Authors and Context

Chikocha, Ndege and Kyaso are performed by the Kikundi cha Sanaa cha Taifa cha Ngoma na Maigizo — Kariakoo, Zanzibar. (Recorded respectively in September 2004, June 2003 and August 2003.)

Performers: Abdalla Othman Abdalla, Asha Khatibu Hassan, Habiba Ahmed Haji, Hamduni Makame Nyaha Juma Ammiri Mwinyi, Kheri Moh’amed Kombo, Julieta Stephan Thomas, Mlithi Kanguna, Moh’amed Saidi Moh’amed, Mwajuma Shaabani Sleiman, Safia Kheri Baraka.

Some history

In 1970, Aboud Jumbe (in those days makamu wa Rais — Vice President) was invited by Sekou Touré to officially visit his country. On that occasion, a show in his honor was organized during which he saw a performance of the Ballet National de la Guinée for the first time. He saw something that impressed him so that he wanted to create a group that would represent the traditional culture of Zanzibar in his homeland.

It was not only ngoma: the national ballet of Guinea’s performance is, until today, an ensemble of various artistic forms: dance, music, theatre, acrobatics and juggling. It proved to be an ambitious project that demanded careful field research which would recuperate most of the Zanzibar ngoma tradition, and an adaptation of the contexts, unknown until that day. He did not limit himself to this: he accepted the offer of Sekou Touré to find some professional artists that could move to Zanzibar for a period and collaborate to realise his project: the dance-theatre was not an artistic genre proper to the islands and the presence of these culture’s ‘officials’ would be useful and decisive to the birth of a group the professional level of which would be high enough to call it the National Ballet of Zanzibar.

At the end of 1977, five artists went from Guinea to Zanzibar: a group of afisi wa utamaduni, culture’s officials, worked with them to research ngoma and oral stories and they went as far as mashamba, the countryside of Unguja and the Pemba islands. The research was conducted for one year: wakapewa nguvu na wao, they (the culture’s officials) were given strength by them (the Guinean teachers). As soon as the research was concluded, in 1978, Jumbe founded the Kamati ya Utamaduni, Committee for Culture, which is nowadays called Idara ya Utamaduni, Department of Culture. In July of that same year, the group was founded: the artists were chosen from among various sectors of the tangled government structure in all the districts of the Pemba and Unguja islands.

The eighty artists selected were taught by the Guinean experts for about six months. Then the last selection took place: in 1979, a group of 45 artists, regularly employed by the Zanzibar government, started the Kikundi cha Ballee1: mtindo uliyochanganya hadithi, ngoma, nyimbo, a style that mixed stories, ngoma and songs. The Ballee was a new performative genre that proved to be a success but also astonished the islands communities, who werenot prepared for the novelty. Hadithi ya Buruhani2 and Hadithi ya Mwenye Mkuu3 (these were the titles of the shows produced) represented interesting interpretations of contents particularly meaningful with respect to the oral history of the archipelago. Since Jumbe was the president, the show was reproduced in various places and contexts and the artists continued to rehearse with the Guinean teachers to improve every aspect of the performance.

Ali Hassan Mwinyi succeeded Jumbe and inaugurated the third revolutionary period, characterized by the democratisation of the political system (The Constitution of 1984) and by the economic liberalisation. During the same year, the Kikundi cha Ballee was dissolved: on the occasion of a ceremony to which the group had been invited kwa kwenda kupongezwa, to be congratulated, the Prime Minister Seif Shariff Hamad (1985-1988)4 voiced his disappointment in seeing Zanzibar people being taught ngoma from West Africa. Because of his decision to stop this, the members of the Kikundi cha Ballee, who had been employed by the government until that time, lost their jobs.

The culture’s officials finally decided to found another group that has survived until today under the same name: Kikundi cha Sanaa cha Taifa cha Ngoma na Maigizo. It would be committed to researching and reproducing the ngoma ya kiasili, the ‘traditional’ ngoma, in the traditional gestures and dresses of the islands. Besides, the members would participate in the shots and the records of Michezo ya Maigizo, dramas, at the National Radio and Television Studios.

Some of the artists did not remain in the group and moved to other government offices: the others are still working in the National Group. The place where the National Group of ngoma used to rehearse, teach and recruit young artists is a small place adapted to be a theatre inside the children's park, in the quarter of Kariakoo.

Kunguiya and kilua

Kunguiya is performed by the students of Mkunazini School, Zanzibar Town. (Recorded on the 7th of August, 2004). They have been taught to dance, and play drums by one of the members of Kikundi cha Sanaa cha Taifa cha Ngoma na Maigizo.

Kilua is performed by the students of Haile Selassié School, Zanzibar Town. (Recorded on the 7th of August, 2004). Both the performances occurred in 2004 on occasion of a ngoma competition between the primary schools of the Zanzibar archipelago. That competition was won by Mkunazini School.

