Interview: Gregory Barz
Gregory Barz is associate professor of ethnomusicology and anthropology at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches courses in African, Popular, and World Music. His newest work is Singing for Life: HIV/AIDS and Music in Uganda, (Routledge, 2005). Barz conducts collaborative field research with medical and healthcare professionals in East Africa, most recently with the AIDS Research Program of the Fulbright Fellowship Program.
Siddhartha Mitter: What were you working on when you first got involved with Singing for Life?
Gregory Barz: I’m an ethnomusicologist, I have always felt that I brought with me a depth of musical experience. I went to musical conservatory, so I have a Western music background, and throughout my early research in East Africa I brought with me – I always felt a deep and rich sensibility regarding traditional African music. I used to teach in the music department at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) when I was much younger, and I wrote a doctoral dissertation based on choral singing communities along the Indian Ocean coast. I was doing research with mostly Lutheran church choirs who were using new and emergent choral music genres to communicate their sense of identity. So my early work really revolved around the infusion of traditional African music into what we now call syncretic music traditions in the churches of East Africa.
SM: How did you come across the material that you document in Singing for Life?
GB: About 10 years ago I was working my way around Lake Victoria. My wife likes to think of it as my mid-life crisis, having to work my way around Lake Victoria and experience the totality of East Africa, and I did some of my best recordings during that trip in the mid-Nineties, recording amazing African musical traditions in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It wasn’t until the end of that trip where I was recording drumming traditions around the lake that I found myself working in a remote village in Busoga, the easternmost kingdom in Uganda, and I was recording what is now understood as a wonderful, vibrant music making tradition, centered around the embaire xylophone, which is a local tradition that produces an amazing deep sound.
After recording one particular village’s xylophone for a number of hours I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman approaching the recording area. And she had an mbira, a plucked lamellophone strung across her chest. And after the weeks of working around the lake, seeing this woman – her name was Vilimina Nakiranda — with this lamellophone, really made me stop and rethink what I had been doing for the last ten weeks with my documentation. And after the recording session she came up to me and asked me to record her and her songs. And many of the male musicians with whom I had been working were incredulous, because they could not believe that a local woman was not only offering to make music for me, but they didn’t believe that she actually could do it. And for the next hour I recorded Vilimina singing three songs for me. And to this day I remember going back to Kampala after this recording session and translating these songs.
The first song was about how not to put a second condom over the first condom, because it reduces its efficacy. The second song was about where to go in the nearest town for blood testing to determine your HIV blood status. The third song was encouraging young women to take their mothers with them to get their blood tested. And back in the 90s this was not only extremely moving, but it was very different and very profound for me to find this level of musical engagement in rural Ugandan villages. It made me rethink not only what I was documenting, but the purpose of documenting African music came into question for me. And since that time, that first encounter with Vilimina I have stepped back to reconsider my own role as an ethnomusicologist, what my purpose is, what my goals are, what my mandate is and what I have to offer the scholarship of African music.
SM: In what ways? What did it make you reconsider?
GB: I always understood that my talents in studying African music were the documenting, the analysis, and situating the music in its social context. So I always really gravitated to more group music-making traditions, very deep rich musical traditions — that very often excluded women and women’s music-making in particular. Part of this is not odd for a male ethnomusicologist to realize that I had probably allowed myself to fall into a great many anthrolopological traps and to not ask the right questions, not ask where are the women making music. And it wasn’t until I was confronted with one particular female musician, Vilimina, that I really started to listen to African music in a really different way. Not just by asking different questions but by being empathic, being present, not being a threatening intellectual presence within the communities where I have been privileged to work.
SM: How was that different from your previous work as an ethnomusicologist?
GB: The music that I had been working with in Uganda for example over the past ten years is one of the deepest and richest and most complicated musical traditions that I’ve encountered throughout my musical career. It’s one that I greatly love listening to Ugandan traditions, especially the more elaborate royal court traditions, the Busoga and the Baganda. These are very rich complicated traditions involving interactions between highly trained musicians using a very specific vocabulary and demanding very technical, virtuosic prowess. This appeals to me, its esthetic appeal is amazing, and the rich sonic performances that take place are very appealing. I still value and I take part in, participate in as a musician in many of these musical traditions. But I think that moving beyond that, there is a lot of musical activity in many African countries that supports and draws on many of these deep traditions.
SM: Let’s go back to your trip around Lake Victoria. What made you decide to take it in the first place?
GB: I originally proposed to my spouse such a trip around Lake Victoria because she and I had only experienced Tanzania and Zanzibar up to that point. And I felt that as a scholar of African music that I really needed much more depth, much more village based experiences throughout what we call interlacustrine East Africa, the lake cultures that have supported each other and have over generations drawn from each other’s experience through migratory patterns. This wasn’t just a middle aged man trying to discover anything that wasn’t already known or wasn’t already out there. I felt that as a student of African music I owed this to myself and to the musicians with whom I worked, in order to best represent their location in the global society today.
SM: Did these musicians consider themselves to be musicians, as performers, or just farmers and working people who happened to make music?
GB: Being open to musicians such as Vilimina encouraged me to look beyond my own preconceived notions of what music is or what it can be. I began with Vilimina’s encouragement, documenting other women musicians and seeing that what I typically went in to record, musical performances, weren’t really the purpose of opening one’s mouth and singing. Vilimina through her social network introduced me to other women’s singing groups that were singing for different reasons. And they weren’t considering what they were doing as performance. They were trying to educate other female farmers for example about what to do when the crops were failing, when there was too much water, when there are floods in the area. So I began working with her to not only document what they were doing in terms of performance but to understand why music would be so important to them in their daily lives, in terms of reaching out with messages. And the deeper I got the more I realized that in terms of HIV/AIDS music was for many of these women the only form of outreach effort in their communities.
SM: Who were some of the other salient characters you met in this research?
