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.


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.)

Music under fire in northern Mali

Our hearts and prayers go out to our friends in Mali, where music has gone underground in the rebel-occupied north.  Both Tuareg separatist militias such as Ansar Dine, as well as al-Qaida-affiliated groups like AQMI and MUJAO have imposed their harsh version of Islamic fundamentalist Sharia law, both banning music, and threatening sever punishment for anything they deem as against their manipulated and “Wahabist” version of Islam.  These groups have also destroyed ancient Sufi tombs in Timbuctou, both sacred to the locals, and recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Even in Niafunké, hometown of the great “desert blues” guitarist, Ali Farka Touré, music is outlawed.  Quoting from a recent UK Guardian article by Andy Morgan, a musical sidekick of the late Touré said, “I know that if Ali were to awake from his tomb today, he would just go straight back into it. He would die twice.”

From the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20624236

The late and great Malian desert blues guitarist, Ali Farka Touré

The late and great Malian desert blues guitarist, Ali Farka Touré