Kanurura: Touching Heaven and Earth

This post is dedicated to Chiwoniso Maraire, who passed away three weeks ago at the age of 37. May you continue to dance and play your mbira eternally with the ancestors. Fambai Zvakanaka, sister. Rest in Peace.

Chiwoniso Maraire - March 5th, 1976 - July 24th, 2013. Rest in Peace.

Chiwoniso Maraire – March 5th, 1976 – July 24th, 2013. Rest in Peace.

Kanurura: Touching Heaven and Earth.

As the Sufi saying goes, “God will break your heart again, and again, and again, until it opens.”  This song by Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda does just that. The deep, earthly vibrations, the celestial high lines, and the palpable lamentation heard in Forward’s voice speaks to the deep well of beauty that lies beneath the hardship and suffering that defines the majority contemporary Zimbabwean life. This song can be called nothing other than a prayer.

After playing this song for years without knowing its name, finally during a traditional ceremony Forward was told by a spirit medium that the name of this song was “Kanurura.” Kanurura is the name of a long stick used to pick fruit high up in the trees. On a deeper, spiritual level, it means to touch heaven and earth.

“I used to play it in ceremonies, but don’t anymore,” Forward tells me. “I’d be playing it, and all of the sudden I’d notice that I was crying. Then I’d look up and realize that everyone was crying! I haven’t played it in a ceremony for a long time. It’s just too much… Too much.” Listening to it now, three months later and thousands of miles away from Africa, it is still almost too much for me.

Having never successfully recorded this song for an album (the “spirit” was never quite there,) I was honored that Forward chose to play this powerful song on my last day in Zimbabwe, and in Africa. It is the last recording taken on this journey, and in my opinion, the deepest.

Kanurura is a reminder of why I fell in love with Shona mbira music years ago. Just one simple instrument has the capacity to touch realms of spirit deep inside of us.  This song evokes in me a transcendent joy and a deep sadness, a feeling that the mind fumbles to grasp, and deems a paradox, while the heart knows this bittersweet elixir like a beloved or an old friend. It draws on a place so deep in the human soul that words and concepts fail to touch upon it.

Perhaps we will only come to know this place once our hearts are broken open, emptied out for all the world to see.


Music From the Blood – Zawose Family

Eda Zawose and her young brothers and cousins drum and dance together

Eda Zawose and her young brothers and cousins drum and dance together

The muffled sound of voices and strings in harmony resonates out of a neatly constructed mud house across the dusty street. Someone sits outside their door, lazily plucking out a bluesy melody on a massive African harp made of wood, gourd and skin. Chickens cluck, pecking at the ground, adding punctuation marks to an otherwise ethereal soundscape that floats gently on the humid air in Tanzania’s coastal town of Bagamoyo. Though the town and all of its details is now just a haze- I find myself in a village where children play upon hardened red earth and women gossip around cooking fires, casually presiding over the days food. Amidst the overpowering heat and blissfully cool breezes, the echoes of music and voices slowly becomes an alluring invitation to let time simply slip away.

I arrived here because I was seeking a distinct Tanzanian instrument, commonly known as the illimba, a traditional thumb-piano with an otherworldly sound. Having traveled on a whim to the Dodoma region at the arid center of the country, where the instrument has its roots, I was met by blank stares and sun-baked dust. In Zanzibar I was unexpectedly introduced to a master of the instrument, Anania Ngoliga, who was kinda enough to point me in the direction of a famous family of musicians I knew only by name and reputation: Zawose.


The Zawose family, or clan, rather, is the collective progeny and relations of the internationally renowned Wagogo musician, Hukwe Zawose. Recognized for his talent by Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, while on a trip around his newly independent nation, Zawose was brought from Dodoma to Dar es Salaam to play his traditional music. After several albums and many years later, Zawose caught the eye of Peter Gabriel, who produced his final three albums on his Real World record label. It’s fair to say that Hukwe Zawose introduced Wagogo music, certainly the most unique music in Tanzania, to the world.

When Hukwe passed away in 2003 he left not only an impressive body of work and an important musical legacy, but a family of around twenty children from four different mothers to carry on his work. What’s more is that he taught his children everything about their traditional music; how to sing in perfect harmony, play their songs, and also make all of the instruments that comprise the Wagogo musical repertoire. Now Hukwe’s children have many children of their own, and the music continues to be passed on through the chain generations within this talented family that numbers upwards of seventy or eighty people (I could never get an exact number.)

A multigenerational clan of musical masters who hold their culture strongly and sing with a resounding harmony and unmistakable confidence, the Zawose family embodies a wealth of cultural knowledge that seems harder and harder to find within an increasingly globalized Africa. Brothers sing with sisters, fathers with daughters, children follow along and learn the old way as they are shown how to drum, dance and sing by their proud and patient elders.

Music through the Generations - Tabu Zawose teaching music to the children

Music through the Generations – Tabu Zawose teaching music to the children

I was privileged enough to spend close to a week with them in their home in Bagamoyo, in an enclave they call “Zawose Village;” about eight households spanning over six plots of land, complete with an instrument workshop and a developing recording studio. To get there, you simply need to hitch a ride on a “picki-picki,” or motorcycle taxi, anywhere in Bagamoyo and say the word, “Zawose.”

Julius Zawose playing Illimba

Julius Zawose playing Illimba

Sitting in the shade on the porch of his workshop, Julius Zawose spends much of his day constructing illimbas (or malimba, pl.)  During my time visiting the family, Julius was my host, teacher, and friend. Rivaling his skill in constructing instruments is his ability as a musician. The first born son of Hukwe, Julius clearly carries his father’s spirit and talent. Hearing him sing together with his sister Tabu, a kindhearted and smiling woman, is a sublime experience. Their voices harmonize with buttery ease, melding together with perfect pitch, tambour, and expression- the result of a lifetime of musical collaboration.