GB: If I could just shift to another story I remember working in Bute village. It’s outside of Iganga town which is in the eastern part of Uganda, and I remember working with a farmer by the name of Aida Namulinda. Aida was recommended to me by another women’s group as being a very strong leader in her community. And I remember making my way to Bute village through a series of transportation fiascos from a small minibus –or matatu — to a motorcycle then to a bicycle and finally on foot, and then making my way to Bute village which was in the middle of coffee bean farms that were diseased and were quickly dwindling. I met Aida Namulinda in the middle of a coffee field where she was trying to mobilize her fellow farmers, other women working in the area, in order to meet with me to organize a group sensitization meeting with some of the doctors with whom I travel. Aida is a very attractive woman who introduced herself to me as HIV positive, as were most of the other women that she was gathered in the coffee fields. We walked together past some rice fields to my left, to a clearing in the village compound. And we sat down as started talking about her own use of dancing in particular to attract the men who were not working in the fields. The men who were off either in town or coming back from work in the towns. And she looked me directly in the eye and she said, “If we don’t bring our drums from the field into the villages the men will not listen. The men will not pay attention to we women unless we sing, unless we dance.” And sitting in Bute village in the heat of the sun, in a clearing watching the disease of the coffee crops all around me, I couldn’t help but wonder where these women were finding their courage to sing and to dance when obviously they were all HIV positive themselves and there was very little hope in that community. But getting to know the individual women such as Aida made me realize, to use her phrase that Singing for Life was all they had left. It was all they had to pass on to their daughters. And I’ve used her words, “Singing for Life,” as a mantra, as a code for my own research, to remind me that this is not just about sonic joy, this is about the humanity of Ugandan women and what they have to offer music.
SM: Did you ever ask Vilimina why she decided to approach you that day? Is that something you’ve talked about?
GB: We have, I met and recorded her for many different projects. Vilimina is a very strong woman, herself HIV positive and the leader of a local group. And she felt, this is me translating as I go along, she was tired of foreign ethnomusicologists coming to her village and recording the men sing. Even though it’s a glorious wonderful musical tradition, and we have scores of recordings of this village xylophone making tradition, it was her courage when she stepped forward out of the banana fields and made it known that she wanted to be recorded. And I value that courage and I just thank God that I was able to respond on that particular day, that I was just in the right place at the right time.
SM: So this is an area that has seen a lot of researchers already.
GB: Historically there have been scores, this is what led me to that particular area, and historically there have been networks of male musicians in this area who are famous for their village music making tradition.
SM: Tell us a little more about the area, what it looks and feels like…
GB: I work primarily in Eastern Uganda, which borders Kenya and is just a bit to the east of Jinja, which is the source of the Nile River which flows north through Uganda. It is a culturally rich area but also a geographically very rich, fertile area, fertile for crops, and coffee and rice and many other different plants are grown there including a variety of bananas that are used for making of daily sustenance meals. I had traveled historically throughout this area with my good friend, musician and colleague Centurio Balikoowa, who is one of Uganda’s most famous and valued traditional musicians. He’s originally from the village of Kibali which is in Busiki district, known for producing some of the greatest musicians of the country, sending them westward to the Buganda kingdom, to the royal courts.
Busiki district is where much of this music, deep historical traditional music making has taken place. Busiki is very off the beaten path, it’s a place where the electricity stops very often and one has to travel deep, as Centurio says, deep into the village, to find the musicians who are behind the real music making.
One of the most beautiful things about Busiki is the multiple identities that exist within the region. Speaking Luganda and Swahili, this is a very wonderful, humbling area to work in because one side of the street will belong to one language group, Lugwere for example, and the other side of the street will speak Lusoga, the language of the Basoga people. It’s complicated in the way that people do understand each other but there’s a coexistence of different ethnic groups tightly woven into this very small geographic area. Historically there has been a lot of overlap with peoples of Kenya, this is a region that experienced a lot of migration before the colonial boundaries were set up and enforced – inward migration mostly to the area, because of the fertile farming areas and the opportunities for trading along the coast of Lake Victoria heading east toward Kenya.
Busoga used to be a standing kingdom, there were many standing kingdoms within what is now Uganda, so labeled by British colonials, and there were many interactions with the other kingdoms, but musically the kingdom of Busoga was very rich. And it’s interesting today that much of this music making has been kept alive by having been translated and transferred to the Buganda kingdom of Central Uganda; many musicians for example from the eastern kingdom of Busoga were brought by the king of Buganda to the central area, to Kampala, what is now the capital. So many of the traditions that we know of as Ugandan were actually rooted historically in the eastern region that gave birth to many of these national musical traditions.
Busoga is just one of many musical centers in the country. While it’s a very small country it’s known for a plurality of ethnic and racial identities. There are Nilotic and Sudanese and Bantu groups in the country and they bring with them their individual musical identities. Musical instruments for example in Busoga have become part of the national identity, the pan pipes for example, the xylophone playing styles, and the lyres and the one-string fiddle, have become part of the national identity but these instruments were rooted in Busoga. Just as the udungu lyre for example is more of a West Nile musical instrument. So while most people know the origin of many of these deep musical traditions today there is also a pan-Ugandan musical identity.
SM: Were you aware of music being made about AIDS in this setting before?
GB: No, even though it was most likely there in front of me. And as an ethnomusicologist I could take a big risk and expose myself as not having the technical skills to really listen to messages dealing with medicine health and healing. I remember back in the early 90s when I was working and living in Dar es Salaam for example, and I was interviewing one of the first, if not the first rapper in Dar es Salaam, Sali J, about the songs that were coming out on his first cassette, that I bought in a marketplace. I go back now and listen to our interviews and they don’t match up with what he was trying to do in his early tapes, which had to do with AIDS; and I didn’t ask those questions because I wasn’t focused, the researcher wasn’t focused on AIDS even though the material was right in front of me.
SM: Tell us about the impact HIV was having on these places when you were there doing your work.
GB: When I first started working in Uganda there was rampant HIV in many of the villages that I was working in. In the mid nineties, there was upwards of 30 percent national HIV figures but I was always – I guess I was never surprised in working along the coast of Lake Victoria, the Rukai district which we now believe to have been the birthplace of HIV, I would work for a day in a village where there was nobody alive. To reconcile HIV statistics is very difficult because in one village it’s going to be 100 percent, in another it’s going to be 10. In order to get to that 30 percent we have to realize that there are some extreme figures documenting infection rates. Now over the years we’ve all known that Uganda is the success story of sub-Saharan Africa’s response to AIDS, and Uganda more than the other countries has brought down their infection rate from 30 percent to whatever gross rate we can come up with down to a reportedly low 5 percent in the past two years. This is an amazing statistic and part of my research has been to collaborate with local nurses and doctors and other outreach workers to try to understand and situate that particular decline in infection rates.
