SUKUMA SINGERS AND THE STATE

Among recent study visitors to London has been Mr Elias Songoyi, Lecturer in Oral Literature and Drama at the University of Dar es Salaam. He has described to Tanzanian Affairs the fluctuating fortunes of two Tanzanian singers in their relations with the Tanzanian state during the last 40 years. One, known as Kalikali, who has since died, was from Kwimba; the other, known as Mwinamila, who is now 67, is from Tabora. Their lives and their art have gone through four distinct phases according to the political climate at the time, Mr Songoyi said.

In the pre-independence period singers were popular figures, both through their singing and though their position as medicine men. Kalikali used to sing about work, about politics, about people’s problems. The language of the songs was figurative, full of light hearted jokes and wit. The songs were also narrative, containing elaborate descriptions of people, things and events. Society was criticised. During the colonial period this freedom of expression was constantly threatened, but nevertheless, it managed to survive. When the independence struggle began, singers like Kalikali, and especially Mwinamila, joined with enthusiasm with their songs praising Nyerere and the TANU party he had established. But three years after independence, Kalikali became disillusioned. His songs reflected what the peasants were thinking (translated from the Kisukuma):

My skin is itching
I cannot stop scratching myself
I had harvested much cotton
But the price fell
Paul, the son of Bomani
Never turned to look back
He does not care for the peasant

Another of his songs spoke of ‘Area Commissioners/ your buttocks getting fat’ – a reference to their getting fat on the money collected for public works. Kalikali was seen to have gone too far. In 1965 he was detained in Butimba prison where he was kept incommunicado for two months before being released by order of President Nyerere. We don’t know exactly what happened during his detention but Kalikali learnt that the state was not a thing to be played with. When he came out, his songs were very different. A new phase had started which continued until the eighties. The song he sang soon after his release sounded repentant and resigned:

I brought suffering
To my children and my wives (4)
When I spoke about the price of cotton
That was my mistake
I shall not say it again
I shall never repeat……

By 1967 Kalikali was singing the praises of the Arusha Declaration and Nyerere. But his audience had changed. It was no longer the peasants. He was more and more addressing party and government officials. He started singing in Swahili as well as Kisukuma. One of his songs – a very long and detailed one – coincided with the visit in 1971, on the invitation of President Nyerere, to former British administrators:

Welcome back Englishmen
Come and see how Tanzania has become
We parted peacefully
We did not quarrel Englishmen
Schools are in every village…..

Kalikali’s counterpart, Mwinamila, was not detained; instead he received rewards for his singing. A house was built for him and he was given employment by the TANU party. He still works in the Cultural Affairs Department of the CCM even though he had also been very critical of the government in the 70’s and 80’s. By 1988 he was singing about the Walanguzi (the racketeers) who, in his view, were among the party and government executives.

Why was one artist detained and not the other? Mr Songoyi said that the relationship between artists and the state is often complex. In these two cases timing was important. Kalikali became critical in his singing when the state was still insecure, not long after the army mutiny in 1964. Mwinamila’s criticism coincided with the campaign against ‘economic saboteurs’ in the early 1980’s. Mwinamila also benefited from his close association with Nyerere whom he had known since 1954. Kalikali had no friends in high places. Their audiences differed. Following Sukuma dance tradition, Kalikali performed in the open where many people could attend. His songs were seen to be contagious, and, in the view of those in power, he had to be stopped from acting ‘in a manner prejudicial to peace and good order’. He had to change the nature of his songs; jokes, provocation, insults were no longer there. Mwinamila, being close to the party, was not a threat. He became a professional singer – the ‘crude’ language was out.

Next came the period of ‘liberalisation’ in 1985. Socialism seemed no longer to be the ideology. The gap of the state on artists was relaxed. Singers could express different ideas. Themes were no longer primarily political. Social relationships came to figure more prominently in the songs.

Now, in the 90’s, there have been more changes. Almost a full circle but in a different way. Party politics is now widely featured. But the main difference is that most singers are young and have been through primary education. They are no longer as conversant as the older singers with the artistic use of Kisukuma in their songs. Swahili words appear intermingled amongst older style phrases.

One wonders – could the next step be singing in English?

(Someone else who is closely involved in Sukuma and other cultural pursuits is Dr James Matunga, the owner of a herbalist clinic in Dar es Salaam, who is the chairman of a Society registered on January 25, 1997 under the title ‘Jumuiya ya Kuhifadhi na Kuendeleza Mila na Desturi za kiTanzania’ (to preserve and maintain Tanzanian customs) He has recently been touring Sukumaland and meeting vast crowds enthusiastic about restoring respect for traditional music and dancing. Among those who have been supporting this initiative have been the then Minister of Health, Mr Mayagila and Prince Rohert Lega, the son of the former Paramount Chief Majebele Masanja – Editor)

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