MATONGO MAUMBI, Lusaka
THE moment the first home-made string vibrates through the sound system, one cannot manage suppressing a joyous smile from the face, forgetting the tens of kilometres walked to witness a show like no other.Ululations, bleatings and cheers fill the air, signifying a true moment of good days in a life of someone who values culture.
This is the Chikuni Tonga Music Festival, dubbed Nkosaadi in Tonga. Started in the year 2000 by Chikuni Radio, the festival has now become the beacon of traditional music restoration in the southern region of Zambia.
The more than 10,000 spectators who annually attend the show always have a memorable time of revisiting their culture. They bring back to life those past times when they would converge in similar gatherings under the bright moon and sound the drums of Nkosaadi (concert) and Nkaangakaye (children’s night games), the plays that used to bring harmony among the Tonga and watered their culture to fullness, and chewing up all those vices that would otherwise have cracked society to death.
Over the years, Nkosaadi has brought renowned Tonga drummers and string pullers together as brothers and sisters, not adversaries. People go ‘hail’ to the jives of Kalindula (a local classical lyric), new to the Tonga string system but incorporated in its tunes – for culture is dynamic.
Renowned Zambian guitarist “Sir” Jones Kabanga, a couple of years ago, said even though he had never attended Nkosaadi, from the pictures he saw, he could say it was a well organised festival where the music played is one hundred percent Tonga.
Michael Baird, a Zambian-born musician and founder of Sharp Wood Production (SWP) in the Netherlands, says the Tonga Music Festival is critical as “local culture is disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate”.
He adds: “Humanity is heading towards a mono-culture – and that is a sad place to be! We need cultural diversity on this planet!”
Just like Chikuni Radio, Baird seeks out exponents of various indigenous styles in the bush. With his educated musical ear, he feels “the Chikuni Tonga Music Festival is a beacon of light that shows the rest of Zambia – and surrounding countries – the way. This event presents local music culture and makes the Tonga and Ila proud of their roots”.
The biggest discoveries in the early days of the concerts are groups like Mashombe Blue Jeans, Green Mamba, Short Mazabuka and Bana Haampongo among others.
These bands went on to produce a couple of albums, much to the delight and satisfaction of Tonga music lovers. It marked the beginning of discovering many other musical talents.
An idea of producing audio tape emerged with the station producing more than 70 albums promoting local talent. This offered a source of income for both the musicians and the radio station.
The production and sale of music lasted a few years until piracy killed the business. A source of income depleted. Music could not sell any more as the pirates flooded the market with much cheaper, though poor quality copies.
However, the greatest tragedy for (Tonga) culture is the fact that there is no proper custodian for it where all the young could look up to.
As evidenced in the early years of staging the festival, the young began to learn and appreciate the Tonga culture. A 15-year-old boy scooped first prize in the Kuyabila category, which is mainly performed by elderly people. The boy also went further to represent the country under the Music Crossroads Southern Africa project in Malawi.
Indeed, every culture in the world has a musical tradition, and nature and environment are an intrinsic part of it. While music exists in every human society, its meaning and place are culturally determined and the function of music also differs from culture to culture.
Differences in techniques, instruments, languages, forms and again environment have yielded a wealth of musical styles. If a culture is to remain the driving force of any kind of society, something has to be done to safeguard it against erosion by foreign cultures or just simple ‘loss of memory’.
Having started recording music in Southern Province back in 1996, Baird strongly feels “it is apparent that there are bad influencers for local culture”.
Tonga Traditional Music is very rich and diverse, but it is also in a state of constant transition in which much of the traditional music has been lost and new music has been introduced, which elders would consider as a sad departure from the traditional music which they knew.
Baird warns that local music is under threat from what he calls the MTV-syndrome. He says once young people have seen the decadence of a gangsta-rap video, they are seduced and no longer retain any pride in their own roots and identity.
As they say, a tree without roots will soon fall down.
With no culturally appropriate alternatives, young people are left to form their own ideas about social norms and livelihoods from the (social) media. The social norms and livelihoods that these portray are not so accurate or helpful and only serve to fuel myths, misconceptions and attitudes that promote unrealistic expectations from (young) community members.
But there is more to the Tonga Music Festival.
“This is not just a musical festival, it is a platform to share the Tonga cultural heritage through music and dance,” says veteran journalist Charles Mafa.
For Hans Christian Anderson, “where words fail, music speaks”. Indeed, the BaTonga people have found an avenue to speak through music, reliving the old days.
Mafa nostalgically recalls.
“On a Friday, the first day of the musical festival, Tonga patriots and others begin to assemble for the two-day annual musical festival. Individuals from the Tonga ethnic group and others gather beneath the grey heavens to partake in the music and dance that define them as a people. One by one, individuals and groups take to the podium to participate in the musical concert.”
In BaTonga culture, music plays a significant role in the lives of both an individual and community. It provides not only a mode for personal expression but also a means of communication between members of the community that will promote unity, cultivate wisdom and inculcate knowledge.
This in turn helps keep the Tonga community alive.
MATONGO MAUMBI, Lusaka