I can remember working in a fishing village called Golomolo village. I went there to visit a group of HIV orphans, just to find out how they were sustaining themselves and to make contact with this particular group, and I walked through the fishing villages surrounding Golomolo village leading down to Lake Victoria. And I remember how quiet and how silent this journey was leading down to the lake. And there were lots of small children, very young children who I later found out were mostly HIV positive, and there were several older women mostly seated along the pathways leading down to the lake, and the silence was profound. There was an entire missing generation. These weren’t just people who were out fishing for the day. These were people who had left or had died, there was a missing generation in these villages. And that was one of the times when I experienced the absence of a generation in these villages and how it was going to raise so many issues about why things had happened so quickly and how this country was going to have a hard time bouncing back.
SM: So let’s go back to your meeting with Vilimina. After you recorded her, what happened next?
GB: One of the greatest joys of being an ethnomusicologist is being able to be willing to listen to musicians and be willing to partner them in communicating their own stories. When I met Vilimina Nakiranda, the woman who first opened my eyes to women’s song texts in this area, just by being open to her I asked other people about her song texts and whether she was alone in this. And it turns out she was a member of a much larger social network. And that these women’s networks dialogue with each other through some social service agencies. And I began contacting some of these organizations, faith based organizations that – as well as parasitical, NGOs, other groups that were trying to reach out to these rural women. I met one group that I found very effective in Iganga town. Iganga is a city to the east of Jinja in the Busoga part of the east of the country. This group is called IDAC, the Integrated Development and AIDS Concern led by Reverend Jackson Muteba who himself is HIV positive. And has decided to help fund women’s outreach groups, women’s self supporting groups; and he and I traveled throughout the region one summer trying to locate all these groups that he was funding, most of them farming or labor groups, so that I could see the depth of musical performances that occur on a daily basis.
Now I have to be careful because I’m using the term music in a very broad way and not very specific. So I’d like to step back and say when I use the term music, very often I’m talking about dramas or dancing or some sort of performance that incorporates what you and I might think of as music. Music is much broader, broadly understood in Uganda and it’s more a part of everyday life. And to separate it out and call it music is probably not as specific as I’d like to be.
SM: You did something unusual, which was to involve medical professionals very early in your research.
GB: It became very important to me when I started engaging direct work related to HIV that I felt the need to collaborate with health car professionals. And I felt that with the type of investigative questioning and soliticiting of information that I was doing in rural areas that I had a mandate to give something back to the villages with whom I was working. So I started experimenting by traveling with medical doctors, at first mainly medical students, third yea medical students from the main medical college in Kampala, and I traveled around the country with a variety of young medical doctors, including the young Dr Alex Muganzi Muganga, and Peter Mudiyope. Both of whom were not only essential in explaining to me the medical conditions that I was experiencing and seeing portrayed in dramatic performances, but also they served an integral part of my ability to communicate to rural musicians, women who needed more information from me, the “musical doctor.” One thing I could give back to these women who had given me so much time and energy was time with my medical professionals in terms of education, information, medical outreach and simple treatment. I found that this collaborative model is essential when I’m dealing with medical issues. And it’s important to me to keep in contact and to always rely on local medical expertise.
One doctor that I mentioned, Alex Muganzi Muganga, has risen in the Ugandan medical world. He’s now the chief doctor at the infectious disease unit at Mulago hospital. He’s one of the principal AIDS doctors in the country now. And he and I see each other every year, and he works with my students and Vanderbilt, and he trains many of my students and takes them under his wing, and he and his family have been warm and welcoming to my family over the years. I find that musicians and medical doctors get along very well. There is not this split between us, we communicate between the different realms; he might say that we’ve learned just as much from each other in terms of Uganda’s response to AIDS than we’ve been separate.
SM: It’s not a common model, this sort of collaboration across fields.
GB: This is a very strange model for intellectual engagement, ethnomusicologists typically adopt a variety of field methodologies but the collaborative model is not one that has long been valued. One gift that I believe I have as an ethnomusicologist, or as my son calls me an “ethno-schmooze-icologist.” What he’s getting at is ethnomusicologists love to talk, and they love to have relationships with people, I will say that working with medical doctors comes very naturally to me. I am very empathic and I am able to convey my needs very clearly and I have never met a medical doctor in Uganda who did not want to affect significant medical interventions in many of the communities where I have worked. I have not had any problems in communicating the power and the validity of the message of the music, I have never had any problems communicating the importance of engaging interventions at the local level. Most of the doctors with whom I work are eager to get out of their clinics and to get out into the real clinical world in which I live, and to see for themselves what is going on out there. Most of the rural communities that I travel in have never seen a doctor, a nurse, a public health outreach worker in any other scenario other than being accompanied by me. So for me this is an opportunity not only for the communities within which I work but for the medical professionals I travel with who work with me and who collaborate with me on these academic studies.
SM: These places weren’t reached by the public health system at all?
GB: There are many areas of the country that are beyond the reach of state supported or mission supported health outreach efforts. It’s a very large country in that respect and it’s a very impoverished country in other respects. Most of the doctors with whom I work have constantly been – well, not to overstate it, but astonished by the lack of public health outreach in the rural outlying areas. And that’s why when we discovered that music, dance, and drama were often the only medical outreach opportunities in a particular rural area, that’s when my note taking, my field note research journal stopped and the medical officers often took off with their questions and their intense engagement with these communities wanting to know what is working as a medical intervention in this village, what tools, what do these women need, but also what is working as the most effective intervention in this village.
SM: What makes music so effective as a tool, then?
