Our Daily Bread 253: Hidden Musics 4: Abatwa (The Pygmy) ‘Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’

July 11, 2017

REVIEW/FEATURE
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Various  Artists  ‘Hidden Music Volume 4:  Abatwa (The Pygmy): Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’
Glitterbeat Records,  18th August 2017

Renowned producer (and author of some note) Ian Brennan, yet again probing the furthest, most inhospitable and outright dangerous places in the world to record marginalized voices, journeys to the post genocide borderlands of Rwanda on the latest volume in Glitterbeat Records illuminating Hidden Musics series.

Taking the unmarked, haphazard, road (less traveled) to the edges of Rwanda, avoiding the animosity and embers of vengeance that still burn and remain between the country’s minority Tutsis and majority Hutu communities, Brennan visited and recorded for posterity the Abatwa tribe’s seldom heard lament, anger and incredible soulful, if raw, blues.

Though not directly involved in the ensuing genocide that followed on from the country’s apocalyptic civil war in the mid 90s – officially and despite much skeptical revisionism over the years, this genocide was started by the Hutu and carried out with terrifying savagery upon the Tutsis, the population of which, depending on the source you use, was decimated by up to 70% (that equates to between 500,000 to a million murdered, all within a matter of three months) – the Abatwa both lost around a third of its own tribe and carried out some of the attacks.

If the Abatwa name is remains mostly unknown outside Africa, that’s because, due to their limited growth, we know them better as the ‘Pygmy’. A derogatory name loaded with infamy, yet preferred by the very people it derides, the tribe rather that put-down than (as Brennan puts it) “the official PC mouthful/post-genocidal replacement: The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”

In part, those size limitations have were shaped and made worse by the fact that traditionally the tallest women in the Abatwa attracted outside attention, and were taken as wives by other tribes – one answer to the album’s rhetorical title, “Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?”


Local comedian Simbuvara photo by Marilena Delli




In this environment – described in linear notes with the signature frank, un-PC, highly informative and entertaining Brennan travelogue style – peppered with teenage breakdancers that ‘could out-battle any South Queens sidewalk challenger’, a enervated surreal ‘tag-team lounge duo playing an off-key Bob Marley medley’, and plenty of anecdotes to dispel a rafter of myths and assumptions – the hands-off field recorder finds both inspiring and veracious acts of endurance and survival.


Patrick Manishimine photo by Marilena Delli




There are a number of themes that run through both this, volume four in the series, and the previous three documentations, Hanoi Masters, Khmer Rouge Survivors and Paul Chandler’s phenomenal Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali (all of which made our albums of the year lists): including the saving of traditions and voices of communities under attack from the onslaught of modernism and erosion of cultures outside the mainstream; and drawing attention to the legacy of problems arising from war and insurrection. But there is also similarities sound wise between all four volumes; namely a form of atavistic, primal, and in my opinion the best kind, of blues, that is eerily echoed in what is one of the genres birthplaces, Mali, but can also be found ringing in the deltas of Cambodia.

Sitting in for, and one of the progenitors no doubt to the six-string, are the ragtag assembled instruments of tradition: the one-string ‘Umuduli’ and eleven-string ‘Icyembe’. Practitioners of these two stalwart attenuate instruments can be heard on the scratchy, tangled spring-y Rwanda Nzizza (Beautiful Rwanda) paean by the great soulful voiced Emmanuel Hatungimana, and the caressing, peacefully played Ihorere (Stop Crying Now) duet lament by the wife and husband duo Emmanuel Habumuremy and Ange Kamagaju.

A kind of boxed canoe turn surfboard with strings the icyembe stands almost as tall as those who pluck its reverberating, sharp spindly quiver. It’s umuduli counterpart, both far less cumbersome and mobile, does despite only having the one string and repetitive scratchy twang, provide a suitable, evocative rhythm.


Emmanuel Habumuremy (husband) & Ange Kamagaju (wife) photo by Marilena Delli




Make no mistake; this is performance in its most deconstructive raw form. Devoid of embellishments and overbearing production, recorded in situ with only the rudimentary elements and atmosphere for company, it sounds great.

And so you hear some of the most stripped and revelatory of performances that make their equivalents back in the West sound sterile and bloated in comparison. Artists such as the 19-year-old female rapper Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana who improvises vividly on the stylophone clickety-buzzing sassy, take-it-to-the-yard R&B Umwana W’umuhanda (The Child From The Streets), and the sublime but humble Beatrice Mukarungi, who leads her ‘sons’ on the spiritual chorus plaint Urwanikamiheto (War Song), perform somehow different and askewer fresh takes on the music we find familiar.

Battery powered electronics and rusty, ramshackle dusty instruments come together in hybrids that evoke ritual, the ceremonial but equally the blues, soul and hip-hop; all played with an undeniably emotional Rwandan verve and lilt.

 

Once again Brennan highlights the forgotten musical legacy and voices of a traumatized community – alcoholism and depression rife in their isolated communities; allusions made by Brennan that draw similarities with the pre-casino era American Indian reservations -, recovering in the uneasy truce of one of the 20th century’s worst genocides – and as we are all aware, it had some stiff competition in those stakes.

Hidden Musics has become an unmissable and equally important series; field recordings of hope and recovery in the face of despair.





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