Mzee Ndahani & daughter Grace play "mazeze"

Mzee Ndahani & daughter Grace play “mazeze”

Then there is Mzee Ndahani Zawose- a seemingly frail old man with a light in his eyes that shimmers like the indigo vastness of the Indian ocean. Though any sense of frailty is quickly cast aside upon hearing Mzee (“old man”) sing. I am told he played with Hukwe during his days- a lifelong career that included international travel and sold out concert halls. Mzee Ndahani’s voice explodes out of him, belting out unbelievable high notes coupled with a rapid-fire delivery of lyrics that almost resembles an electric guitar solo.

Singing with his daughter, Grace, who plays the bass Zeze, a massive harp with a bluesy tuning, Mzee plays the soprano Zeze, a bowed instrument more akin to a violin or Persian Comancha. Both instruments together create a droning soundscape that immediately dominates your perception. Coupled with the vocal harmonies, this music is utterly transporting. After this single recording session, Mzee casually went on his way, not even taking a moment to catch his breath.

Grace on the Zeze

Grace on the Zeze

One of the most intriguing nuances of Wagogo music is a style of singing they call mganga: a type of overtone singing, or throat singing, that is also found amongst the cultures of Mongolia, Tuva, and central Asia, though quite rare in Africa. Achieved by constricting certain areas of the throat, mganga, or Khoomei, as it is called in Tuva, creates a deep, growling voice that contains subtle harmonies and overtones. There was no explanation as to the origins of this style of singing, nor anything remotely similar amongst the Wagogo’s neighboring tribes- a mystery that points to the curious uniqueness of Wagogo music.

Another interesting factoid that speaks to these people’s deep knowledge of acoustics is their use of spider webs as resonators. Spider egg sacks, to be precise, are placed on the illimba to dramatically alter the sound, providing both a distortion effect, and a noticeably increased volume to the instrument.  These white, silky, bandage-like scraps are collected off of their traditional houses in the Dodoma area, and stuck on the illimba’s resonating sound holes with bit of saliva, and left to dry in the sun.  The result mimics the effects of a speaker. Just how the Wagogo figured this out is yet another mystery.

I am told their music is used for “entertainment”- cultural activities such as weddings, births, and casual enjoyment. The Wagogo, a pastoralist people from a sun burnt country halfway between a savannah and a desert, traditionally had plenty of time on their hands while waiting for their cattle to graze across miles of scrubland.  They say that out of this excess of free time they developed their unique music and complex instruments. In other words, this powerful, intricate, and harmonically rich music developed out of boredom- a debatable claim that warrants deeper investigation.

Wagogo music, with the Zawose family as its brightest beacon, has a proclivity for harmony and rhythmical complexity that borders on musical genius. It is a music of time and space; of vastness, travel, longing, and finally return. There is something unspoken in this music, a transmission hidden amidst the polyrhythms and meditative harmonies that speaks to the ingenuity of human kind and our primordial need to transcend the everyday world of normalcy. It is one of our most ancient and ingenious discoveries that repeated polyrhythms and melodic harmony leads to trance- music is a vehicle to altered consciousness.

Though trance itself is yet only another vehicle, the ultimate goal a state of mental clarity and rarefication that we can call transcendence. From this state, known through the ages by many names (oneness, heightened awareness, Nirvana, collective effervescence, spirit possession, ecstasy, etc.) humans have constructed the very fabric of our socio-cultural lives. Many scholars of religion assert that collective experiences or at least socially-sanctioned access to this state provided the mythical foundation for what we can call religion, social cohesion, and even worldview. If Wagogo music did truly developed out of boredom, (an arguably modern condition,) then it is clearly not an expression of it, but an antidote to it.

Julius and I

Julius and I

Primordial trance rituals aside, it is beyond inspiring and heart warming to watch this family make music together. Because they are all related, their voices resonate exquisitely with one another, achieving precise harmonies that any a capella group would envy. The children, most between the ages of two and ten, excitedly rush and gather their kid-sized drums when their mother gives the word. While the younger boys beat them with a frenetic joy regardless of rhythm or timing, the slightly older group of girls drum, dance, and sing with an ease that demonstrates what is possible when music defines and saturates your family life.

Tabu says that music touches all aspects of her life. “If I’m cooking, I’m singing. In church, I’m singing. Cutting firewood, I’m singing. Farming I’m signing. Even if [my baby] is sleeping, I’m singing!” Upon asking her why, she says simply, “Because I’m showing my heart.” For the Zawose’s, music is more than just a pastime, a cultural activity removed from other aspects of life. It is the lifeblood of their family, the legacy of their father, and a living, breathing embodiment of an ancient heritage that transcends time. “Music from the blood,” Tabu says, smiling.

"Music in the Blood" -Tabu Zawose

“Music in the Blood” -Tabu Zawose

The Zawose family is featured in the film Throw Down Your Heart, and has many albums of their own. Today Hukwe’s young son, Msafiri, holds the torch, and regularly tours internationally as the sole representative of this music on the world stage. Julius continues to craft one-of-a-kind instruments, and the rest of the Zawose family continues to pass on and teach their music not only to their children, but to students across Tanzania and the world.

To contact Msafiri, the Zawose Family, or African Promoters Foundation, a developing music and arts initiative based at Zawose Village in Bagamoyo, please visit: http://msafirizawose.wordpress.com/

Qaswidah – Music, Youth, and Islam in Modern Zanzibar

Malindi St. Qaswida Band - Zanzibar

Malindi St. Qaswida Band – Zanzibar

After living in Zanzibar for a month, you eventually learn how to navigate the utter labyrinth that is Stone town. One hot and aimless night, adrift amidst the humidity and fascinating sensoria, the distant sound of drums and muffled singing beckoned me to change my course. Zig-zagging my way through a series of narrow side streets and crippled alleyways (the average Zanzibari street seems no more than ten feet wide,) I found these lively sounds emitting from the second story window of an anonymous building on a small, dimly lit street. Besides the daily calls to prayer and the religious meanderings that issue out of Mosques (and not counting the conspicuously international Sauti za Busara festival,) this was the first time I heard live music happening organically in Zanzibar. The music slowly rose in intensity and volume, until it conjured up a little crowd of half naked children who began to scream and dance in the streets, screeching in a joyful frenzy.