GB: Typically in Uganda there is a myriad of different musical performance venues and styles. It’s a very diverse musical region involving local rural traditions as well as court traditions city traditions, more religious traditions. Life before AIDS for example is easily documented because we have beautiful historical recordings made by some of the best ethnomusicologists in the world, they focused on this particular region because of its rich heritage. Life after AIDS I think has changed the musical soundscape of East Africa forever as it has most areas of Sub Saharan Africa. It’s almost unconscionable to for example to expect that a popular musician will not take into account the scourge, the disease, the virus at some level. So to imagine Ugandan music, East African music in general without a history of involvement with the virus, it’s hard to imagine that. The two co-exist nowadays. There’s obviously traditional music-making that has nothing to do with AIDS, there’s popular music being played on the radios of course that has nothing to do with AIDS. But the opportunities for engaging music, dance and drama as a medical intervention are always present in people’s lives.
Most of the music that I’ve been working with in the rural areas involves a deep connection to traditional music making. And it takes on that traditional ability to communicate messages, to communicate stories, it takes that ability to the next level. And really why wouldn’t it do so. It’s doing with traditional Ugandan music what music is really intended for in this region. So fusing the most relevant social issue of the day which is HIV-AIDS for many people is only the logical extension of the music’s ability to communicate African identity.
SM: Is this to do with music’s traditional role in many parts of Africa as a didactic tool?
GB: Yes. Music has traditionally in many parts of Uganda as is true elsewhere in Africa the ability to tell a story, to convey messages, to recount historical lineages, to recount historical episodes in the life of a particular community. This is part and parcel of everyday life is to have music be not just the backdrop but the core spine of what it means to be Basoga, what it means to be Acholi, is to have that musical spine telling your ethnic group’s heritage.
SM: Do you think of this music you’ve documented as a whole new style of music that’s arisen in response to HIV/AIDS, or is it really just an ongoing adaptation of existing traditions and practices?
GB: Some people may, when they pick up Singing for Life and start listening to the music, they may think of this as a genre, such as AIDS music. And I would really like to discourage people from seeing this as separable from other musical traditions going on simultaneously. I more than anybody know that many of these musicians participate in multiple worlds. And people, while they need to hear this music and musicians want them to hear the messages of the music, every now and then music is embraced that has nothing to do with AIDS. We all need to relax, we all need to dance, people tell me. So to label this music as AIDS music, takes away something of the sort of cultural situation of the music. It’s just part of people’s overall musical identity.
SM: Have these musicians ever become professional artists as a result of getting involved in the outreach work?
GB: Sometimes in village based systems there are outreach efforts that farmers for example can travel to another village and make money by performing for another village. So there is a system of non AIDS related music making, in the cities and the towns’ people will go where the money is. For example there’s a wonderful musician featured on my CD who’s known throughout the country as the voice of the country, Mzee Mata, who’s a blind lamellophone player who back in the Sixties when the country achieved its independence and was ratifying its constitution, Mzee Mata recorded a song called The Constitution, which was played on the radio, and it helped people understand what was being proclaimed within the constitution, and really educated the country about the new status of the constitution. Well in my work with Mata going back into the 1990s he was recording songs for me and here he was a traditional musician from the Busoga area, he was singing songs about strange fruits, that the people were eating and getting sick. And his songs for me represent a deep history of the history of disease in this area. His songs are an encyclopedia not only of how an urban musician makes his living entertaining at parties, but within that tradition maintains a history of AIDS within performance.
Today in Kampala in the capital city it’s fascinating to watch how music is infused in the general curriculum of most school students. Traditional music making is very often front and center in the curriculum of how kids learn about their history, their culture and how the perform themselves into being on a daily basis. Now in terms of professional music making I think I could step back and look at all these schoolchildren learning how to be Ugandan by performing traditional music, and I think it really destabilized my notion of what it means to be a professional musician. When I look at schoolchildren who have a mandate from the ministry of education to perform relevant songs particular to a topic related to AIDS and I see all the children in a particular school learning how to play and instrument from another part of the country, learning a dance from another part of the country, I see music making much more in terms of overall educational pedagogy rather than a hierarchical understanding of what it means to be a professional versus amateur music maker in Uganda.
Now that being said, in rural villages there are certainly musicians who are valued and remunerated for their talent and their ability to speak for a particular village. So Uganda represents and many African countries do, this juxtaposition of tradition and modernity on top of each other where the two coexist – typical traditional musicians are highly valued and train a new generation, versus popular musicians existing in a different context, and everyday music making being valued in both urban and rural contexts.
Aida and Vilimina, two women that I’ve been privileged to work with, would not identify themselves as musicians. And to me that is perhaps more profound and more beautiful than me attempting to label them as musicians. Aida, when I asked her to self identify, she told me she was a farmer. And this is what farmers do, this is what a woman farmer in her community would do, she would sing for life. Vilimina identifies as a farmer. Another woman who I trying to make a living against all odds in her area. And for me to step back as an ethnomusicologist to step back and say well, I’m studying farmers who make music, and I don’t have a need to understand them in any other way than how they want to be understood. And if that means me studying women who are farmers who are affecting change in their community through music dance and drama, well that explodes what my notion is of what is a musician in Africa.
SM: So how can we tell that this music making is effective, that it’s making a difference and is worth the investment by these performers?
GB: There’s a lot at stake for women such as Aida who, when I asked her why she continues to dance, why she continues to sing, when obviously she herself is HIV positive, as is most everyone around her, she looked past me. And I could tell she was looking at her daughter who was around 12 years old at the tie, and she told me this is all she has to pass along to her children, to the children of the community that this message needs to be reinforced, re-inscribed, re-performed in order for it to stick. Now it was Aida who first encouraged me to reconsider the science of all of this music making and when I asked her how she could – this sounds awful – how she could prove that anything she was singing, anything she was doing was making a difference, she challenged me, and said “OK, You come, you’re going to spend some time in this village, you’re going to document us, watch us sing, watch us dance, record our drama, and then I want you to show up with me tomorrow morning, at the clinic, which is in Iganga town at the local hospital, and I want you to take note of all the local people that you’re going to see at our performance tonight at which I’m going to tell them to get their blood tested tomorrow. And I want you to be there with me tomorrow morning to witness who shows up.” So the following morning I got up very early and met Aida in town and we sat there at the clinic and she pointed out different people who had been there at her – on her farmstead the day before, being encouraged to go get their blood tested. And that to me, while it may sound very unscientific and anecdotal, proved to me at a very profound level that musicians, farmers, women who were singing for life were making a difference. By dancing, drumming, performing, she could get someone to show up at a clinic, which is a very big risky emotional, financial, burden for many people, she could get people to get their blood tested. And if that’s not testament to the power of one single musician, one farmer working in Uganda today, well I don’t have a better model than that.
