Dec 29, 2011

Batwa: Musicians Use Song And Dance To Connect To Heritage

Musician Francis Sembarage now represents his community in the local council.

This article has been published by Africa Review:

Near the town of Kisoro, in the far south-west of Uganda, lies the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The dense forests at the foot of the Virunga Mountains was for more than 4,000 years home to the Batwa people, hunters and gatherers and fierce warriors who depended on the forest for shelter, food and medicine.

To find this community also renowned for their musical heritage, one takes a gruelling trip to Birara village, some 23 kilometres up the mountain from Kisoro, past the beautiful lakes nestled among the green hills.

This is where you find the Birara Dancers, led by the legendary musician Francis Sembagare, who is regarded as a custodian of the culture of the community. Despite the constantly pouring rain in these parts, it does not take much persuasion for the group to launch into song and dance. They perform a welcoming set with the energetic Sembagare going through the motions of a warrior dance, jumping, hunting and flying.

The 49-year-old father of seven, who is an amazing visual performer, has through his status as the musical leader of his community been chosen to sit on the county council of Kisoro representing the Batwa.

The Batwa tribes, who number about 10,000 people in this part of Uganda, were displaced from their forest homes by the Ugandan Government in 1991 to conserve the national parks for the mountain gorillas. Most of them now live on the periphery of their ancestral forestlands. The women sing saying that ‘the Batwa used to live in the forest under grass huts, but now they live near the streets under tin roofs.’

 “In every song, you will hear them mention the forest because that is where they make their livelihood,” says Henry Neza who has been on the forefront of the campaign to highlight the cause of the community through the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU).

Curiously, each of the Batwa women seems quite comfortable singing and dancing with a child strapped on their back. Seemingly every Batwa child literally grows up surrounded by music as their mothers sing and dance, stomping their feet on the ground in rhythmic fashion.

Besides being an all round musician who sings, plays drums and the six stringed harp called 'inanga', Sembagare is the cultural bridge between the past and the future of his people. As chairman and trainer of the community’s group of performers, it is his responsibility to ensure that the musical heritage of the Batwa does not fade into oblivion.