About ngoma competitions

One important aspect of ngoma performances both during colonialism and today, though only present in a few contexts, is the form of association of some artistic groups and the competitive character of the performances themselves: “In Tanganyika as in Kenya competitive dance societies had long been a feature of Swahili life.”5

Frank Gunderson supplies us with some definitions of competitive ngoma, ritual ngoma and competitive ritual ngoma on which he focuses his analysis of mashindano, (lit. competitions) organized competitive events, popular forms of entertainment including musical performances, singing duels, choir (kwaya) competitions, dance contests, sport events and games.6 His research is consistent with the aim of the scholars of this cultural area to produce a scientific work regarding music in East African cultural expressions, an aim which is supported by a number of research activities on issues that were neglected in the period preceding the multiparty system and the economic liberalization.

Ngoma competitions7 are an essential organizational reference point for the expressive arts of the Swahili communities in a context that opens up the idea of every cultural form as a union between music and socio-political conscience. These contests, although organized on the basis of a true antagonism between opposing teams and finishing with the final declaration of a winner: “are not meant to produce winners, but to foster social cohesion, friendship, community, and identity through post-dancing feasting and merry-making. [...] Competitions facilitate cooperation between team mates, and participants learn to put group interests ahead of their own. Competitors better understand cooperation by virtue of their engaging in contrary behaviour.”8

Competitive performances are also part of a wider economic process, tied to government policies which use them during electoral campaigns, or as a means of communication used to disseminate information about society’s problems: ukimwi (Aids), uchawi (witchcraft), madawa ya kulevia (drugs).

Ndege and Kunguiya

Ndege and Kunguiya are also performed by Fatuma Binti Baraka, better known by her stage name Bi Kidude, a minute elderly woman, who is a nyakanga (ngoma ya Unyago leader and chief instructor in initiation) and a kungwi, or somo (initiation marriage instructor).

The context in which she performs the two ngomas is a “school context”: that day she came to Kariakoo, to teach me how to dance and play these ngomas, since I used to learn to dance ngoma there with two teachers of the National Group of Zanzibar.

Then, she told me: ‘Bi mdogo e! Mie ntaicheza hii ngoma, unifate; usimchungulie mamako, mchungulie mama mwenzio’9 (Little miss! I will dance this ngoma: follow me; don’t look for an answer in your mother’s eyes, look for it in mine, your ‘mother friend’). That was her invitation to participate in the ritual Unyago ya kumsinga mwari (lit. initiation ceremony characterized by the ritual massage that a kungwi gives to her mwari [a woman who is secluded to be initiated to the adulthood or to the marriage] the day before the wedding) which was to take place near her home the following day.

One day, when I had already become mwanae, her daughter, she invited me to participate in the ritual as mwari.

Wewe unataka kusoma ujue utamaduni unyago namna gani, usitake unyago kwa ngoma. Usishangae mie ntakupeleka hapo kama upo, ntakutia hapo wala si mbali. Utakuwa utafanyiwa kila kitu, wewe mwenyewe unaandika, maana wewe kama unasoma tena: unakijua hichi kitu fulani, haya chora ‘pa-pa-pa’, hichi hapo umekiona?, a-a kwa huko utakuta kitu fulani. Lakini ile siri yako ya ngoma ile utakuwa unayo moyoni, unaweza? Je unaweza hivyo?[...] Maana raha ya kitu ukifahamu, ukijue, sio unakisoma tu. Na kila ukikijua wewe madhali hujawa Mzungu kwetu, wewe Mswahili, umeingia katika lugha ya Kiswahili, na wewe unakuja kuyataka mambo ya Kiswahili. Yale mambo ya kiswahili hujafahamu; si unakuja kusoma utenzi, a-a. Zungumza mimi huyu hapo mdugu yangu, popote hata kwa huyu bibi tunaweza kufata ukafanyiwe, si lazima kwangu. Kwangu mie sina nafasi, kwanza nakupa, nyumba tunaiona, kichochoro vumbi ndo pale pale.10

You want to study, to know the culture of Unyago; don’t study Unyago only as a form of ngoma. Don’t be astonished, I’ll bring you there, I’ll let you inside and it is not so far. You will go through every step of the ritual and you will write because, since you have studied, you can understand something quickly and paint it ‘pa-pa-pa’, have you seen this one? But there you will find something different. But you have to keep this secret of ngoma inside your heart, may you? Tell me, may you? [...] Because the goodness of a thing is to understand it, to know it and not only to study it. And you are going to know everything because you are not a white to us, you are Mswahili, you know Swahili language and you want to know more about Swahili culture. You have not understood these things yet because you are not here to study poetry, no. Tell me, my little sister, this one, and I can reach you everywhere so that you can be initiated; it is not necessary to stay at my home. I don’t have enough space; I tell you, we can see the house, the alley and its dust, everything is there.

I answered: safari nyingine, next time.