Songs from Tanzania’s island of albinos
Wagulu has albinism, a genetic condition which in her home country Tanzania brings with it a host of dangers.
The greater fear, however, comes from humans, both strangers and family alike.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, living with albinism carries great stigma.
Some of Ukerewe’s albinos were rescued from communities for their own protection. Others were abandoned by parents. A four-hour ferry ride from Mwanza on the mainland, together they have found refuge in relative isolation, says Ian Brennan, who listened to Wagulu’s story, among others, in the summer of 2016.
Ukerewe brought a change of fortune for the young woman.
“I have always lived a very lonely life,” she admits, “until I found a boyfriend who also has albinism like myself.”
Brennan, a Grammy-winning world music producer, and his wife, filmmaker Marilena Delli, visited Ukerewe in collaboration with Standing Voice.
The freedom to sing
The purpose of Brennan’s journey was to hold music workshops on the island, and record some of the sessions. What he hadn’t realized was that some of the albinos he met had never sang in their life. They’d been forbidden to, particularly in church.
“They’d been denied even that basic freedom,” he says. “The thing that is so shocking about that is that’s the one area of free speech or emotional expression people have (always) been allowed. Even in times of slavery in America, there was often one or two hours a week when people were allowed to express themselves in worship.”
Out of the island’s albino community, a core group of 18 men and women emerged, ranging from 24 to 57 years old, which included Wagulu.
In the months prior to Brennan’s visit they met every week and over time found their voices, but the instruments he’d sent ahead of him had remained in their boxes.
“On a pragmatic level, when I got there I was starting from zero,” he explains. His diverse ensemble, now called the Tanzania Albinism Collective, sang mostly in Swahili, but also local dialects, which remain well-spoken on the island.
Accompanying their vocals, Brennan’s equipment, now unboxed, but also improvised instruments, including sledgehammer snares, straw broom high hats and a 6-foot rainwater container acting as a bass drum.
Brennan describes the “scar tissue” his students had to work through making it. You can hear it in the titles — “They Gossiped When I Was Born,” “Never Forget the Killings” — and in the lyrics, mostly written and performed by the same individual.
“My Life” is sung by 28-year-old Hamidu Didas: “My parents abandoned me, / because I look the way I do. / They said I’m not their child — / that I belong to the whites.” Later he screams “leave me alone!” in his mother tongue in “Stigma, Everywhere.”
To the producer, its “raw aggression … so deserved and justified,” is the sound of a “man asserting himself for the first time ever.”
“I wouldn’t expect most people to like it,” the producer says, but to him “it’s quite moving.”
“I think it’s quite beautiful … their courage artistically and what they’re expressing, I’m humbled by it.”
No stranger to social advocacy
“(I’m) very guarded about what popular culture can do,” he offers, as a caveat. “Things change based on process not events, but I see this as an opportunity to drop one more grain of sand on the right side of the scales.”
“Here we are on the stage,” sings Thereza Phinias, “Tanzania Albinism Collective members, / Far across the ocean, / we are shaken by the waves.”
Written on a Tanzanian island and soon to be performed half a world away, the collective will be hoping their message makes waves of its own back home.