The Musical Hoes of Igudija

31 Mar 2006

Thursday, January 19, 2006
Mwanza, Tanzania

Locals in Mwanza city keep asking me when I’m going to go see the animals. The simple reply is: ’I’m not.’ Incredulous, people wonder out loud why I’ve come to the very edge of the Serengeti only to stop a few miles short to stay with a bunch of … farmers.

It’s a reasonable question for a white guy on the streets of Mwanza City, and I’ve found a few reasonable answers.
For one, musical farming in Sukumaland holds a lot of East Africa’s perks without any of the downsides of the National Parks. Friendly people, great music, stunning scenery, twilight cacophony — and even hyenas calling in the distance. Of course, I get to see no cuddly lions or wise old elephants and not even one graceful gazelle. But I also get no crowds of frantic gawkers (unless you count the kids who call out as I whizz by on my bike), no hefty park entrance fees, no ‘stay in your vehicle’ rules and of course, no flesh-tearing, bone-crushing bonuses when the rhino decides something’s got under it’s skin and goes rampaging through camp.

Second, something many people miss in the rush to the Great Attraction: life is wild both inside the park boundaries and outside of them. Almost as evidence of the fact, the Swahili word ‘safari’ is translated in English as simply ‘journey, trip, or voyage.’ Thus, if you so desire, it’s perfectly legitimate to go on safari down to the corner store for a loaf of white bread. Or for that matter, to the neighborhood watering hole for a bottle of ‘Safari’, a lager typical of Tanzania.

That particular Safari is a popular pastime with many of the townspeople and even some of the farmers. Which brings me to reason number three: the farmers. They are not only farmers, they’re also musicians: they’re farmer-musicians.
I’m living in a small village called Igudija, about an hour by rickety Toyota outside Mwanza. Saturday will be the halfway point of my Watson Fellowship, and I couldn’t be celebrating that fact in a more perfect place. My hut is perched facing west on the edge of a granite outcrop overlooking one grand patchwork quilt of a valley, with farm plots sewn together by dirt footpaths and hedgerows of spiky aloe.

This valley is at the heart of the territory inhabited by the Sukuma, Tanzania’s most populous tribal group. Agriculuralists, the Sukuma also share the distinction of being among the most musical farmers in the world. I’m here to learn how and why they sing while cultivating their dark brown, sandy soil.

Neighbors form voluntary labor groups and work together to cultivate and weed each other’s fields. They create long furrows across their plots, called tie ridges, which can be high, at times almost knee-high. Into the tops of these furrows they plant cassava seedlings, corn and bean seeds and other crops. From our hilltop the corrugated fields look like the discarded shreds of an old English teacher’s wide-wale jackets, draped over the lumpy chaise that is the Great Rift Valley. From that perspective it looks like you could simply head out to the field with you average garden hoe, mound up some earth, whistle a tune and plant a seed. But I’ve learned the hard way that the ‘How’ of this work is not as simple as it looks (or sounds).

The choicest tool in the bag for these farmers is a large heavy hoe with a handle that comes up to mid-chest. The weight isn’t so much a problem: in fact, a heavy hoe is easier to use than a light one, because it augers into the soil under it’s own weight without being forced in by muscle.

No, the difficult part is the technical skill of knowing exactly where to plant the hoe into last year’s tie-ridge on the downstrokes, then learning just how to quickly and precisely jerk the handle up to loosen the soil properly for the cassava seedlings. Furthermore, you must learn how much soil to ‘bite off’ with each stroke. The team moves across the field very quickly — I measured about 75 row feet per person in twelve minutes for one pass across the field — so you have to get as much soil as possible without slowing the group down. And then, once you’ve grasped all that, you have to find a way to let your calculating mind relax enough to let the hoe fall into rhythm with the fifteen other hoes, all rising and falling in unison.

And of course, you have to remember the melodies to the songs and their full lyrics, which are abbreviated call and response, meaning that the song leader (Ningi) will call out the first word or two of a line and then you have to sing back the entire line to him from memory. And you have to do all of this in time with the work (or move in time with the music) so that the person hoeing the next tie ridge doesn’t slam their hoe into your heel. When someone slows down or gets out of rhythm people inevitably stop working and start yelling, because it’s dangerous to work out of time with the group — and all of the yelling leads to bad feelings and lost time in the field.

I’m apprenticing under two Ningis from two separate traditions. The first is called Magungulu, which is the name of a small, locally made bell, worn by some members of the group during cultivation as a rhythmic accompaniment to their labor. The other is called Kadete, named for the one-stringed fiddle used by the Ningi to accompany the work. He stands in the field with the workers as they turn over the soil, singing and playing along with them.

Magungulu and kadete are just two of the musical styles that cooperative farming teams group themselves under. There are at least ten other separate styles of musical farming in the Sukuma area, many with drums, others with bells or horns, some with the kadete fiddle, some a cappella and others in various combinations of the above. During the rainy season it’s common to find four or five farming teams in each village, each with a different style of music and hence slightly different cultivation practices.

A rough analogy might be if an American town of four or five hundred people had five cooperative farming teams of about seven to twenty people each, with one group playing bluegrass in the fields, one playing outlaw-country, another playing old time string-band music, one singing the blues a capella and another one Morris dancing between the furrows.

Actually magungulu is kind of like Morris dancing in that the farmers fasten fifteen bells to their wrists and then slap them against the hoe handle as they raise it over their heads in preparation for another earth-quaking hoe-strike. And did I mention dancing?

I did not. Many of these farming teams (of all of the styles) double as competitive dance teams. During the summer festival season (June/July), these teams compete in small villages and stadiums across the region to gleeful throngs of spectators. They use the time in the fields to practice songs and prepare routines filled with acrobatics, including the twirling and chucking of hoes into the air. Some styles are more acrobatic than others, and some groups are more skilled and rehearsed than others.

In short, there is so much happening here that one could easily devote a lifetime to studying the hows and whys of Sukuma musical labor —and at least one person has. Check out Frank Gunderson’s ’From “Dancing with Porcupines” to “Twirling a Hoe”: Musical Labor Transformed in Sukumaland, Tanzania’ (Africa Today v.48).

Kennet Erwin Konesni (Bennet) is an American musicologist

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