I waited until the music finished, and found a group of about 15 adolescent boys between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, all dressed in traditional white Islamic clothes, pouring out into the street. They were each carrying these massive frame drums and a few small tambourines. I met the teacher, a young man himself, and while walking with him to his house around the corner, I arranged for a casual recording session to take place later that week.

This was not a normal thing in Zanzibar. Not once did I see anyone playing music on the street. Any time I saw live music advertised in town it was primarily catering to tourists who could afford a luxurious evening listening to “traditional Taraab music” while eating at one of Zanzibar’s fine dining establishments (and they are very fine.) There was also the Dhow Countries Music Academy, a reputable center for traditional acoustic music, but admittedly a foreign endeavor, having been established by American expats living on the island. All this struck me as rather strange for a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania, with such a wealth of cross-cultural inheritance, to have such little in the way of live music.


This music, however, can be found all over the Island. Known throughout Islam as Qaswidah, its origins lie in the southern Arabian peninsula, specifically Oman and Yemen, the cultures which for centuries dominated and therefore shaped much of Zanzibari culture. Traditionally it is only played during Islamic rituals such as Moulidi (birthdays remembering the Prophet Mohammed or other important figures,) weddings, births, Eid (Persian New Year,) and Hajj (pilgrimage.) The music is sung both in Arabic and Swahili (a distinctly Zanzibari combination,) and is meant to encourage “positive behavior” according to the Muslim faith.


What struck me as particularly endearing about this music, from the very first time I heard it, was that it was being played by youth. It is not played with mastery, clarity of pitch, and rhythmical precision (though one day, I’m sure they will get there.) Yet it is played with heart and authenticity which is what hooked me when I first heard it echoing through Stone Town’s shadowy streets. It’s not perfect, but this lively group of young Zanzibaris sing with genuine passion, and because of that I cant help but smile.

Hajji & Mundhir

Hajji & Mundhir

A few days after our recording session, I spoke with two foundational members of the group. Hajji Bakari Ali and Mundhir Abu Baker Mdungi, both eighteen years-old, have been playing Qaswidah music for most of their lives. They teach this music to a group of younger boys, fifteen in total, which was the group I encountered several nights before. They teach the music simply because they want to continue the tradition- an admirable impulse that seems harder and harder to find amongst Africa’s younger populations. This music, they said, makes them feel grounded in their religion, serving as a reminder of God (Allah,) and their Islamic tradition. I ask Mundhir why he seeks this type of musical experience out, as opposed to the more popular and mainstream Bongo Flavor music that is popular all over Tanzania. “I am Muslim,” he answers simply.

Yet there is another dimension to these young musicians that I came to just barely understand only after talking with them for some time (with the help of a translator/friend.) Hajji, the more reserved of the two, actually enjoys the Bongo Flavor music, while Mundhir would like to one day play in a Reggae band- a music loved all over Africa, and particularly in Zanzibar. But here is the kicker: Islam, the religion which they actively reinforce through their playing of Qaswidah, forbids these types of musics. In fact, Islam in its more conservative expressions, prohibits all types of music and dance that are not explicitly Islamic. The fact that these young musicians passionately sing about Islamic models of proper behavior, while secretly hoping to one day play Reggae and dance to Bongo Flavor is, to me, a paradox. Perhaps it speaks to the never ending dilemmas that arise when someone seeks to be both grounded in their tradition, as well as a citizen of the modern, globalized world. Perhaps it implies even more than I am able to realize now.

Hajji & Mundhir 2

Neither Hajji nor Mundhir considered music a realistic path, socially or financially. Hajji wants to be an engineer, and Mundhir a pilot or an engineer as well. The thought of trying to pursue music professionally, even the Islamic Qaswidah, seemed an outlandish fantasy. This is primarily because Zanzibar’s deeply Muslim culture does not encourage music, despite the desire for it. To think that these young musicians are doing the Islamic establishment a huge service by teaching Qaswidah music does not seem to make a difference- they still will receive little support. I could see both Hajji and Mundhir becoming slightly uncomfortable by me asking this question, as if they had either never considered it before, or chose to ignore this hypocrisy.

Yet I feel tempted, if not impelled to say that what is strangling the full musical expression of these young people is not their faith. If Islam was solely responsible for the dearth of live music culture I found in Zanzibar, then why was there such a profusion of it in places like Senegal, Egypt, and Mali, deeply Islamic cultures, yet famous for their thriving musical traditions?

After this discussion, my translator friend, a local Zanzibar who is pursing a career in the entertainment/music and event production world, explained some of the difficulties about being a young, creative person in Zanzibar. “You and I both know there is much talent in Zanzibar. The problem is that no one is encouraged, no systems to help artists and musicians develop.” He continued, explaining how the strong influence of Islam here does in fact contribute to the absence of live music culture. “You have no idea how much Islam factors into peoples lives. When I grew up, I could not leave the house without reciting certain lines from the Koran, without praying to God. My father made me. Its just the way it is here.”


No discussion of Zanzibar can be complete without mentioning its legacy of slavery. It is, at first glance, exotic and novel to see so many Africans dressed in full Islamic garb, speaking Arabic, and displaying the courtesies found only in the Muslim world. Though if you dig only a few layers deeper, it is no secret that the Arabs were the driving force behind the slave trade in East Africa, with Zanzibar as their base. Truly, a large portion of the Zanzibari population has its roots in bondage- their ancestors being brought here as slaves, forcibly captured (or sold out by other African leaders,) and marched for miles to the coast in massive caravans driven by the Arabs, who were getting rich off this barbarous activity. To think that most Zanzibaris are deeply proud of their Muslim heritage is yet another paradox, one that I find infinitely more sinister and profound.

