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The International Writers Magazine: Review:

Singing for Life: HIV/AIDS and Music in Uganda
By Gregory Barz
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: Routledge;
ISBN-10: 0415972906
ISBN-13: 978-0415972901

Ronald Elly Wanda

The question "where were you during the millennium revelry?" has now become a historical. For me, save for the champagne I drunk on that eve, I will always remember it as the time I lost a dear aunt to the "plague". Whilst our London residence was crowded of people celebrating the dawn of what the UN ambitiously termed "Africa’s century", in Kakamega (west of Kenya) my kinfolks mourned for having lost their ‘daughter’ on the millennium.

The DJ’s strident selection of Robbie Williams’s ‘Millennium’ song, although appropriately titled, did not at all obstruct Remmy Ongala’s powerful song Kifo (death) that was concerting in my mind as I reflected on my aunt’s life and the folks she’d left behind, thousands of miles away in Western Kenya.

As such Gregory Barz’s interesting new book that I came across in the course of researching a forthcoming piece on African popular music, offers a fascinating read and its accompanying CD a harmonious listen.

In ‘Singing for Life: HIV/AIDS and Music in Uganda’, professor Barz develops six themes in his toil. He stresses the necessity of Africans to start going beyond western models of medicine, and strongly suggests the need to approach the disease as a culturally defined and socially determined phenomenon. He discusses how music is used as a strategy and response to cultural conceptualisations of HIV and AIDS in Uganda.

Unlike other armchair academics that have visited the East African peninsular in a haze and rushed back to their shores to publish inflated tales of "how poor Africans are busy dying of Aids", which makes "sensational" readings for western readers, Barz’s book instead offers a useful ethnographic account of how education about HIV/AIDS is presented to Ugandan audiences through dance, drama and music.

Working with women’s groups, Doctors, indigenous healers, since 1999, he investigates how song texts refers to HIV/AIDS, and how women suffering from HIV/AIDS have become empowered through their music, dance and drama presentations, as a result they are what he calls ‘singing for life’.

A weighty ethnomusicologist, he wrote his PhD on East African Choral Communities titled: "The Performance of Religious and Social Identity: An ethnography of Post-Mission Kwaya Music in Tanzania", in the course of and since then he has continued doing extensive field research on musical matters within the East African Community with the support of the Fulbright Foundation’s AIDS in Africa Research Program. Thus his efforts qualitatively resonate throughout the books entire 250 pages, his remarkable account of East Africa’s public health problems brings together science, history and personal experience to argue that lives can be saved by trusting musical rather than medical remedies.

As a native Bantu, I found it relatively easy to listen to the nine indigenous songs on CD that accompanies the text, although the book contains extensive translations of song texts appear throughout for the non native. Each chapter in the book contains a case study (or "interlude") that includes an interview with a specific person or persons on the subject in hand.

For example, in Chapter 2, "What you sing nourishes your body like food", the case study Dr Alex Muganzi Muganga is labelled "our problems are bigger than AIDS", referring to illiteracy and poverty. And it is easy to see why; on the global scale, Uganda is classified as a HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country) with a majority of its population living below the poverty line, or those with less than $2 a day to spend. Dr Muganga further reflects on the changing roles religious leaders have adopted, starting by making no reference to the disease, but subsequently incorporating reference into summons at church services.

Chapter 5, "Singing in a language AIDS can hear", extends the discussion on the role of religious officials in dealing with HIV/AIDS.

Chapter 3, "No one will listen to us unless we bring our drums", discusses how women have attracted men to their performances. The women’s songs provide texts on the need for HIV AIDS testing, the need for single sexual partners, and the physical indicators and consequences of the presence of HIV/AIDS. Elsewhere, another recent research by Dr Kemi Odu strengthens Barz’s observations in chapter 3; "young men in Sub-Saharan Africa find it difficult to confine themselves to one woman for period of one year. One-third of men, believe that death is inevitable, that change in sexual behaviour is unlikely to be of any help in HIV prevention and that they have uncontrollable sexual urge in spite of risky sexual behaviour"(see Research in Education Journal, May 2008).

While in the past HIV/AIDS victims were afraid to be seen in the public, the various grassroots organisations that formed have provided health support to victims, and through the arts have provided them with medical advice, support and encouragement. ‘TASO is going forward with positive living’ is a song performed by The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO) at Mulago Drama School. The theme of "re-memorying" includes charming the listener with cultural reminiscence within songs, and the insertion of favourite songs in the HIV/AIDS patients’ individual memory books, written for their children.

In conclusion, there is no African person whom I know today that can claim not to have been affected (whether directly or indirectly) by the "plague" that is marked by loss of resistance to infection. Over the past two decades, there has been no single phenomenon that has changed the face of sexuality as much as the appearance of the microscopic virus known as HIV that if not treated develops into full blown AIDS. AIDS, contrary to some western notions, is not an "African problem" but instead a global one, it is usually more naked in Africa because of what Dr Muganga has called ‘poverty’. Drawbacks of Barz’s book are that he fails to acknowledge the Uganda’s NRM regime’s efforts in the country’s war against AIDS, (currently around 6% of the population is infected as opposed to almost 30% in the late 1980s) when it came to power. Also the book lacks map to show where the individual communities with whom the research was conducted are located, lack of discussion of the various ethnic groups who live in Uganda.

© Ronald Elly Wanda
September 2008
ronald2wanda at
About the author.
Ronald Elly Wanda MCIJ is a Political Scientist based in London.
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