In this sense music is the most effective medical intervention, direct intervention in a community. It does not have the power in this sense to heal, it’s not about that, it’s about motivation, care, treatment, it’s about education, getting people to believe, to understand and then to motivate action, to motivate a response so that people begin to act more appropriately, respond by getting their blood tested, because knowledge is power in this area of the country.
SM: How much is this a national story for all of Uganda, and not just a local one to the villages we’ve been talking about?
GB: In my efforts to document all the different musical traditions, related to AIDS in Uganda, I’ve really tried my best to represent a variety of styles from villages, drawing on local village music making traditions in the Eastern part of the country, to women’s a capella singing traditions in the western part of the country bordering Congo, and representing a totally different musical soundscape, to youths who have been taught particular songs by rote and reproduce those in their educational environment, I find that the plurality of musical traditions that I’ve engaged and then turned around and tried to document has given me the opportunity to see how deep this musical intervention that I’ve been trying to document can be, and how successful it is. I’ve worked with outreach efforts as well funded as the TASO music group, TASO stands for The AIDS Support Organization, the oldest support organization in all of Africa, TASO has evolved from the very beginning, from its roots a drama troupe that goes out and uses it in sensitization, education, as well as for palliative care. So the music traditions that I’ve been following and documenting range from this deep village rootedness where groups are drawing on the western musical tradition, harmony, and choral singing traditions as well.
In many of the recordings that I include as part of my documentation you’ll find a traditional instruments music making such as xylophones, the embaire and the amadinda and akadinda playing styles, of central Uganda; you’ll also hear pan pipes, you’ll hear one-string fiddle playing, the ndingiri fiddle playing with rattles and various instruments.
SM: And is it still fundamentally the work of women, or has that changed over time?
GB: When I first began my recording efforts I mostly focused on women’s performance groups. And then as the years went on I became aware that a diversity of groups were using music in the same way, youth groups, for example youths from age 12 to 18 were beginning to really depend on music for their health outreach efforts. And finally today I’m not able to make the same distinction anymore that this is primarily a women’s music making genre. I’m hearing more and more men open to listening, singing, performing, enjoying these musical genres than they were over a decade ago.
Women were definitely innovators in this early effort to fight the disease head on through music dance and drama. Women were the voice, women were the sound of this musical fight, this struggle. Now interestingly enough they were very often performing at least in the rural context, were performing within a historically male dominated musical form. This translated to very often hiring men to accompany them when they toured around village networks, but also to using the male performance genre for their own means, sort of flip that up on its head and said we can play your game, we can get you to listen to your own type of music, but it’s women’s voices, women’s messages that’s at the center of it.
SM: What are the settings of those performances?
GB: Most of my early recording efforts took place outdoors in rural villages, networks of villages, central areas where women would very often bring out some of the musical instruments that the village owned, and start drumming on them to attract the attention of men in particular to come and listen to their messages. This type of music making could go on all night, there’s often a certain amount of local beer, local brew being consumed and with the infusion of women’s messages through their performance and their dance attracting men to their message, attracting me to their performance so they would listen and in their words pick the message out.
SM: Was there resistance to these messages, and to these actions by women?
GB: Historically yes there has been a lot of resistance…. Men have been reluctant to listen and act on and embrace what women have had forced on them. Many women that I’ve worked with find that this is one of their last resort, music is one of their last ways of getting through to men. Every country has its issues relating to gender and so called gender equality. One of the issues in Uganda, I don’t want to over-generalize but women have a hard time dealing with all the issues that are forced on them in terms of polygamous marriage, rape and abuse, women have a much harder time than men do negotiating and in their recovery.
SM: There’s a lot at stake for women.
GB: Infection rates in Uganda while very scientific and very rooted in a broader set of demographics, women tend to suffer more in terms of infection, although I’ve also been told by clinical workers that more women are being tested than men, so statistics can be skewed . That being said women don’t have as much power and authority and therefore don’t always have the right to say no, don’t have the power within their marital relationships to demand the use of condoms for example by their husbands. There is much transmission that goes back and forth that women don’t feel empowered to negotiate.
SM: Tell us more about what is musically distinguishing about Singing for Life music.
GB: I find that the music making by groups of youth, the music making by groups of women are very compelling because musically, usually the message, the text the idea is always very fresh. Musically I’m not as interested in harmonies, in tonal shifts, in rhythms, and yes there’s all there, this is beautiful music, but this is very textual musical genre if you want. In order to really appreciate the power and the authority being asserted by women we have to look carefully at the texts of what they are trying to assert. This is a type of music that is very in your face, very aggressive and very didactic. There’s a reason for women going public and signing and trying to make meaning out of their words. And the poetry of this musical intervention is always what has intrigued me and my antennae pop up, my ears open wide, when I listen to women singing – a group of women performing Singing for life, I need to listen to these women and very often it’s because the text, the poetry, the song lyrics are very strong and intentional and significant in their attempts to affect change and behavior.
I’ve been so curious not only to document the songs of dealing with AIDS in Uganda but also to situate them within different categories of ways of understanding the beauty and the creativity of all of this. Song texts for me represent history. And I’ve spent a considerable amount of energy trying to understand the history of this disease from a musical perspective. I feel that music has provided us with a significant opportunity to document the history of AIDS in Africa. I can look at song texts that illustrate local knowledge related to AIDS before the term HIV and AIDS were introduced into the country. So for example local ways of describing the slimming disease, “silimu,” are certainly located within song texts. And other local terms for AIDS are infused throughout songs. Lately I’ve been more interested in focusing on song texts that are attempting to provide a shift in social behaviors, the way we understand what it means to be HIV positive, and songs sung by most local groups including TASO, the group Pada out of Iganga, People Against AIDS Development Association, that are not singing so much about being positive but about living positively. I think we can all learn from what it means to be infected and affected by HIV, they provide a model for us. I’m thinking of Vincent Wandera’s song, a local composer, who is an AIDS counselor in Kampala, I hear his songs as encouraging people not to live with the stigma of AIDS. His song “A leaking canoe,” encourages people to move beyond the label of HIV positive and move towards the idea of embracing people positively as living with AIDS. There’s a gentleman, Muslim, outside of Iganga, his name is Walya Suleiman, who directs the group PADA, a group of Muslim women who move outside of their village work encouraging positive living and not to stigmatize their neighbors and family members as being HIV positive. He says in his songs, we’re all neighbors, we have always lived next door to each other, this virus is going to affect us all, infect us all, so we all need to live together rather than separately. These song texts are direct, they are invasive, and as Aida Namulinda sings in her song Olumbe Lwa Silimu, she talks about what it means to be a woman living with AIDS and the dignity that she demands from her neighbors, the dignity that she demands is projected directly to her farming neighbors.
