Interviewed & Written by Sana Rizvi
The topic of preservation of music, its histories and interdisciplinary practices that tie the WOMEX 2019 Film Programme together doesn’t ring much louder than in the documentary from Tanzania - Wahenga (The Ancestors). The film is part of the Film Library, that features an extended selection of seven films in total highlighting new projects, collaborations including previews of unreleased films.
The film introduces the audience to the story of guitarist John Kitime, who is on a mission to put together an all-star band from the old days to revive 'Zilipendwa', the classic Tanzanian sound. Weaving memories of the past and dreams for the future, John and his bandmates revisit an era of gleaming horns and packed dance halls as they struggle to keep alive a genre of music that is inseparable from the national narrative.
WOMEX Film's Sana Rizvi, had the pleasure of talking to the multifaceted Rebecca Corey who is not only the co-director/producer of the film but also the managing and artistic director of Nafasi Art Space, a multidisciplinary centre for contemporary arts in Dar es Salaam and co-founder of the Tanzania Heritage Project, which digitises, archives, records and promotes Tanzanian music.
Rebecca, could you tell us about how you met with John Kitime and decided on making this documentary about 'Wahenga' the band?
Rebecca Corey : I first met John Kitime almost a decade ago when I was initially researching 'Zilipendwa' music and was interested in finding out about other initiatives to digitise and preserve it. John had done extensive research, documentation and interviewing of musicians from that era and also advised many others in their attempts. He very graciously and generously spent time answering my questions in those early days, and we stayed in touch over the years. In 2015, I had finally begun digitisation, and so John would come to spend time in the studio listening to the music and telling stories. He had often said that it was his dream to get a band together to revive the music, and at that moment he decided, why not now?
My friend, director Amil Shivji, was between fiction film projects and offered to film the rehearsal and recording sessions. Initially, we thought we'd just use the clips to help promote the band and for archiving purposes. But we soon realised there was a bigger story to tell and we wanted to do it as a feature documentary. We ended up filming over two years and releasing the film in the third!
Could you bring us up to date with what's happening with him and the band at the moment?
Rebecca Corey : John is still out there, hustling as much as ever! He has been fighting to get musicians affordable health care through the national health insurance system, speaking and advocating for copyright reform, writing music columns for newspapers, continuing his weekly radio shows, and of course, performing. One of the bands that Kitime plays with, 'Kilimanjaro Band', had a famous weekly Saturday show which was shut down for some time due to new curfews and restrictions put on music venues, which had adverse effects on musicians who were already struggling to make a living. Unfortunately, there are so few places and opportunities for live bands here, so 'Wahenga' the band has also struggled to find gigs. The musicians in the group have mostly found other groups or projects to keep playing on, whether at churches or tourist resorts. John himself is currently working on a new group called JFK Band, JFK standing for John Francis Kitime. We are still working on finalising the album of the songs
'Wahenga' recorded during the film – it's been a long and challenging process to find both the funds and time to do it –, but we hope that once the album is out the band will get more chances to perform and that will bring them back together again. Here are few of Wahenga's songs on Soundcloud .
The music itself has a ton of cultural references starting from the 1960s. Could you tell us more about this particular music style? And what it means to Tanzania as part of a cultural identity that is being lost?
Rebecca Corey : 'Zilipendwa' is the popular term for 'the oldies' in Tanzania and translated from Kiswahili; it means "The ones that were loved." As a style, it really refers to the popular music that was being produced from the 1950s onward that took cues from Cuban music, Congolese Rumba, American soul and funk, colonial-era Tanzanian 'Beni' (brass band) music, and Tanzanian 'Ngoma' (traditional drum) music. There were big horn sections, multiple electric guitars playing intertwining melodies, verses full of social commentary and lessons, and long stretches of instrumental breaks for dancing. Across the continent, there was a golden age of music where musical, social and political influences converged to create an outpouring of incredible sounds that in many ways - materially and psychically and emotionally - helped African independence become a reality. This was the era of Julius Nyerere and Ujamaa (African socialism), Nkrumah and Pan-African consciousness, and also James Brown, the Black Panthers and the 'Black is Beautiful' cultural movement. So this is the context in which this style of music was born and flourished, and today the music is attached to feelings of hope, pride, and of course, that bittersweet ache of nostalgia.
