ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona


 

Tanzania Albinism Collective  ‘White African Power’
Six Degrees Records, 2nd June 2017

If anyone is perturbed, fear not as the man behind this slightly ironically entitled White African Power album, guiding hand and producer extraordinaire Ian Brennan, puts us straight:

“As one of the most persecuted groups on the planet, when a member of the Albinism community in Tanzania – especially one who has been relocated by the government for his own physical protection – asserts his “power”, it should not be denied. And if anyone has earned the right for the use of irony, it is those that have suffered such atrocities and ostracism from birth, yet still manage to endure.”

In so many respects a “spiritual follow-up” to Brennan’s Grammy Award-nominated Zomba Prison Project and follow-on from the equally evocative and raw Hanoi Masters sessions, White African Power attentively and respectfully draws out the repressed voices of the Albino community in Tanzania. Brennan’s productions often serve as a kind of hands-off form of creative counseling and healing; helping people to overcome trauma, such as the survivors of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. He’s renowned for being the most inconspicuous of in the field and on location producers, letting the atmosphere and elements, the moment if you like, and even serendipity bleed into the performances he captures for posterity. And the production methodology used for this latest project, recording the songs of the standing Voice Community of Ukerewe, is no different.

As superstitions still prevail in many parts of east Africa, none more so than in Tanzania, the albino community are ghoulishly hunted down or ostracized. If they’re lucky, they make it to sanctuaries such as the Ukerewe Island retreat: dumped for their own safety by families and the government but also abandoned. If they’re unlucky than they will find a much more horrendous fate is in store for them, pursued, murdered and dismembered for their limbs by those who believe that an albino’s body parts have magical properties. However you look at it, albinos in Tanzania are shunned and persecuted: one of the most common insults being that they, “belong to the whites”, or worse, that they are demonic.

A safe haven, Ukerewe, where Ian travelled to in 2016 to document their plight, is the largest inland island in Africa, only reachable by a four-hour ferry ride. Its community is, hardly surprising, haunted by their experiences. Self-conscious, avoiding eye contact, it proved a difficult task for the producer to encourage his subjects to open up. But open up they did, and the results are often surprisingly melodious, poetic, and diaphanous if raw and emotional. Far from a harrowing catalogue of despair and pity, the 23 recordings on this collection prove illuminating.





Though sung in the “discouraged and censored” (following unification in 1964) dialects of Kikirewe and Jeeta, the English translated song titles will leave you in no doubt as to each one’s message and lament: from disbelief at their treatment, on the Casio keyboard preset backed alternative 80s, sweet but troubled, The World Has Gone Mad, and the double-bass trembled Stop The Murders, to the hope and calls for normality on the mysterious sounding electric-guitar blues I Will Build A Home, Someday, and the harp-plucked music box serenaded Happiness.

Another indictment if needed on those perpetrators and a population that have harassed and murdered them, other titles sadly reflect tragic insights into their lives: Stigma Everywhere, They Gossiped When I Was Born, Standing Voices (Once, I Was Abandoned). And as though any right-thinking decent human being needed it, there’s a jolting reminder that Disability Is Not A Curse.

 

Fitting no obvious style, these amorphous performances do however resonate both with the delta blues of Louisiana and the stark, stripped down and earthy blues of South East Asia. Touches of raw African dusty tradition do appear, ascending and descending alongside gospel and soulful voices, naturally echoed, sighed and open-heartedly sung with a pure vulnerability. They’re accompanied either by stark lo fi electric guitar performances, that range from scratchy, straggly proto-punk to slower scrabbly emotive twangs, or an acoustic backing of rubber-band and bottle shaking percussion. Standing out production wise though is the classical – imagine Brahms on harpsichord transferred to East Africa in the 80s – reverberating cradling deep soulful ballad, Never Forget The Killings.

 

Ian Brennan coaxes another startling, eye opening, set of recordings from the victims of trauma; one that proves every bit as impressive as it does plaintive and sad. The collective will astonish, if not surprise listeners, those suppressed voices, thankfully released and given an international platform, sound emotionally honest and revelatory.

Released just ahead of the U.N.’s International Albinism Awareness Day on June 13th, the voices of White African Power can also be seen at this year’s WOMAD festival this summer (July 27-30th).


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