One of the most interesting songs that I include on the Smithsonian Singing for Life CD is an accidental recording that I made of the Negro Angels Bamalaika, a historic group in Kampala City. This was a drama group that was one of the first groups to incorporate music somewhat related to AIDS, and this was at an early time they say back in the early 1990s when it wasn’t publicly acceptable to sing about AIDS directly. So they produced a drama called Gampisi, the Hyena, in which the hyena became a metaphor for this disease in the nation. And just by accident one day, I asked the group to perform this song. And this song takes this wild animal making its way through the country eating everything on its path. And it’s a scary metaphor meant to inflict fear on its listeners without really knowing what to do in reaction. And I think historical recordings like this can help us document not only the history of AIDS but how music has changed significantly in the past 15 years since our knowledge about AIDS became clear in this country.
SM: Can you think of some other stories that brought home to you the power of this music?
GB: The Meeting Point in Kampala is one of these amazing social service small NGOs that is really making a difference in the local everyday life of many Ugandans. The Meeting Point is run single-handedly by a very brave strong Ugandan woman, Noelina Namukisa, who has become a close personal friend of mine and who was instrumental in teaching me about the power for women in using music, dance and drama in their everyday outreach efforts. I remember visiting the Meeting Point which is in a slum area of Kampala, a group of women who were coming to the Meeting Point to receive some food deliveries, and they were all seated in rows waiting. And somebody brought out a drum as I was sitting waiting to meet with Noelina as well. And the drumming started and everyone started clapping and I saw one woman walk into the room, this very small room where already 25 to 30 women were crammed in, this one woman who was clearly end-stage AIDS, she sat off in the corner, looking very weak; and the drumming started and as an ethnomusicologist I was able to ascertain that this was a rhythm from the western part of the country, and it was a very aggressive and rigorous rhythm, people started getting up and dancing and singing and ululating, then out of the corner of my eye, I saw this very sickly woman stand, and she began dancing this very rigorous and demanding rhythm, dancing and jumping in the air, and Noelina came and sat next to me, and I started getting her attention to this very sickly women rigorously dancing, and she just whispered to me and said, well this music is from her homeland, she’s Nkoli, this is her music, it motivates her to get up and dance. And this was something very new to me to see this music’s effect on people’s physical as well as emotional well-being.
SM: How do the songs address HIV directly?
GB: Many of the song texts that I record are from local traditions and because there’s such stigma attached to just using the terms HIV or AIDS, many of the texts will attempt to localize their AIDS talk if you will. By avoiding using the term HIV, avoiding using the term AIDS, people can soft-pedal the message so they’re not scaring people when they use these scientific terms. Other ways of labeling and talking about AIDS have emerged and have been codified if you will through music specifically. That’s one thing that my transcriptions, my documentation has helped us understand. But probably the most important aspect of my recordings has been the documentation of the historical ways of understanding AIDS, the historical ways of understanding the local terms, the local ways of making meaning through this disease before the label HIV AIDS were introduced into various communities. One of the best ways of hearing all of this is to listen to the music of school age children when they sing about AIDS. One of the most humorous but meaningful ways of understanding a condom, for example by young boys in eastern Uganda, is the reference that is typically made to grasshopper catchers. All young boys know how to catch grasshoppers, they create this little box in order to catch grasshoppers and that is a metaphor for condom by many of these boys. So these song texts document all of these wonderful local linguistic terms, and the other terms used for AIDS tell a much deeper story about the disease than the scientific terms.
The musicians are very clever in figuring out who their audiences are, how they know the disease, what’s best going to communicate in some cases fear to a group of kids, what’s best going to communicate action. And very often that’s not to rely on the Western medical way of understanding of disease death and dying. Very often it’s how have we dealt within this community with disease death and dying. And the music, the songs document this need to localize music traditions.
SM: You write about how music is really a big part of public and non-governmental agency strategy now for dealing with HIV in Uganda.
GB: I believe that music, dance and drama has become one of the most powerful tools used by these organizations. This wasn’t always the case and certainly not when I first started working in Uganda, I’ve seen a rise in efforts to incorporate music – and it’s been wonderful from my perspective to see the growth of the embrace towards music. It’s become clear among most people that this has become a message from on high, from wherever they’re getting funding, from the Uganda AIDS commission for example, everyone knows that music is the most powerful tool. I’ve spoken to the various ministers of health who all recognize that this is the issue, that this is – well probably the most economical way of getting the word out. And if that’s the case I’m certainly willing to get behind it, document it and encourage it.
I’ve witnessed this in somewhat of an embarrassing way. I was at a national AIDS conference several years ago in Kampala at which the minister of health was present, and he publicly embarrassed me by stating that I have helped the country realize that music is the most powerful tool in the fight against AIDS. Now that being said I have demonstrated nothing other than document the passion and the organization of many of the women I’ve worked with over the past ten years. I have nothing to do with this, if my voice is listened to it’s only because of really excellent material that I’ve been presented with, and really wonderful people that I’ve shared my own journey with. I don’t take any credit for any of this, I only tell the story s of the power we all have in studying music, studying African music and living passionately with African music. We can all affect change and people do listen to us in various crazy and different ways.
SM: Has the bulk of this work been done by grassroots organizations, or is it something that larger and international agencies have embraced as well?
GB: Grassroots organizations have been really successful because they don’t always demand working within a monetary exchange model. In more urban environments people have their day jobs that they have to keep, and very often to make music or drama it’s taking people away from their income. In rural areas this is really sometimes all they have, and so the necessary economics that go along with music making aren’t always a part of the picture.