Could you tell us more about your work at the Tanzania Heritage Project?
Rebecca Corey : The Tanzania Heritage Project was born in 2011 while I was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident I had in Dar es Salaam. I was back in the United States recovering but spending all my time listening to some bootlegged copies of old Tanzanian music like Kiko Kids, NUTA Jazz, DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra, Vijana Jazz, Atomic Jazz, etc. I wondered why I hadn't heard this music before in several years of living in Tanzania, and so when I discovered that the majority of this music has been in the Radio Tanzania archives and has never been digitised and released, I along with some of my Tanzanian friends decided to try to digitise the music. We wanted to digitise the full archive of Radio Tanzania, but that ended up being impossible due to restrictions on working in government archives, so we ended up digitising other reel-to-reels of music from that era that ended up in private collections or public marketplaces, as well as doing some field recording and organising live music events of musicians from that era. We've digitised many hours of music now, but a lot of work remains to be done in terms of licensing and copyright clearance, cleaning up the tracks and re-mastering, etc., before it can be released.
'Wahenga' the documentary was not only a way to tell the story of John and his fellow musicians' continuing efforts to make music under challenging circumstances, but it is also an attempt to try to motivate action and inspire others to join in the efforts to preserve and revitalise this music. We ultimately weren't able to digitise the music at the Radio Tanzania archives, but we hope that it will happen before it's too late.
During my research, I found that the nostalgia behind 'Zilipendwa' is not just about being melancholic about the past but a genre that can truly engage and build healthy communities. Could you elaborate a bit on this?
Rebecca Corey : Yes, music from the 'Zilipendwa' era and so naturally the music of 'Wahenga' the band is full of lyrics that tell meaningful stories about community and social relations. The power of music to teach and guide people was very much respected, and the song was seen as a tool for starting conversations, informing people, and guiding behaviour. Of course, the artists themselves weren't always the only ones driving this – the government was known to intervene to make sure the songs played on the radio were preaching the benefits of government policies, and upholding certain moral codes.
Much of the band is made up of older musicians with a great deal of knowledge about their history and the connection of the music to that history. How much of that knowledge is prevalent among the younger generation of the country?
Rebecca Corey : I would say that the members of 'Wahenga' know a lot about history and the way their music is rooted in it because they lived through those days, it was their direct experience, and so, of course, that has shaped them and their music and their outlook on life itself. Western pop music was also driving and dominating in those days too, but because of the bigger political and social forces happening, the music was channelling a revolutionary stance that looking back appeals to us and lends a certain sheen of purity to it. But I think during those times, many of the musicians just wanted to play and have fun and enjoy the life of a musician like artists do today. The struggle of young people and young musicians in Tanzania today has, of course, changed a lot. They're facing neoliberalisation and neocolonialism, extreme capitalism along with technological advances that are fundamentally altering human life and relationships, environmental collapse, and their music is sometimes a confrontation with that and sometimes an escape from it. Music like 'singeli' and 'mchiriku' in Tanzania is deeply rooted in Tanzanian tradition and speaks to the present moment in a visceral way that people respond to. A question not just for musicians but for all of society is how can we look at the past, remember it and learn from it, not just to romanticise it or try to replicate things that may have worked then, but to see how understanding that history helps us better understand ourselves and where we've come from, where we want to go.
John started his career during the politics of Julius Nyerere that saw culture as an essential part of the newly independent country, and music drove the preservation of that cultural identity. What are the politics around culture and music today?