Throughout my time in Zanzibar, I sensed a palpable thirst for live music and freedom of expression- a deeply rooted impulse that felt like a growing, electric bubble full of creative energy ready to burst amongst the youth. As an outlet for this stifled creative flow, one can see multitudes of young people gathering near the beaches every night, practicing a great variety of acrobatic tricks, howling in joy. Usually a scene emerges on the edges of the famous Forodhani Gardens, where one can witness a crowd of young people twisting their way through the air as they jump twenty feet off the sea wall. It is a nightly ritual here- the feeling of joyful release is palpable as hordes of young Zanzibari men hurl themselves into the warm water, an antidote to the days heat and hustle.

People must express themselves in any way they can, even if it means jumping twenty feet into the shallow, rock-strewn ocean- its bright blue vastness a reminder of dreams as big as the sky, and of what it feels like to be utterly free.

Dhow Country

Sauti za Busara Festival – Reflections

Sauti za Busara Festival - Sunday Night

Sauti za Busara Festival – Sunday Night

I never intended on visiting Zanzibar. Only when a music promoter friend in Nairobi casually mentioned that a world-class African music festival would occur on the island the following month (February,) did I even bother looking at the it on a map. Now, like my Euro-American counterparts of old (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?) I am stuck on this island longer than expected, and stewing amidst the humidity, the smells (both stinking and delicate,) and the dizzying menagerie of cultures that makes Zanzibar distinct, beautiful and deeply significant.

After a brief period of research, and upon securing myself an accredited press pass, I set my course for Zanzibar, ready to experience the 10th annual Sauti za Busara festival, called by some as “the friendliest festival in the word.” While this claim seemed to me both hyperbolic and immeasurable in any sense, I was still excited to see some great music in an amazing place. What particularly excited me was the prospect of seeing Malian diva Khaira Arby, whose native home of Timbuktu was, at that moment, being invaded by the French military in order to oust a brutal Al-Qaida affiliated militia which had invaded the region nearly a year ago.

Stone Town from the Ocean

Stone Town from the Ocean

All of this, coupled with a basic knowledge of Zanzibar’s history, made my visit both enticing and meaningful. After all, it seemed utterly amazing to me that a Pan-African music festival would be taking place on an island which, two-hundred years ago, was the dismal epicenter of the Arab slave trade, a brutal enterprise that lasted well into the 19th century. Zanzibar can also be seen as the first departure point for Western colonial forces in East and Central Africa, both literally and metaphorically. America was actually the first Western power to establish a consulate here in 1839, when the island was still governed by the Sultanate of Oman. The Omanis dominated this strategic island for at least five centuries beforehand, and were then succeeded by the British, who claimed the island as a protectorate in the late 19th century. Prior to the Omani occupation, Shirazi Persians had influenced the Island, as well as Indian merchants. All in all, Zanzibar had been a center for trade and cultural exchange, as well as abhorrent human trafficking, for nearly two thousand years. In an odd way it was the perfect place for a peaceful celebration of African music, culture and identity.

Old Slave Market Plaque

Old Slave Market Plaque

Let me preface by saying that I consider myself extremely spoiled when it comes to music festivals. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest of the US (a region we call Cascadia,) my experience with festival culture has been profound- life changing, to say the least; blessed by a strong community of creatively potent, intelligent, and conscious people who groove to the most cutting edge music and art that Western counter-culture can muster- all the while trying to minimize our impact on the earth. In short, I have high standards for festivals. That said, I entered Sauti za Busara with an open mind and a deep love of African music.

Taking place in Zanzibar’s iconic Old Fort, an antiquated fortress with massive, barrel-like towers standing at its four corners, the venue was, quite simply, awesome. A square, grassy field, contained within the fort’s high walls provided a straight-forward area from which to dance, drink, and festivalize. Outside this area, but still inside the massive fort, was a large stone amphitheater that would serve as an arena for screening select documentary films, as well as an open avenue housing several curio shops selling cheap African wares. There was another bar at the far end, clearly a high-priced watering hole for tourists during the off-season. There were also no emergency services, hydration zones, or medical areas to speak of, and only two small bathrooms (one for each gender) which were to accommodate several thousand people, but hey, lets just disregard that.

The Venue, Zanzibar's Old Fort, before the festival

The Venue, Zanzibar’s Old Fort, before the festival

Attending the pre-festival press conference, I had a chance to both meet and listen to UK-based festival director and DJ Yusuf Mahmod speak. Starting from humble roots, this festival, like many, grew because a dedicated crew of inspired people had a vision, and a love for Zanzibar, and Africa. They were also committed to promoting live music, a principle that was music to my ears after traveling for weeks and hearing only Hip-Hoppified African music such as Tanzanian Bongo Flavor, a painfully unoriginal style of autotuned R&B that poorly mimics what people must hear coming out of American media. “We believe that we have a responsibility to opening people’s minds to the importance of playing instruments, live,” Yusuf said, a refreshing conviction to say the least.