The economic model for supporting and encouraging music making regarding AIDS has been highly localized, and many of these groups exist without external funding, and the foreign aid rarely trickles down to the level of grassroots even though – it’s clearly demonstrated and I get up on my soapbox and I’ll talk to anyone who listens that this is the best economic model for AIDS education and certainly in terms of encouraging testing. That being said it’s a really hard model to sell to donor agencies who are driven by a different economic model, and I totally understand that. But I’ve seen crazy things change over the past ten years, and you know, it’s the people listening to this show, buying my CD, the students going over and the Ugandans themselves who are becoming part of a global community. It’s not going to be me making any more changes, its going to be everyone out there listening who are going to engage this idea at a much grander level than even I can conceptualize.
SM: Have you run into situations where these didactic songs are actually passing erroneous messages, like wrong medical information? And if so what do you do?
GB: In terms of the messages that are communicated by these songs that I’ve been documenting over the years, there are various ways of understanding this issue. The Ministry of Education has frequently mandated select song texts that have been approved and vetted and are passed along among the schools throughout the country and this has been one way of creating a pan-national, super-national approach to song texts if you will, but very often, just as often I should say, I found rural groups passing along misinformation, passing along directives that one could question, and so we run the gamut in terms of song texts. I don’t feel that it’s my job to go in and correct people to listen to what I have heard as being successful, but as I have said I do travel and try to engage local practitioners who will attempt to redirect the messages of many song texts that have gone astray.
SM: I imagine that in the course of this work you’ve seen a lot of people you’ve work with themselves decline physically, and many must have passed away.
GB: I have been so blessed in my experiences and opportunities to partner with musicians, and in Uganda it’s always painful to hear health concerns and health problems, especially because I live in a world where I do have access to technologies and to medicines, and I have access to many of the medicines that can address the secondary issues, the presenting issues that accompany AIDS, in ways that my friends and colleagues, teachers, musicians performers in Uganda do not. I have been so pleased over the past ten years at the greater availability of ARVs, anti-retroviral therapies, that have been made available to my colleagues but still the costs are prohibitive by any degree for most of the rural musicians with whom I work. I am never surprised when I receive that email or that letter from somebody needing my help, nor have I ever been reluctant to engage in reaching out to whatever level I can to my colleagues. We are all musicians and we are all humans and it’s very hard for me to remember that most of the musicians with whom I work, many of the early musicians with whom I worked are no longer here, through no fault of their own they have succumbed to the disease and are no longer with us.
SM: What are the challenges for validating this approach and generalizing support for it?
GB: I was having a conversation just last week with a group of medical students at Vanderbilt, and one of them was raising concern about the goals of ethnography, writing about music, writing about musical cultures, and how could I justify spending money documenting all of this without a sound rigorous scientific agenda? And his point is well taken, how can I prove the infection rate has gone down because of music, dance and drama? Well from a scientific perspective I can’t. From an anecdotal perspective I can. I am perfectly willing to collaborate with scientists to address this question but I think behind this question is how can we support further funding of this type of model without the justification, without being able to scientifically prove that music is as effective as we all know it is. And if that’s what it takes, if that’s what an approach from medical ethnomusicology takes, I will collaborate with every medical professional out there to produce a scientific study that will prove the efficacy of musical outreach efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. I will get behind that study if it translates to supporting, encouraging and ultimately changing the role of the musician in contemporary African cultures.
SM: And what are the limitations or barriers that music, dance and drama efforts run up against on the ground?
GB: Very often women tell me that a significant limit, transport is obviously an issue. To get to the next village, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the ability to travel around and do what they do best. Daily sustenance, you know, musicians need to eat, drink, access to health care themselves. It’s very hard for a woman to have the energy to sing and dance for three hours a night if she’s been working in the field all day and she’s sick herself and not feeling well. Groups have a hard time maintaining members because the members themselves are dying, succumbing to the very virus and disease that they’re fighting against. It’s an uphill battle all the way and in every respect musicians have it really tough out there.
SM: Let’s talk a bit about commercial music, popular music in Uganda in the era of HIV and AIDS. Ugandan pop had a celebrated loss to HIV early on, in the late 80s…
GB: There was a musician named Philly Lutaaya, who was a local Ugandan musician living in Europe, who really helped and accompanied this increased knowledge of the virus in Uganda. One way he did this was by deciding to openly disclose his HIV status, which was unheard of among major authority figures in Uganda itself. There was great reluctance to reveal one’s HIV status because of the stigma attached not only to the virus but to the physicalization of the disease. People still felt that this was shameful.
For him to come out openly and disclose his status was thought of as a very risky move in his career. Of course Philly Lutaaya was at the end of his life and living outside the country. He felt that if was really his responsibility to help out in what little he could do to really make a difference. During his last tour of Uganda he promoted one song heavily, “Alone and Frightened.” Which is a very simple song with a very deep message. A very compassionate message. And this song, “Alone and Frightened” has become the anthem not only for AIDS organizations and AIDS in Uganda but throughout the world people sing this song and identify it with the cause, with AIDS survivors and victims. So Philly Lutaaya from the start beyond just being an icon, a figure, a musician was really the sympathetic voice of coming out and revealing one’s status and doing it through music was very important.
To many people probably when they hear it for the first time they’ll hear a very Western sounding popular ballad, there’s not much African about “Alone and Frightened,” not much Ugandan about it. I will admit that the first time I heard it I thought it sounded like a very sappy romantic ballad, but that’s not really what it’s all about. It’s about one man’s struggle with HIV and the dominant theme of having to hide one’s HIV status and feeling frightened about it is so significant that it has become iconic of the virus and it really transcends musical boundaries and borders. So in that way whenever I listen to it I hear it as a Ugandan popular song.
SM: So did Philly Lutaaya’s brave gesture open the door for other musicians to address AIDS openly?
GB: I feel that Philly Lutaaya, who had taken this huge risk, died very early. And there was nobody to step up and take his place. There was no Bono, no other major figure to step in and give voice to the musicians and support and encourage musicians in the late 80s and early 90s.
