The Singing Wells field visit to Uganda in November 2011 was to record the music of the Batwa people.
Here we introduce you to the first Batwa community we met on that memorable trip – The Birara
Our story: Singing Wells & The Birara Community
We left Kisoro in the early morning to travel to the Birara community. The journey by road took about one and a half hours – a distance of about 35km. Just outside Kisoro we picked up an elderly lady from the Birara community who was walking the long, mainly uphill route back to the village. This was one of our first lessons about the Batwa – many of the communities live a long way from town and have to make this arduous journey to buy provisions two or three times a week.
The Birara Community live on a small plot of borrowed land at the top of a steep hill. We parked on the track a the bottom of the hill and carried all the recording equipment up a narrow path to the top. It was hard work- and we needed the help of one of our Batwa host to carry the generator – but the view, and the warm welcome from the whole community when we got to the top made the climb well worth it.
The community music group is called the Birara Dancers and they are led by Francis Sembagare. There are three principal female vocalists in the group, Jolly Naiti, Paskazia Nyirakarombo and Vastina Ayinkamiye. Here they are…..
The group performed seven songs for the Singing Wells project, each with its own unique meaning and dance.
- ‘Bashitsi bahire we syewe mwese murakaza’ – a welcome song.
- ‘Iyenzagwa ndagwagwana’ – a song about having the determination to achieve something important even if you are weak or sick. You will be able to make it.
- ‘Mukadata muto ya yampaye akabindi’ – a song about the jealously between a woman and her step-daughter. She sends the girl to fetch water from the well knowing there is a tiger in the forest which may harm her.
- ‘Shiramugasabo’ – a song from parents asking friends and guests to put something in the basket for their hungry children.
- ‘Ikondera’ – a celebration song accompanied by horns. The whole community celebrates by joining the dance.
- ‘Umusambi’ – a song about the crane – the national bird of Uganda. The Batwa mother sings and in slow motion imitates the movements of the bird. She wears bells on her ankles to make a sound like the crane. The song is often performed at festivals or weddings.
- ‘Inanga yabatwa’ – a story-telling song. The leader gathers the community together and through the song tells stories of the Batwa traditions – the hunt in the forest and the celebrations and meal following the hunt. In this way the children learn about what it is to be Batwa and so will never forget the traditions and way of life of the ancestors.
This is Bashitsi Bahire, the welcome song which the group performed for us.
This was our first experience of the traditional music of the Batwa people and we were all overwhelmed by the quality of the performance, so before leaving the Birara we invited Francis Sembagare and the three female vocalists, Jolly, Paskazia and Vastina, to join us in Kisoro so that we could record more of their songs with the Ketebul Music artist Winyo. These recordings were for the Singing Wells project’s set of ‘Influences’ songs. One of the aims of the Singing Wells project is to make traditional East Africa music relevant to today’s artists and audiences. We want to celebrate and promote the music heritage of East Africa in a contemporary context. We are doing this with ‘Influences’.
We were staying at The Traveller’s Rest Hotel in Kisoro and the staff kindly allowed us to set up the studio under the verandah and it was there that we recorded our first ‘Influences’ session – a fusion of Batwa music from the Birara singers and contemporary music from Winyo, including ‘Imparake Yagahinga’, a song in celebration of the National Park which used to be the forest home of the Batwa.
The Birara Singers stayed in Kisoro for the next two days and the female vocalists recorded more songs with Winyo. Francis also recorded two traditional Batwa songs:
- “Inanga Nyamunini” – The Biggest Guitar’. A song often performed at a celebration event in praise of all the beautiful things in the forest – honey, medicinal herbs, small game – all the things the Batwa used to be able to enjoy when they lived in the forest.
- “Umwami” – In praise of God who gave the Batwa their homeland – the forest.
Our encounter with the Birara Dancers did not end in Kisoro. We left Uganda and headed back to Kenya for a second week of field recordings (Music of the Luo) but we could not forget the beautiful voices of the Batwa music groups. So we decided to invite a group to the Ketebul Music studios in Nairobi to record more Batwa songs and others for the the Influences series. Since our visit to Kisoro we have been in regular contact with the local NGO the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU). Their latest report to us included the following information about the Birara group:
“This is one of the communities that is still cherishing music and dance as the Batwa culture it is still leading and very creative. The community members also share the knowledge on culture and pass on the knowledge to the young ones in order to promote and preserve the Batwa culture which includes music and dance.”
Listen to the music of the Birara Dancers
This is a song recorded for the Influences series – Francis singing Inanga Nyamunini accompanied by Jesse Bukinda from Ketebul Music on guitar
This is the song ‘Uganda’ performed by the Batwa women and recorded in the Ketebul studios:
How you can help the Birara Batwa Community
The Birara Batwa continue to be an impoverished and largely isolated community. We aim to help support the community we met by sharing their music and dance through Singing Wells. You can directly support the Birara Batwa by buying our Music of the Batwa album or by donating directly to our charity, The Abubilla Music Foundation.
Buy the Music of the Batwa of Kisoro here