Yet this emphasis on live music was not without its critics. I heard many people, both black and white, complain that the festival lacked local Tanzanian talent, and that the event was primarily catering to mzungus, or white foreigners. One German girl, an intellectual aid-worker type I met at a beach-side bar after the festival, was actually upset there was no Bongo Flavor music, a concern I couldn’t help but scoff at. “But Busara only promotes live music,” I explained, discussing the importance of playing real instruments as well as the continuation of African musical traditions. “Well that’s not what the youth are listening to today,” she replied haughtily. “They should at least promote what’s popular in the area.” “Not if it’s bad music,” I said. In fact, in 2012, the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) did feature a well known Bongo Flavor artist. He had never even performed his own music, having only recorded it in the studio, followed immediately by dancing in a blinged-out music video. According to a friend who helped produce and emcee the ZIFF festival, the “performance” failed utterly. “Personally, I don’t know how these Bongo Flavor artists can be considered legitimate musicians, especially on a continent full of masters,” I said. “Yea, but the crowd loved it!”

Bongo Flavor artist Diamond, who “performed” at ZIFF ’12

The crowd at Busara was an amiable mixture of international backpackers, adventurous families and lost-looking vacationers with awkward hats. On the local front, there was a collection of out-of-place Masaai men, adorned with traditional jewelry and accessories, their ubiquitous red cloths a reminder of the distant savannah that was a mere memory in this tropical paradise. There were modern-looking, well dressed African men and women, many from capital cities on the mainland, presumably Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, a majority of whom were there on some professional basis. And there was a large contingent of friendly Zanzibari Rastas, most of them admittedly “fishing” for pretty white women.

In fact, I could not help but notice the profusion of single white women, mostly between the ages of thirty and fifty, who seemed to be equally as eager to find themselves a nice young African man for the evening, or week. Eventually the obligatory courting rituals became a laughable facade after the three days of the festival, and in the end, I could not help but silently chuckle to myself at the sight of a young, dreadlocked Zanzibari man being taken out to a fancy restaurant by an older white woman (or two.) I had to wonder, who had the upper hand in these exotic rendezvous’? Was there some post-colonial and racial subtext, some subconscious notion of foreign extraction at work that only I could decipher due to my arduous background in political anthropology? Or were they, despite my cynical misgivings, honest, egalitarian affairs? The festival is about “intercultural exchange,” after all…

Throughout the festival, I never once felt overwhelmed. Usually I consider this a good thing, but knowing how madness and confusion can sometimes be the most fertile grounds for meaningful and transformative experiences, especially in the liminal realms of festopia, I found the absence of such conditions at Busara to place the festival in a tame sphere that bordered on the mundane. For some reason, perhaps due to the low volume of the soundsystem, perhaps due to a general creative lackluster that seemed to pervade amongst some of the artists, I never really found myself dancing. Nor did I find many others lost in a blissful frenzy. Ok, I did not expect Burning Man, but I did expect music loud enough to make a crowd full of people shake it. I expected to feel immersed in the vocals and delicate melodies of the Kora and African guitar. I wanted to be smacked in the face by the sound of the Djembe, compelling me and everyone nearby to dance, hard! Instead I found heads nodding lazily to the beat, occasionally taking sips from somewhat cold bottles of beer, shuffling back and fourth.

With regards to the artists, I heard several people describe the majority of the lineup as “money-savers.” It was made clear from the press conference that the festival was having a difficult time securing funding and sponsorships. At one point during the first night, after the clumsy self-congratulatory “We did it!” speech/dance, someone from the festival’s board of directors came on stage and gave a disjointed, emotional address about how they need more support from the Zanzibar business community. I found this appeal to be pretty disgraceful, both in its delivery and in its timing. A valid concern worth addressing in the proper setting, yes, but not so important as to disrupt forty minutes of music programming and use the stage as a soap box to voice your financial problems to a captive, paying audience.

Nawal & Les Femmes de la Lune

Nawal & Les Femmes de la Lune

That said, there were some genuinely good artists present. Nawal & Les Femmes de la Lune, an all female band from the Comoros Islands, was enthralling, though unfortunately cut short because of the unforeseen announcements and “speeches.” The act which moved me more than any others was by far the Kora duo of Sousou & Maher Sissoko. The husband and wife team, from Senegal and Sweden, respectively, evoked a palpable sense of love throughout their performance, exchanging sweet glances to each other with a stage presence that was simply magnetic. Other highlights included Atongo Zimba, from Ghana, and of course, Northern Malian singer Khaira Arby, whose presence I felt was particularly important due to her exile and Mali’s current state of emergency resulting in international alarm.

Throughout the first two days of the festival, the emcees would continually remind people to not miss Cheikh Lo, the headling act from Senegal who was to play on Sunday night. This always struck a nerve in me, because it presumed that this artist’s presence was somehow more meaningful simply because of his higher price tag. ‘We paid the most for him, so make sure not to miss it!’ Cheikh Lo’s performance was mildly entertaining at best, certainly not worth more than any of the other artists. Not until right before her set (and this was upon her request,) did anyone deem it important to mention the crisis in Mali- the fact that at this moment, a battle was taking place in the artist’s home town, and that not even a year ago, Khaira Arby was forced to flee her home, fearing for her life, along with countless other Malian musicians, because the extremist force which had overrun their town had violently outlawed music.

Khaira Arby - Sauti za Busara, Sunday Night

Khaira Arby – Sauti za Busara, Sunday Night

Sauti za Busara, Swahili for “sounds of wisdom,” is not a bad festival by any means. In fact, it is an amazing festival that anyone should feel blessed and excited to attend. I may even come back, if I have the chance. The diversity of people, music, and scenery is truly an experience to behold. And it is an extremely friendly festival (maybe too friendly, if you are a single white women between the ages of twenty and fifty.) However, if this festival wishes to continue being know as the best music festival in East Africa, it may pay off to spend some time getting back in touch with the meaning behind the word “busara.” Otherwise if they are not careful, they may end up confusing it with a similar, but very different Swahili word: “biashara,” or, “business.”

