Today I’d like to introduce an artist I’ve known for a few years through my research in Uganda. He’s unlike any musician I’ve ever met, even those who share his profession and specialization. The story of his initiation as a particular kind of healer reveals volumes about his profession and his personality. I offer a brief version of that story to honor a musician who has dedicated his life to his family and community.
When Mzee Erukaana Waiswa Kabindi was seventeen years old, a wave of illness swept through his village, and it was particularly harsh on his clan mates. The elders, having watched their parents draw on local wisdom to cope with their problems, knew what this meant: the ancestors were discontent. Their task was to call them into their midst and know their demands that they might be placated and restore health to the community. This required a ritual called nswezi in which ab’ekika, those of the clan, came together, beat the drums, and called their ancestors through song. When they came, they possessed some of the clanmates, speaking through them to tell the rest of the clan their desires. On the day of that ritual, young Kabindi was possessed for the first time. The spirits made their demands, the clanmates offered an animal sacrifice, and the ancestors restored health and order to the community.
Above: Mzee Kabindi playing nswezi drums with his son, Kyona.
This is a common pattern for many communities throughout Uganda. Along with sacrifices, clanmates will frequently have to build small houses in which the ancestors can dwell. These massabo shrines form an integral part of many compounds in the communities where I study. When they are ill kept, the spirits demand their repair or replacement, and that work must be done before a clan can offer a proper sacrifice. This tells us a lot about an ontology or worldview situated in indigenous religion here. People see ancestors as active forces within their lives. They must take specific measures to give voice and place to these respected members of the community. When they don’t, they suffer the consequences through various forms of affliction: muteness, temporary insanity, persistent fever, headaches, or stomach aches, none of which can be treated using allopathic means (hospital medicine). That places spiritual experts in a category somewhere between indigenous clergy and medicine men.
Mzee Kabindi offering a goat for sacrifice. Directly in front of him there’s a new mini-hut that the clansmen have erected for the ancestors.
Like many who get possessed during an nswezi performance as youngsters, Kabindi continued after this ritual by studying the craft of spiritual healing with elders in the profession and becoming a full-fledged muswezi. Now a veteran muswezi with over sixty years of experience, he has returned the favor by tutoring numerous other baswezi. I was fortunate to be introduced to several of these students, which gave me the advantage of instant trust and solid rapport with those people when Mzee Kabindi introduced me as his “son.” This ethic of generosity guides everything he does, how he spends his time, and how he has built his practice.
These practices raise interesting questions about indigenous music and healing. If those illnesses can’t be treated using allopathic medicine, does that mean they only occur in communities that deal with them in this way (i.e. can ancestors cause problems outside their clan or tribe)? Is it more a matter of people not being open to healing that is inconsistent with time-honored community-based healing? I propose answers to these questions in my developing dissertation based on the cultural logic of musical healing, but for now, I’d like to know what you think!