Rebecca Corey : I’d say that music was critical in reflecting and forging a cultural identity, at that time, and now, looking back, we can say that through that process it was being preserved. And we can understand a lot about that particular moment in time vis a vis those artefacts. Julius Nyerere was a brilliant man who recognised, along with many of his contemporaries, that de-colonisation and anti-imperialist struggles needed to take place at many interconnected levels simultaneously - politically, economically, culturally and linguistically. He was very intentional in urging Tanzanians to unite under a common cultural identity, through the speaking of Kiswahili, the pursuit of socialist policies, and through appreciation of local art and culture. Today in Tanzania, we have a resurgence of nationalism, and many people seeking to use culture as a way to solidify a certain narrative and understanding of the world. It’s the same approach being used by corporations and by international NGOs and others as well – to fully instrumentalise art as a marketing tactic. Artists always navigate this path to some extent, but I’d say it seems to me to be intensifying. The hope is that we might find visionary leaders across sectors that don’t see musicians merely as tools to use for their own ends, but as equals with whom they want to listen, exchange, and work together toward shared goals.
In the mid-'90s politics, economics and cultural influences of Tanzania changed, and it opened its doors to the free marke. From the new standpoint of neoliberalism, music and other socio-cultural identities became unnecessary business overheads and were being cut drastically. Are the same economics continuing till today?
Rebecca Corey : In short, yes. Big bands with 20 members or more just didn't make sense from a purely profit-maximising standpoint. The parastatals and unions that once supported the bands could no longer do so. Today, wealth is intensely concentrated in the hands of people who do not see the value of independent art. But people like John Kitime and his bandmates are a study in resilience, and my experience with them reminded me that nothing can be taken away that isn't surrendered. Just because the humanity and identities of so many are not recognised by the current system, does not mean that they don't exist. One can live and create in ways that hopefully expand and protect the dignity of others, as expressed through dance, joy and appreciation of culture.
What is the state of the Tanzanian music industry today, especially when it comes to local music and bands?
Rebecca Corey : The Tanzanian pop music industry seems to be flourishing, but to be honest, I am not too tuned into it, having the partiality to live music that I do. When it comes to live music and bands, it's challenging for artists to make a living, due to the lack of venues, events, and just basic cultural infrastructure, including people to write about music, technicians, managers, labels, training programmes and schools, availability of instruments, etc. Of course, when you compare the music scene in Dar es Salaam, to other smaller cities around the country, and even to capital cities of some neighbouring countries, you see that here we're doing quite well and in relative terms, the scene is huge. But it is fragile, and always dependent on sources of funding or institutions that could not be here in just a year or two, depending on how things go.
In this years' WOMEX programme we find a thread among the documentaries on the preservation of musical heritages - why do you feel that is important and how is film connected to that preservation?
[/b]Rebecca Corey[/b] : Musical heritages are living things, and so not only do they need to be preserved, they need to be kept alive, nourished, cared for and even loved if they are to survive. This is important because they are our companions, guides and our best teachers. Film allows us to see the flesh and blood that give rise to the voices and sounds, and by seeing musical heritage embodied, we're able to perhaps grasp it more solidly than we could otherwise.
Why should WOMEXicans watch 'Wahenga' (The Ancestors) and what would they take away from it?
Rebecca Corey : When I set out digitising music and making this film, I was thinking a lot about politics, history and archiving – all valid subjects, for sure. But since the film wrapped and I watch it now, I feel something more – something about family, memory, and how we celebrate and share the human experience with one another through music. I hope that WOMEX delegates who get the chance to watch the film will take away the same.
The WOMEX Film Library is a physical space where films are accessible on-demand to accredited WOMEX delegates at any time convenient to them between 10:00-18:00 from Thursday 24 October through Saturday 26 October 2019. Please note that films in the library don't have a specific screening but can be viewed over the three days at any time you wish. So do make the best of it.
article posted by:Sana Rizvi, Piranha Arts