Tonga music culturally rich

By Margaret Chinowaita, Entertainment Writer, The Daily News, Harare
Monday, 16 May 2011 17:32

HARARE - The Tonga people of Zimbabwe have over the years managed to keep their culture alive through music despite a number of factors that threaten to dishevel this ethnic clan.

A discussion on the Tonga people language and culture which was held at Book Café in Harare on Thursday night attracted people from different ethnic groups who met to share on the subject.

The discussion was led by Bulawayo based group, Basilwizi organisation that works with Tonga people.
While most Zimbabweans were not familiar with Tonga culture they seem aware of the myths surounding this unique cultural group.

Penny Yong an administrator with Pamberi Trust said the first time she listened to Tonga music she could not make what it was. "I thought it was some sort of jazz but very deep."

Frank Mudimba Director of the Basilwizi trust said Tonga music is culturally rich and is used as an advocacy tool.  "We use music as a tool for advocacy and for communication. We use music to address deep seated discontent or traditions that have become less agreeable. We sing to relay messages to leaders. We sing to celebrate a good harvest, to mourn and to give thanks to God for children."

Mudimba said the Tonga use music as a medium of communication.  The ethnic group boasts different kinds of music. But basically when singing they use drums and horns. "We use six different drums and six different horns when making our music."

Danisa Mudimba said the Tonga music is used to alert the community for different activities. She said drums are played to alert mourning and to inform people of different types of beer festivities. "The drum is beaten for a beer drinking ceremony that involves paying and a different beat for a free drinking ceremony involving farming."

Mudimba said the Tonga people know how to differentiate the drum beats. "Music is used to discourage bad behaviour. Tonga musicians create a song and sing about a bad person. This is meant as caution to the bad person. They also sing about appreciating something good that would have happened in the community. They sing to celebrate culture and for entertainment."

The Tonga people have moved with the times and women are now empowered. Cumanzala, a Tonga woman said girls were now playing drums during ceremonies a thing that never used to happen.

Cumanzala said women were great musicians in the Tonga culture as they have to compose a song for all newly born children. "When a woman gives birth she composes a song for a child and will continue singing the song until the child is around three years. Girls are also beating drums nowadays - everything has changed."

Klaus Hollinetz Austrian musician, composer, teacher, producer with a long history with Zimbabwean artists said Tonga music has opened his eyes. "Tonga music has opened my eyes that African music is not a cliché that is often talked about in the West. There is interesting drums. I have been conducting research and I learnt to rethink my personal view of African artists."

Hollinetz said there is a Sound Studio in Binga to archive its vast forms of music.

Meanwhile Mudimba said there has been preservation of language kept together by music. Archiving music through the people was a strategy that has been instituted in Binga.

The Zimbabwean Tonga people have been having cultural exchanges with the Tonga in Zambia. It has been notable that University of Zambia offers Tonga language and culture studies at University. The Education Act in Zimbabwe now recognises that Tonga language is going to be used in Tonga schools.

Peter Kuthan, Chairperson of the Austria-Zimbabwe Friendship Association said his country held exchange programmes with the Tonga music groups and they were stuck by the richness of the music. 

The Tonga people who inhabit the areas in the Zambezi Valley on Zimbabwe’s northern border, are descended from those who were forcibly removed from their homes and fields in the valley in 1957 to make way for the rising waters of the mighty Zambezi River after the filling of Kariba Dam.

The dam brought hydro-electric power and wealth to the country, but passed over those who were displaced, leaving them in the dark ages of exclusion for some decades after.

Having lost everything their culture survived strongly as a driving force of self-assertion, resilience and development.

In 1995 Kunzwana Trust under Keith Goddard, composer, cultural and human rights activist, explored the Binga area to seek out the ngoma buntibe music of the Tonga.

In partnership with the Austria-Zimbabwe Friendship Association led by Peter Kuthan, the discovery led to national and international exposure of the fascinating music culture and rich cultural exchange with Austrian musicians, culminating in the powerful Tonga music.

Sadly, Keith Goddard passed away in October 2009, but he left a rich legacy of projects and achievements in the cultural and civil society field.

After his death, the project was taken over by Basilwizi Trust which now manages its operation in Binga, and Pamberi Trust adopted the ‘Kunzwana project’ for inclusion of Tonga music and other Zimbabwean music cultures for development and exposure.