the death of a warrior who is subsequently brought back to life by a doctor. The basic elements of death and rebirth were understood, even if the stylised speech was not; sympathetic magic central to the idea of the mummers’ play was probably more accessible in Tanzania than in the band’s native Dorset.
Everywhere we went people wanted to show us what they could do in return. We were treated to performances of traditional music and dance in Bagamoyo, Iringa and Zanzibar. This was an unplanned mutuality and one that affected the band profoundly. Nowhere more than on these occasions were we made aware of the poverty around us. No commercially made instruments were available, drums being made from tin cans or oi1 drums and beaten with sticks. We were enthralled by the complex and intricate rhythms created with these simple tools. The Mellstock Band will be holding benefit dances to raise money to buy instruments for the musicians of Zanzibar so I hope that readers of the Bulletin will look out for them. And if anyone has an unwanted brass instrument, do let us know.
Highlights must include flying through a rainbow over an azure sea to Zanzibar, dancing our hearts out at a Mellstock barn dance in Dar es Salaam and singing with a hall of seven hundred children whom the band had encouraged to join in their music. Our seven-hour drive to Iringa over pot-holed roads was rewarded when we entered the teachers’ college and discovered decorated signs reading ‘Welcome Mellstock band and feel at home’. The banner over the door as we left said ‘Goodbye to our friends. Please come back soon’