And I think many musicians did not choose to disclose their HIV status for fear of not being able to tap into the ongoing economics of being able to produce African music, to being a Ugandan musician. Philly Lutaaya was at the end of his life and had economic resources outside the country, living in Europe, in ways that local musicians in Uganda didn’t. They were tied into the Ugandan networks of not being able to disclose their HIV status to continue to feed their families. The issue of AIDS in popular music during this early period is problematic. That being said there were many musicians, Kadongo Kamu artists in specific who were starting to weave messages into their songs. Jummy Katumba for example, one of the earliest Kadongo Kamu musicians was doing this, Herman Basude, and Prince Juko, and of course Prince Paul Kafeero, who recently died. Many of these musicians themselves died of AIDS but they used some of their songs in a joking manner to accuse each other of risky sexual behavior, in a way to get it out in the open. And this was expected of early Kadongo Kamu artists to enter into these joking or rival relationships. And so that was one of the ways that popular musicians had of getting the story out by proclaiming the name of AIDS if not directly, then indirectly.
SM: And you’ve talked about how there was also something of a backlash, more negative messages creeping in.
GB: When Ugandan musicians started collaborating with Kenyan artists, Kenyan producers and Tanzanian musicians they began using Swahili more as a lingua franca in popular music and they started entering into the global African popular musical market… Lyrics at this time began problematizing the responses to HIV, to AIDS survivors in a very different way. We entered into a period where musicians were singing more misogynistic texts, blaming women, pointing fingers at women more as a source of HIV transmission, and relying on finger, pointing more than trying to address the social needs and destigmatization of people already affected by AIDS.
SM: What was that all about?
GB: I think it was about economics, creating a popular voice for musicians, giving people a relief from AIDS talk, distancing popular music from this need to always relate to AIDS. People in Uganda are tired of hearing about AIDS, and why shouldn’t we be tired of hearing about AIDS, it’s depressing, it’s sad, and I think musicians wanted to distance themselves in my opinion from the dominant AIDS talk.
SM: And then hip-hop comes around, and you argue that that has changed the picture again, quite possibly for the better.
GB: The African hip hop artists in Uganda – Ugandan hip hop is a very wonderful linguistic phenomenon as well as musical and social phenomenon. There are artists who really have used the emergence of hip hop among the youth culture in Uganda in very interesting ways. Krazy Native – who goes by the name Saba Saba, and his group the Bataka Squad have used not only their musical performances but their ability to reach out to Ugandan youth as well as the global consumers of hip hop in very unique ways. Now that Uganda has many more opportunities to access the Internet for example. I see in cybercafés in Kampala people, kids watching YouTube and they’re very often watching African hip hop artist on You Tube, specifically Saba Saba and his groups, music videos that are very in your face and relate to social issues, whether it’s about extreme poverty issues, other medical issues, certainly about HIV.
I think Ugandan hip hop artists have the ability to communicate within a different social milieu and they don’t have the rhetorical expectations of dance musicians and popular musicians, Kadongo Kamu artists for example. I think they really use their medium to communicate to the Ugandan youth in a very new and significant way. And in a way in which youth expect now to receive very important messages, controversial messages that challenge them to thing in very different ways.
SM: So there are some pretty fascinating ways in which hip-hop, this modern, “foreign” form, converges with the really traditional music happening at the village grassroots.
GB: I’m seeing Ugandan hip hop as not a unique category, a separable category… I see hip hop as meeting many of the same needs and many of the same expectations as traditional praise singing or traditional music making in a village where the text, the rhetoric, the story is just as important. Where people actively have expectations of the singer and actively look to the singer for information guidance reassurance and the latest and the best as well as the historically accurate. When I listen to Ugandan hip hop it might look and feel and smell differently than the music of the village, the traditional rural music making, but I’m hearing it as part and parcel of the same package. It’s… an exchange of very important information in that particular society.
SM: So is that just an academic observation? Or are the actual audiences overlapping as well?
GB: As African hip hop artists rise in their appeal… there are musicians who are performing side by side with them who are traditional musicians but they’re sharing the same stages. Annette Nandujja for example, who emerged several years ago as a very popular stage performer and musician, causes us to really rethink these categories. Annette Nandujja came to prominence several years ago, a very fine singer and performer musician and she recently won a PAM award, a Pearl of African music award in Uganda ….. To label her a popular musician calls into question what we think of as traditional music. Her recording was really well produced in a great way which traditional musicians are not often recorded. A lot of time and effort and money was put into creating a technology that could really mike the drums in very specific ways, very expensive recording equipment. A lot of care and attention has gone into producing Annette Nandujja but also letting the country know that this was something really interesting to listen to but also very important in terms of what she’s singing about and who she’s collaborating with. So these categories, they all sort of break down and I’m seeing much more of a dialogue between all of these artists.
I think younger musicians when they go around listening to Ugandan hip hop artists, we kind of focus on what they’re listening to on their commute, what they’re hearing in the marketplaces. But we have to remember that these are kids often in secondary school to the age of 20 or 21, who are being exposed and offered ways of integrating their identity within their schools… While they may listen to hip hop at night, during the day they’re also being expected to be immersed and educated in traditional Ugandan musical cultures.
SM: So the schools are a big part of this?
GB: Ugandan traditional music has been an integral part of the educational outreach of the ministry. So all the schools throughout the country have a mandate to participate in annual musical and dramatic competitions where they’re expected to dance their culture, dance different aspects of inherited local cultures throughout the country, put on dramatic performances based on themes that are selected each year by the Ministry of Education, perform songs related to a theme or composed specifically for the competition season. So these students perform their culture musically, dramatically and through dance while at the same time being exposed to other aspects of popular culture.
SM: Last year there was a group pop song, an all-star song called “A Little Bit of Love” that aimed to re-mobilize people against HIV and AIDS. What did you make of it?
GB: This has been one of the more recent attempts to readdress, reinsert these messages into popular music, and I do think now that Ugandan popular musicians have been able to go global, that there is an expectation globally that Ugandan popular musicians should be dealing with these issues, but also… the optimistic part of my body says that these musicians are finally being allowed to speak openly about these issues. It’s a little bit corny and it is a little bit “We Are the World”, but it is a legitimate performance, not musically great, but it is an attempt to perhaps reinvent the voice of Ugandan popular musicians in a much more integrated world.