“Thank God for Talent” – Anania Ngoliga

Anania Ngoliga - illimba master of Tanzania

Anania Ngoliga – illimba master of Tanzania

When I was invited to sit in on a casual recording session with Anania Ngoliga, the Tanzanian musician featured prominently along side banjo master Bela Fleck in the film Throw Down Your Heart, I was excited, to say the least. Anyone who has seen the film will remember Anania’s smiling face and beautiful playing of the illimba, a thumb-piano traditionally played by the Wagogo people of central Tanzania. I remember the first time I saw the film, and feeling the joyful spirit of this man pour out of the speakers and screen. Having had the chance to get to know him and his music in person, I cannot help but feel blessed.

Notes gracefully flow off the strings as soon as a guitar lands in his hands. “I myself am not good in guitar,” he says, a modest exaggeration that becomes laughable upon hearing him play with such ease. The soul reverberating in the music played by this blind musician from Dodoma is inescapable. I cannot help but feel something elemental in Anania’s playing, no matter if he is playing blues on the guitar, or the rolling, melodically trance-inducing rhythms of the illimba. Like the warm breeze that blows on the Tanzanian coast, the red earth that surrounds Dodoma, or the bright indigo of the Zanzibari sea, the music that flows out of this man is naturally pristine.

The illimba, traditionally played by the Wagogo tribe of central Tanzania.

The illimba, traditionally played by the Wagogo tribe of central Tanzania.

Like all thumb-piano instruments (lamellophones, musicologically speaking,) the illimba (malimba pl.) is often mistakenly called “kalimba.” But to set the record straight once and for all (certainly not for the last time, I’m sure,) the “kalimba” is a thumb-piano tuned to a Western scale, so as to easily play along with other European tempered instruments. The kalimba is a European invention, an adaptation of much older African instruments that play in traditional tunings like the illimba, and the mbira. So please take heed, exotic instrument enthusiasts and world music heads. What Anania plays is not a kalimba.

To think that this bright and richly resonant instrument has its origins in the Dodoma region, an area that struck me as anything but alive, is at first glance, a paradox. Yet the more time I have spent in Tanzania, the more I have been shown a generosity and liveliness exhibited by its people that is deeply resilient and refreshing, like the rickety little wooden fishing boats that brave the open ocean, or drops of water falling on parched earth.

The Session

There is much that can be said about Anania, and his beautiful music. But truly, it speaks for itself. I hope you enjoy these beautiful tunes as much as I do.

Special thanks to Rob Weber of Woven Media/Bali Spirit Festival for putting this session together. Asanti Sana rafiki!


New Flower (Addis Ababa)

Abyssinian Tradition

Abyssinian Tradition


Sitting in the famous Addis Ababa Restaurant, a landmark for traditional food and culture in Ethiopia’s capital city, I feel like I have been here before. People shout and joke, onlookers smiling at the scene, laughing together at jokes casually made on a stranger’s account, all in good fun. A playful, communal spirit flows through the heavily seasoned air. The potent scent of berebere and shiro spices, cooked meat, and injera bread create a smell that only a true Ethiopian restaurant can obtain. It could have been that the local tej, a “rustically fermented” honey wine, was getting to my head, or that the lack of sleep (departed Cairo 3am, arrived Addis 8am) was making me delirious, but I felt at this moment a deep sense of happiness and peace that defies explanation. I am in Africa. I am surrounded by strange smells, drunk Ethiopians, and half-rancid concoctions that contort my stomach. I feel truly at home.

Tej in the Addis Restaurant

Tej in the Addis Restaurant

I am blessed with the best friends a traveler could ever ask for. After waiting in the hour-long line marathon to secure my transit visa, I find Asrat Ayelew, percussionist from Ethiopian funk group Debo Band, and my good friend, patiently waiting for me outside baggage claim. It is good to see him in his native country, having met him only the previous month in Egypt, where we were both working on The Nile Project‘s music residency.

Asrat. 8am. Ethiopia. Epic.

Asrat. 8am. Ethiopia. Epic.

Ethiopia is a country that seems simultaneously separate from, and inescapably a part of Africa. The ancient and biblical kingdoms of Kush, Sheeba, and Axum still occupy the cultural memory, with populations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews all representing a uniquely Abyssinian take on their respective religion. Sacred chant resounds across the city out of churches and mosques throughout the day, each singing in distinctively Ethiopian scales and melodies. Like many aspects of this culture, the musical traditions in Ethiopia reach far back, to around 700 A.D when an Abyssinian saint named Yarid received the melodies in a revelation from God. The Ethiopian Orthodox church has sung his music ever since, and contemporary Ethiopian music, popularized by the great jazz saxophonist Mulatu Asateke, still draws upon Yarid’s distinct scales.

We take a taxi to Asrat’s neighborhood in the heart of Addis, and walk down a series of cobble-stone streets with low, multi-toned tin roofs peeking up above white walls, finally coming to a large metal gate. Inside is where Asrat and his sister live, in one room apartments with several others living in the communal-like compound. I deposit my bags, feeling welcomed, safe, and excited. I only have ten hours left in this country, and I want to see as much as I can.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

We start by walking to a Christian Orthodox church in his neighborhood- a massive octagonal building painted gold and turquoise, with red, yellow, and green highlighting every corner. Pilgrims, priests, women, and many children populate the church’s shady courtyard. The place is blissful. We walk out the next gate, and come to a beautiful view of a distant valley. I take a picture.

The Picture.

The Picture.

Immediately someone calls to us, and I notice a guard tower and a military-like structure to our left. We walk through the gate, to where they called to us, and a man walks down the road in a military uniform. “Uh-oh,” I joke. When the man arrives, it is clear he is not joking. With a face a stern as steel he shouts at my friend in Amharic. Calmly explaining, my friend apologizes, as we didn’t know that pictures were not allowed in this area.

Suddenly, and without warning, the military officer smacks my friend across the face with the hard and lightning-quick strike. My friend is dumbfounded and open mouthed, and I am equally as shocked. Without a word, we walk away.

