They sang and danced, extolling the virtues of African traditions and language, and praising Africans who defend their culture.And neither the poor public address system nor the drone of engines of vehicles going through Uhuru Park and drowning out voices could deny the group the attentive audience whose eyes and ears appeared to be glued on them.OGOVA ONDEGO brings you the story.
Parapanda Theatre Lab Trust, the most sought after artistes in East Africa, had come to Nairobi to participate in Storytelling and Dance (SANDD) festival organised by the Theatre Company.Footsteps Dance Company of Uganda and Kenya’s Theatre Company also participated but Parapanda stole the show as they appeared to connect with hearts directly through their performance in Kiswahili.
From Nairobi, Parapanda headed straight to Bagamoyo Art Festival while Footsteps went to Mbarara.Mgunga mwa Mnyenyelwa, the artistic director and chairman of Parapanda said their goal is to preserve and popularise Kiswahili poetry and story-telling through music. This has won them numerous fans all over Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Kenya.Parapanda are known for their development campaigns in Tanzania where they provide training, organising theatre events, producing educational films and music cassettes.They are best known in Tanzania for their Kiswahili poetry album, Tangulia Mwalimu and Jahazi single. Their second poetry album was expected last month (October 2002).
Mwa Mnyenyelwa says they had noticed that Kiswahili poetry was dying and hence their aim of helping poipularise and keep it alive in the community.”While teachers do not emphasise the teaching of poetry, college students do not tackle poetry in national examinations,” Mwa Mnyenyelwa said, adding thatPutting Kiswahili poetry is sang and not merely recited. “We put mashairi to music and dance in order to appeal to the public. Living arts, storytelling, music, and dance are brought to life in performance.
That is why we have blended them,” Mwa Mnyenyelwa explains.He says the 12 members of his Parapanda group use these genres of art to not only express their values, traditions, fears, aspirations, and dreams but also to preserve their culture.Combining words, sounds, and language patterns with gestures (voice, face, hand, torso), they create a creatively imaginative shared human experience. Mumbi Kaigwa of the Theatre Company said her group would aspire “to do performances with more music in them like our Tanzanian brothers.”
Asked whether it was not their medium of communication that endeared them to audiences (The Theatre Company and Footsteps performed in English in a public park where Kiswahili or Sheng would have been more appropriate), she said it was “more of who Parapanda are rather than the language issue. “They are very focused about who they are whereas we in Kenya are trying to be both modern and traditional and we don’t know where to belong.”
Kaigwa added that Parapanda–unlike their Kenyan and Ugandan counterparts– “have had a long tradition of using music and dance. They are essentially more African than the rest of us. You can feel it in their performance.” Parapanda use mainly traditional African instruments–zeze, steel pans (mapipa), ngoma, marimba, filimbi, cow horn. They also mix them with a few modern ones like the violin and the xylophone. Good as they may be, Parapanda could excite religious controversy over their Shujaa wa Jando (unsung heroes) story which appears to glorify the Mnazi tree to the level of worship. Men and women kneel before it out of recognition of its importance in the lives of coastal communities.
But this would hardly be the first time they would be courting controversy.Their Tangulia Mwalimu album eulogy to Ju;ius Nyerere, the late founding father of the Tanzanian nation, caused a furor in the wake of his death. Religious leaders took exception to the call “tuimbe wimbo wa Arusha” (we sing the 1966 Arusha Declaration). They were also offended by the lyrics of the song that say Nyerere is a hero who will be catapulted to the court of African political greats like Patrice Lumumba of Congo Kinshasa, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya where he would be honoured for chamioning the African cause.
So what makes the Tanzanian art scene to be more vibrant than that of Kenya or Uganda?Mwa Mnyenyelwa attributes this to the diversity of cultural backgrounds of the country.”Tanzania has more than 120 tribes, each of which has more than three dances and numerous art forms,” he says. ” Tanzanians are closer to their traditions and roots than their Kenyan and Ugandan brothers. Tanzanian artistes improvise as they have no national arts infrastructure like the national theatres in Kenya and Uganda.
This makes us more innovative and self-reliant.” Parapanda, who began 1994, have until recently been living off gate collection and theatre-for-development work commissioned by non-governmental organisations. Now that their group has become a trust, it will now receive grants from donors and then its members, full time artists, will receive a monthly allowance.Mwa Mnyenyelwa is critical of ‘project theatre’ that targets developmental issues like environmental and health concerns.
“Parapanda does this in order to survive,” he said last July.”We are now recording our work in order to earn a living from it.”Tangulia Mwalimu was their first album while another one was expected in October. “We record in order to make a living. “The public was unhappy with Mwalimu at the befinning but later changed their minds and But have they weathered the storm over Tangulia Mwalimu?He says the public are now buying the six-track album.Jahazi, a single, is also selling and being aired on radio. Besides composing their own songs (Mwa Mnyenyelwa does it), Parapanda also performs compositions of the late Shaaban Robert (Titi la mama li tamu) and Zakaria Mkiwa (Msi Wivu).
“We perform both traditional and free verse to keep abreast of the times and preserve our culture,” Mwa Mnyenyelwa says.He calls for more collaboration among artists in East Africa. “Why do we pride ourselves in traveling to Europe and America when we know little or nothing at all about our brothers and sisters across our borders?” he poses. Co-founding directors of Parapanda Arts Trust are Mona Mwakalinga (a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam) and Mwa Mnyenyelwa.