Following the murder and mutilation of six children in Tanzania last week, Ian Brennan, the journalist and Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen, Malawi Mouse Boys ... ) wishes to speak about a phenomenon that persists, revealing the poignant story of Tanzania Albinism Collective.
It is a sad and tragic fact that those with albinism living in East Africa are persecuted and literally hunted, based on the belief that their body parts can transmit magical powers and that they are in some way “demonic.” Because of this prejudice and hate they are regularly dismembered — often while still alive — or killed, which has led most to understandably live in fear. Estimates are that over one hundred Tanzanians with albinism have been murdered in the past decade, many of them children. The murder and mutilation of six children this past week in Tanzania is another sad and grisly reminder of this.
The Tanzania Albinism Collective is composed of those who were formerly non-musicians. In fact, the majority had been actively discouraged from singing even in church. Following the collective’s triumphant WOMAD festival appearances during the Sumer of 2017 (where the staff said it was “the all-time most emotional performance ever” in the decades’ long series), it came to light that it had always been one of the collective’s standout singers, Hamidu’s secret dream to sing. Since he was so often abandoned at home when his mother and siblings ventured out, unbeknownst to anyone else he would sing to himself to curb the loneliness — a classic case of music being medicinal.
The desire to be heard burned in him so keenly that he even once saved up his meager income in order to approach the one and only recording studio on Ukerewe Island. But despite much effort and sacrifice on Hamidu’s part, the studio owner instead turned him away. Angrily refusing Hamidu’s hard-earned shilling, the engineer shouted in Hamidu’s face that he was just “trash,” that no one would ever want to listen to him, and warned him to never return. The studio owner insisted that no matter what happened, they would never work with Hamidu.
But due to the success of their debut album, White African Power, the members acquired passports and left their homeland for the first time ever. “We had to travel outside of our country to be heard at home,” says Riziki Julius, the collective member who in addition to his musical contributions, created their follow-up record’s artwork.
From the stage, Thereza Phinias, sang a new song with unabashed joy. It was staggering that she could do so after having withstood being abandoned and orphaned, and then repeated sexual assaults from strangers who believed that having sexual intercourse with a women with albinism was a cure for AIDS. Later, learning that the song had been a plea to her mother to please protect her was all the more stunning. But it stood as proof that she, as with the finest singers, does not stoop to singing a sad song as if it were only sad. Instead, they embrace emotions for the complex, multi-layered, and contradictory experiences that they are.
The Tanzania Albinism Collective’s story alone though is not enough. The songs must stand on their own. And they do. (It would be convenient, but misguided to dismiss them all too readily as a novelty and miss the point entirely of just how avant-garde and original the sounds that these artists have made are.)
Instead they should be identified as the genre defying, psychedelia-tinged, and DIY, street-level music that they are. Attempts to pass them through Western, point-of-reference filters and influences would fail even more wrong-headedly, as this is a work of individuals who have lived entire lifetimes (and even descended from generations) almost completely outside the influence of pop culture and mass media.
Using found instruments from the land — beer bottles, a sledgehammer, bow-and-arrow, skillet, et al — their single features quite possibly one of the largest bass-drums ever found: a partially filled broken rain-water barrel, standing taller than an adult.
The StandingVoice.org NGO staff had worked with the members for the collective for over a decade. They said that seeing individuals that had been unable to make eye contact or raise their voices above a whisper when they first met them over a decade before twerking onstage today in front of thousands in a foreign land was beyond their wildest imaginings.
The Collective have released three records and their story and music have been covered around the world. For me, though, the greatest success was learning that years in they continue to voluntarily gather and meet in the dark one night a week on the island, sheerly for the joy of making music.