“It’s not just as if everyone is blowing their horns at any time; there’s a pattern and you can hear the pattern going and coming…
…one song for example is about a blind man, who went to Hwange in the year of hunger; he worked very hard and did very well and people got jealous of him, put poison in his beer and he died… – that’s the background story – even the small kids know the story…; but the lyrics are, ‘he drank the beer and he died’…
How’s this for passing on stories…?!”
Fascinated by the ways of passing on stories in lyrics, music and festivals in the BaTonga culture, three of the contributors to “The Women of the Great River” home in on Penny Yon’s and Esnart Mweemba’s descriptions of Tonga Music in clips 39 – 43 of the call-out playlist: The London-based painter, Alma Tischler Wood; the radio DJ and graphic artist, Terry Humphrey aka Trunkstore Arts, also from London; and the Austrian sound- and radio engineer and stage manager, Marcus C. Diess aka “Macussi” (his Tonga name).
“he drank the beer and he died” – title of Alma Tischler Wood’s visual remix and, the lyrics of a Tonga song which Penny Yon introduces to us in clip 43 of the call-out playlist.
Alma Tischler Wood writes about her contribution:
‘I created digitally a pattern on the computer whilst listening to THE WOMEN OF THE GREAT RIVER (2) by radio continental drift. I was particularly impressed and amused by the subtle layers and rhythms of No. 43, Penny Yon’s Passing on Stories (…) I will create a painting (perhaps a series of paintings) of the pattern you can see on screen.’
A lyrics like “he drank the beer and he died” would be accompanied by a serial type of music, audio patterns as Penny Yon describes it, whereby drums beat the rhythm and the horns are each playing one note only and yet joining together in a musical pattern and composition – while the players would be at once dancing, sometimes running around, and the whole community being in motion…
A sample of BaTonga “Ngoma bontibe” music can be found on the Mulonga webpage (a composition by Siankwede Bokotela Mudenda; lyrics in ChiTonga/ English on the page, recorded in Siachilaba 1997, performed by the Simonga group); listen here.
“…there’s a pattern and you can hear the pattern going and coming…”
Alma’s abstract composition seems to me working in a very similar way and manner. A pattern of same-size triangles in shades of grey tones (let’s say, the drums, “bontibe”) and primary colours (say, the horns, “nyele”) create music in motion before the eye. The triangle, by the way, is a sign and symbol common to many cultures on the continent and often used in decorative patterns such as on drums or on fabrics. The triangle stands for stability and balance.
The radio DJ and graphic artist, Terry Humphrey aka Trunkstore Arts in London created “Storyboard” (0:36) in contribution to “The Women of the Great River”. “Rapid listening and editing response,” Terry writes about his remix. The all-vocal piece could well function as a pattern, or a loop for a music, and dance – as it mainly draws on Esnarth’s chant from the Budima Ceremony which she sing as an example while telling about Budima. The piece also includes vocals from Penny Yon, Linda Mudimba, and Janet Mwiinde.
Austrian sound- and radio engineer Marcus C. Diess created an intriguing musical encounter of women’s vocals from the call-out playlist and ambient recordings from the Lwiindi Festival, which “Macussi” (his Tonga name!) recorded on his visits to the Tonga community of Sinazongwe, Zambia in 2007 and 2013. In fact, Macussi’s skills were crucial in the establishment (2007) and technical updating (2013) of Zongwe Community Radio, as he was part of a team of community-radio-activists from Austria assisting Zongwe community in these tasks. Hear a broadcast by the station from 2007 about Lwiindi Ceremony.
Macussi aka Marcus C. Diess writes about his contribution:
“Recordings from my visits in Sinazongwe 2007 and 2013 (the Lwiindi Festival), Downloads from Continental drift . Hope Masike plays the Mbira Loops, the violine is played by Tony Stricker. Both live recorded in Bad Ischl 2014 by myself. Samples of a Kalimba played by me.” Vocals from the call-out playlist include Penny Yon, Linda Mudimba, Janet Mwiinde, Agness Buya Yombwe, Esnart Mweemba, Barbara Mudimba and Viola Mwembe.
Do watch Macussi’s documentary to learn more about Zongwe Community Radio and the Lwiindi Festival of the Zambian Tonga in Sinasongwe. The first half of the film tells the story of Zongwe Community Radio; the second half, about the Lwiindi festival:
The film beautifully relates the BaTonga ritual during Lwiindi to go out on a boat on Lake Kariba and fetch water above the ancient Shines of the ancestors – now at the bottom of the lake. The women then carry the water in procession, accompanied by all the musicians with their drums, rattles and horns to the current Shines of the Chiefs male and female ancestors and share the water – together with locally brewed beer over the sacred burial grounds.
“The Tonga lost their land with the coming of Kariba but they have managed to retain much of their rich cultural heritage. The major threat has been the coming of some missions which preach that ngoma bontibe is of the devil. If these missionaries are to get their way and the Valley tonga are to stop performing their music, the Valley Tonga will finally have had everything stripped from them – even their unique cultural identity.”
For more about Tonga music, you may read the articles on the website of “Kunzwana”. I highly recommend the article by Keith Goddard “One man one note” from which the above quote is taken.