We walk in silence. After some time, Asrat speaks up: “I’m sorry. This is a government place. I should have known better… I’m sorry.” “It’s okay man,” I say, “you don’t need to be sorry. I took the picture- I’m sorry.” “No- this is not Ethiopian culture. This is not how we are… That is not our culture.” We talk more, but my thoughts replay the incident in my head.

My mind wanders to Ethiopia’s recent past, the 1970’s and ’80s, during the time of The Derg, when the country turned to Communism, ousted emperor Haile Selassie, economically imploded, and began a series of atrocities that included torturing and imprisoning anyone suspected of political opposition. Many were imprisoned without trial for years, many were hurt, and many died. It was a dark time for Ethiopia. “I’m sorry,” he says, again and again.

We decide to clear our head, and walk out of the city. We catch a small van-turned bus, vehicles known all over East Africa as matatus, which I would come to intimately know in the coming months. Then we walk, and walk, and walk, up a winding hill covered by groves of eucalyptus trees. The scent brings me back to San Francisco, and the sun and the hills take away the heaviness that was recently thrust upon us by an insane military brute. We climb, passing brigades of donkeys laden with sticks galloping down the hill, carrying away with them the any sense of gloominess that had remained from previous our encounter.

Up to Entoto

Up to Entoto

Midway up we pass an orthodox priest, who blesses us with his smile and his staff. Near the top another man sits by the side of the road, writing intently in a notebook. Though not dressed as lavishly as the last man, my friend informs me that he too is a holy person. “He is a man of church, but not a priest. He is a…” “Monk!” I say. “Yes, like that. We call them Menaksi.” He was the first of many of these peaceful beings I was to encounter on my short stay in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Priest

Ethiopian Priest

At the top of this hill is a place called Entoto, a national park-type area where King Menelik II built the first church in Addis Ababa, and made his royal home in the late 19th century. We pass clusters of simple mud huts, with chickens and goats and children in enclosures.  At the top is the famous Entoto Church, a beautiful crown on the mountain.

Entoto Church

Entoto Church

“People move up here because they want to be close to the church. Also, many people are coming up here to be healed,” Asrat says. “They are sick and they know the church will take care of them.”

Asrat & Menaksi

Asrat & Menaksi

After several hours of exploring the area, we follow a local boy named Yayu, who must have been around eight years old, into the forest to find a famous spring that is known for its healing “holy water.” The walk is sunny, quiet, and very peaceful. I am in total bliss, grateful to be surrounded by trees after being in Egypt for a month.


We finally reach the spring, deep in the forest, and ask Yayu to go in and collect some water for us (we were not allowed, either out of respect, or because we were not practicing orthodox.) We leave the spring, and start our long walk out of the magical forest. Apparently this peaceful place drastically changes after sunset. “At night there are many hyenas around here… Very dangerous,” Asrat tells me. The reality of Africa is ever present, even in the most idyllic of places.

Sacred Spring of Entoto

Sacred Spring of Entoto (You can see the couple on the left)

On our walk out we come upon a couple who were leaving the spring when we arrived.  Their pace, a fraction of ours, is slowed to the point of a crawl, with each step seeming to take great effort. Weakened by sickness, they support each other, as they slowly struggle up the long and rocky trail. I suspect HIV/AIDS, due to their middle age, their mutual emaciation, and the diseases prevalence in the region. I can tell that this trek is extremely difficult for them. We walk behind them in respect for some time. The forest is deeply quiet, the only sound is the wind blowing through the trees. Not even the birds make a sound, I felt in this moment as if a layer of reality was peeled away- that just being in the presence of this specter-like couple was enough to thin the veils between the worlds. We pass them, and they smile at us kindly, both nearing death. The reality of Africa is ever present.

Forest Spirit ~ Green Man of Ethiopia

Addis Ababa (means “New Flower,”) though the capital city, felt more like a large and friendly town to me. It seemed as if everyone knew one another, and that (military psychopaths aside,) everyone strives to treat people with great respect. There is a palpable sense of community that connects the Ethiopian people, at home and abroad, like a big family. Perhaps it is Ethiopia’s long legacy of tradition, of cultural heritage, and its ancient roots that gives people this sense of pride that I saw often translate into grace.

Yarid's Shanty - A shack at Entoto where we drank traditional beer that nearly ravaged my innards.

Yarid’s Shanty – A shack at Entoto where we drank traditional beer that nearly ravaged my innards.

Back in the Addis Ababa Restaurant, I am swirling amidst the spices, the tej, and the laughter. The joy, humility, and devotion expressed by these people is almost overwhelming- nowhere in Egypt did I experience such a boisterous and lively bunch of locals. Evening is nearing, and both Asrat and I are in dire need of some rest before my 11pm flight. As I stand up to leave, and smiling man from a nearby table approaches me, and slips me a small piece of paper. “You are most welcome,” he says.

The scrap of paper, I realize, is a note the man had written to me, apparently during the happy scene in the restaurant. I open it, and read: “I know what you think. You see Ethiopian people having such happiness. You are to think, do people in own country having such happiness?”

Asrat and Sister

Asrat and Sister

(Note: For best audio quality, please listen with headphones.)

In Tahrir (part II)

Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia

Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia

As Tahrir burns, becoming obscured in a fog of tear gas and chaos (that night most clashes actually took place at the Presidential Palace,) I sit in a posh bar in the Zamalek neighborhood listening to jazz, sipping a cold beer. I am literally on an island in the middle of Cairo. I ask someone sitting at the table, a friend of a friend, what he thinks is happening in Tahrir right now. “Nothing good,” he says.

Nearing-middle age, he is half Egyptian, having grown up in the United Kingdom, moving back to Cairo in his adult life. “All the people I know who helped start this [revolution] are now working on initiatives, working in civil societies.” He is the typical social entrepreneur type- highly educated with liberal values, a mind for environmental sustainability and sensible development.

