Experiencing Tonga Music Festival

WOMEN playing bukonkoolo at the festival. PICTURE: RADIO CHIKUNI

FOR many years, “Sir” Jones Kabanga had wanted to sample the indigenous music festival in Zambia.
So, he got to attend the Tonga Music Festival in Monze.“My experience with the Chikuni Music Festival has been very great. I have learnt a lot from the artistes; the way they mingle with each other, the young and the old, it helps them preserve their culture. They’re always learning from each other,” “Sir” Jones says.
The experience at the Tonga Music Festival is different for different attendees.
“When it is time for veteran Patrick Haampongo to perform, with his Kalumbu, [a traditional musical instrument made of a stick attached to a calabash] he plays it with such energy, inter-spacing its sound with his voice,” veteran journalist Charles Mafa says.
The Kalumbu is not just played for fun. In the past, it was played by a young man who wanted to get married.
In Tonga tradition, when a young man was about to get married, he had to play the Kalumbu the whole night and the parents would ask him the following morning if he had ‘seen’ someone.
When the response was in the negative, parents took it upon themselves to find a suitable wife for their son. Arranged marriages were a common practice.
Music is often an important component of religion, ritual, celebration, work, play, and politics. As with the Chikuni Tonga Music Festival, it has also helped to create and reinforce boundaries of community and identity, and serves as a means to social expression that gives rise to emotions, to memories, and to pleasures. This concert explores the power of music to transform lives.
The Tonga Music Festival is a combination of poetry and traditional music. It speaks of the Tonga people’s livelihood from birth to death. You have got songs, tradition and culture that is used at specific times.
Mafa was mesmerised with a group of women “sitting in a semi-circle, playing what is known as bukonkoolo – they are beating two pounding sticks.”
This kind of music is usually played indoors during funerals to comfort the widow. For men, during the time of mourning, they tend to use poetry.
“They will not wail like the women but would rather play the namalwa – the lamentation drum. They will be lamenting (kuyabila) the loss of the beloved one as the poetry is performed,” he explains.
“Music provides a link with the past. It both preserves culture and helps to establish and maintain identity based on historical accounts and records. Through the performance of music, memory of heritage and culture are celebrated in ways that relate vitally to the present. The musical festival examines music as a continuum – reconstructed and modified but, connective between the past and present.”
The Tonga Music Festival provides a rare opportunity to pass on the Tonga heritage verbally and visually to thousands of onlookers. People are able to see the traditional instruments as well as the traditional styles of music. They are also enlightened on which occasion such music was performed and the significance of it.
There are over a dozen genres of music at the festival.
Mafa has witnessed even something more.
“Even the attire for each performance is different. The girls wear necklaces made of beads around their necks and on top of their vests as they perform ciyayaale,” he explains. “This tune is normally sung in the morning by girls who are in seclusion, during the initiation ceremony to puberty locally known as Nkolola. The dance performed by girls who have come of age involves systematic movement of the legs as a way of flexing the muscles.”
Music and poetry very much form a part of the Tonga tradition. Through this annual music festival, the Tonga people are exploring the museum of their past and reconnecting it with the present. Amid shouts of Nkosaadi – meaning concert, several thousand guests dance and jiggle, voices blending and sentiments united.
“Sir” Jones now strongly believes that “the use of tradition instruments is the only way to go if we have to compete with the rest of the world.”
“Preserving such music may entail recording the traditional instruments with a mixture of Western instruments. We need to expose our instruments out there,” he says. “You see how the Djembe has become popular, it’s because of the collaboration the West Africans did with Europeans artistes.
Sir Jones has been studying the sound of Kalumbu and feels happy that so far, he has tried to add some guitar chords and it fitted so well.
The Tonga Musical Festival is a brainchild of Chikuni Community Radio, with the primary aim of promoting a sense of belonging and cultural identity amongst the Tonga speaking people.
The festival is not only for the old, it facilitates the passing down of traditions by the older generation to the young ones. The family-oriented event is a delightful coming together of all ages of the Tonga people with a wide diversity of traditions.
Despite this great initiative to help preserve and restore traditional music and culture, Radio Chikuni struggles, financially to host the event every year. The station does not have reliable financial support to host the event without depleting the little resources it has.
As the station has a heart for the community, it offers an extra incentive — participation in the festival is free. Though participants go away with cash prizes at the end, the audience does not pay to watch the festival. For those that cannot attend the event in person, it is broadcast live on the radio station, which also does online streaming.
After 17 years of annually hosting such a massive event, the station still wonders what it is they may be doing wrong not to have good external financial backing to stage the event.
The fact remains that traditional music is an important part of the African culture and it is a means of storing and safe guarding it. The festival should be encouraged and supported as it is the only one of its kind in Zambia, possibly Africa, where such an array of traditional music is at display in one arena.
The Tonga Music Festival attracts traditional music enthusiasts from all corners of the country and the world. It is a beacon of hope that indeed traditional music and culture still has a place somewhere.
“It was awesome listening to indigenous Tonga tunes that is so rich in culture and the home-made instruments that were used should be something that we should preserve in a very long time to come,” Juliana Lungu Chilombo, general manager for the Zambia Music and Copyright Protection Society (ZAMCOPS) said after attending the festival.

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