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Possessed by the spirit of ngoma
If you think you have mashetani (spirits) you might not want to get too close to the stage tonight – this was the gracious warning given by the indomitable Mkota Spirit Dancers from Pemba just hours before their performance on Thursday at Sauti za Busara.
Why? Because their penetrating style of drumming and dancing creates a spiritual satellite with the world beyond. If you have even the slightest presence of mashetani, they will most certainly be invoked through the beating of their drums, their decisive, dramatic choreography, and the high-pitched, undulating cry of their songs. And when the spirits enter the corporeal world, there’s no telling what kind of joy or wildness they might unleash.
Under the shade of a tall tree within the Old Fort, I sat down to talk with Mkota’s director, Iddi Juma Haroun, and his energetic ensemble of fourteen, along with Bibi Hamida Mohammed Abdalla, Pemba’s representative for the Office of Culture and Traditions. The Mkota group is an eclectic mix of men and women of all ages with vibrant, warm personalities who all share a passion for their deep cultural and musical roots. Hailing from the Mkoani area of Pemba, Unguja’s sister island, the group has performed their ngoma ya asili since 1978 and their pride lies in the fact that these ancestral dances have not changed at all in the passing years.
The origins of the dance are rooted in Pemba’s intimate and extensive connection with the spirit world. If you are struck with illness or bad luck, some Zanzibaris believe in the interference of mashetani who enter the body or person and cause all kinds of disturbances. A visit to a knowledgeable fundi or mganga (local healer) can confirm the presence or absence of spirits. He or she will often perform a variety of “treatments” or rituals to communicate with the spirits, appease them, and convince them to release the sick person from their suffering.
Drums are central to the process as they are often a direct line of communication with the spirit world. There are various spirit cosmologies followed by the people of Unguja and Pemba (Zanzibar) but Mr Juma informed me that the Mkota Spirit Dancers communicate mostly with the Kumbwaya spirits, who are from Pemba and who have interacted with the people of Pemba from the beginning of time. The Kumbwaya spirits are known for making dramatic possessions, biting the neck or belly button of those whom they want to possess.
Kheri Yussuf, director of the Swahili Performing Arts Centre, is building a close relationship with Mkota Spirit Dancers and has worked to promote them. He says they recently had to stop a '100% Zanzibari' series performance in Nungwi because the audience was “getting out of control. It was too out of hand. There were audience members slithering like snakes or looking to bite children’s necks.”
Mkota’s performances are a potent mix of music and medicine, but the group members themselves assure me that audience members should have no fear. Their songs, originally meant to exorcise and heal, are still used for this purpose but have also shifted to the performance realm more recently. Bi Hamida explains that the group now performs for weddings and official government openings, where there is not necessarily a sick person to heal, but rather, that these rituals, steeped in drum, dance, and song, are showcased as Pemban musical tradition.
Hayan, Msabaha, and Hamis, all dancers in the group, insist that there is no tension between the original intentions of ngoma and showcasing it as entertainment in a festival setting quite removed from the healer’s realm. They shouted “happiness!” with exuberance when asked how they feel about performing for large crowds and festivals. They are positive that audience members will be absolutely moved by the power of their dance. One boasted that the group had gone to an Arab state to perform where the audience completely fell down from exhaustion and joy during the performance. When asked how the spirits react to their performances in non-spiritual settings, Msahaba explains that the spirits enjoy being part of large festivals like Sauti za Busara because the music itself is a gift that they enjoy and celebrate.
For many years Mkota Spirit Dancers have remained relatively unknown to the world outside of Pemba, but they are well loved by local communities. Although there are similar groups who perform ancestral ngoma, Mkota stands out for their determination and devotion to ngoma as an artform, often rehearsing together up to six hours a day.
And now, thanks to initiatives like 100% Zanzibari, which aims to celebrate, showcase, and preserve Zanzibar’s rich cultural histories and traditions, groups like Mkota Spirit Dancers are making their debut at the festival this year.
Iddi, the director, is very grateful for the Swahili Performing Arts Centre’s commitment to linking artists and musicians across Unguja and Pemba to exchange ideas and learn from each other’s incredible wealth of cultural expertise. He and his ensemble are also grateful for the chance to perform at Sauti za Busara because he believes that the main point is to preserve and showcase the truest, most original examples of Pemban ngoma. He and his group are eager to see and learn about other styles of music at the festival but still hold strong to the belief that their ngoma is “the best music there is” because it is most intricately linked to their culture and identity.
On Thursday night, the Mkota Spirit Dancers stole the show with a riveting, energetic, and impassioned performance of “Uganga Ukuu”, which featured both dancers and drummers adorned with white body masks and a mix of traditional dress and contemporary dress. Exhilarating, polyphonic percussive beats sent us all flying into dance mode.
On stage, the fundi carried his bull horn, imbued with the power to receive the spirit world, and circled the possessed. In the middle of the performance, a Kumbwaya spirit appeared and began talking to the audience, asking where he was and what we were all doing there. We witnessed this otherworldly communication, along with the killing of a sacrificial chicken killed on behalf of “others who got possessed (during the performance) on stage and elsewhere", explained Mahsin Basalama, artistic director of the Swahili Performing Arts Centre. “Otherwise there would be unrest and it could cause some physical problems like headaches and so on.”
If any of us were possessed that night, it was by the sheer energy, spirit, and generosity of Mkota group. Described as the most energetic ngoma group on Zanzibar, Mkota transported and released us into the realm of pure raha – pure joy.