“The people in Tahrir now are different,” he says. Well-known amongst certain circles of Cairo’s development-savvy cosmopolitan 30-somethings, this friend-of-a-friend was a key figure in establishing an open source innovation and sustainable development platform called ICE Cairo. “My revolution is no longer in Tahrir,” he explains. “Though I missed most of the action. I was stuck in the U.K for most of it.” I cannot find anything in common with him and the young people I ran with near the square two hours earlier, except a genuine desire for a change and a vision for a better Egypt.

There are pockets of Cairo that look like the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for. One-ton blocks of concrete, stacked by the police create improvised walls, now adorned with ironic street art, bar entrance to Mohammad Mahoud St. in Cairo’s crumbling downtown. Metal and cement barricades still inhabit once busy streets around Tahrir, stemming the flow of traffic to a semi-cautious trickle (if there is such a thing in Cairo.) Broken windows, once simply a part of Egypt’s aesthetic of corruption, now signal something else. The former headquarters of disposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, located at Tahrir, is now a bombed out skeleton of a building, fenced off and kept as a massive trophy for all to gaze upon.

Being in Tahrir Square was a reminder of the very real possibilities of a police state materializing overnight- a glimpse into a potential future. Seeing the utter ease at which a faceless block of militarized police can disperse, terrify, and even kill a group of young protesters sheds light on the technologies of oppression that have been developed by equally faceless corporations. Raytheon, Halliburton, or CSI (Combined Systems Inc.)- none had their marks on the spent tear gas canister shown to me by a young Egyptian who had it shot into his leg. The only legible letters were USA.

Dramatized by Hollywood films, television programs, and playfully invoked at counter-cultural events like Burning Man, the collapsed or militarized police state of the 21st century is not an imagined narrative depicted on a screen. It is Egypt. Greece. Syria. It is Northern Mali and Nigeria. It is Palestine. Its is a bleak reality characterized by hardship, struggle, and government-sponsored brutality. It is not a party in the Nevada desert, no matter how inspiring and beautiful that may be.

The reality is that this bleak future lurks just beneath the surface of our civilization, behind television screens and in dark corners of the internet, trickling through to our collective unconscious. Images of overweight riot police diffusing pepper spray into the face of peaceful university protesters and instances of excessive use of force are now integrated into our culture. Are these state-sponsored actions accepted, ignored, or merely forgotten by our media-saturated culture? Like a 50-year bookend, the Arab Springs and the Occupy movements of today are continuing, perhaps finishing what was started in the political and social movements of the 1960’s.

Mosque Door, Old Islamic Cairo

Mosque Door, Old Islamic Cairo

Perhaps the most poignant factor in all of this is the emotional weight, the experiences of loss, and the vision of hope carried by nearly every Egyptian I met. The depth of emotions, both of sadness and hope, the stories, the tears, and the blood, still stain the streets.

For example, someone who is now a dear friend of mine was shot in the back during the revolution. She lay the street for nearly two hours, bleeding, and breathing in the “non-lethal” tear gas until her blood was heavily poisoned. She told me about coming back to consciousness, and seeing her friends, fully grown men, bawling their eyes out like children, taking shelter on the concrete. When I see this person today, gracefully navigating through her native city where her ancestors walked generations ago, I cannot help but feel profoundly moved.

“I faced death,” she told me, “and now I live my life in a completely different way. The revolution, Tahrir, it is like something spiritual for me.” I asked her what she hoped the outcome of all of this would be. “All I know,” she said, “is that I want my children, and my grandchildren, to continue this revolution. It does not end with me.”

Old Islamic Cairo, from the rooftop of a 14th Century Mosque

Old Islamic Cairo, from the rooftop of a 14th Century Mosque

My table-mates in Zamalek continued talking of how things in Tahrir had change since the revolution. There has been increasing incidents of sexual harassment against women, with many suspecting some level of organization behind the mass gropings. “My office is right next to Tahrir, so I have to drive near it every day,” he explains, telling the story of how a young kid through a rock at his windshield for no apparent reason. “Just being a stupid kid” I murmured. “Maybe. But things like this did not happen before.”

“Now we have the black block, and I have no idea where that came from,” he explains. The black block, as it’s called, is an action strategy utilized by protesters and anarchists throughout the United States and Europe, and apparently now Egypt. It is invoked to incite acts of direct resistance, general mayhem, and violence, usually directed at corporate property and the police. They are also characterized by their ubiquitous black masks and clothing. “Mixing violence and anonymity is a really, really bad combination.” Noted.

We continued talking, discussing the potential of this anonymous, militant group to become co-opted, developing into a para-military military force like we have seen in South America’s FARC, the LRA and other rebel factions in parts of Africa, Ireland’s IRA, and of course, the Taliban. “There is the potential for this group to start being trained and funded by elements of the former regime, in turn adding credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood.” All the ingredients necessary to initiate a proxy war, like what is now happening in Syria, exist in Egypt. Perhaps the only thing keeping this shady style of clandestine warfare at bay is the heart-felt passion and hope of the Egyptian people.

It is safe to say that Cairo is a provocative place, an ancient center of life and culture that one cannot help but feel enticed by. Yes, it is a city immersed in trash, pollution, and stench- everything either needing, or recovering from some type of repair, including the people. Yet, wandering through Cairo’s old Islamic quarter, drinking Turkish coffee in the courtyards of decadent 13th century mosques, the vibrant night scented with Oud and spices, I felt as if in a beautiful and romantic dream. There is a reason Cairo was known as the “Paris of the East.” If there is any positive hope for Cairo, it lies in her people- a vivacious, beautiful, and politically charged collection of characters that will not give up, at any cost.

Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia, (Cairo, Mother of the World,) please try and stay in one piece. At least until I return.

Al Qahira Sunset

Al Qahira Sunset