The Tanzania Albinism Collective

Persecuted: Tanzanians with albinism face severe stigma and the threat of physical violence. (Tony Karumba/AFP)

Persecuted: Tanzanians with albinism face severe stigma and the threat of physical violence. (Tony Karumba/AFP)

It’s not easy for people with albinism in Tanzania. Quite the opposite: their problems are immense, and some are life-threatening. Since 2000, at least 75 have been murdered, and others have been maimed, for their body parts, which are valuable in traditional medicine.

Other difficulties may be less corporeal, but no less deeply felt. Music is yet another area of Tanzanian communal life from which people with albinism are routinely excluded.

“Singing has been my deepest, secret love since I was a little boy,” said Hamidu Didas (27), a person with albinism who lives on Ukerewe Island on Lake Victoria. He had little choice but to sing in secret, because he was discouraged from joining the choir or singing in church.

Enter Ian Brennan, a world music producer. He and his wife, Marilena Delli, have spent the past decade seeking out regions or populations that are underrepresented musically. Their most recent venture took them to the maximum-security Zomba Central Prison in Malawi. The music made by the inmates there was so good that the resulting record was nominated for a Grammy award.

For several years, Brennan had been contemplating a project on Urekwe Island, which is known as a haven for people with albinism in Tanzania. But he only went ahead with it last year after receiving encouragement from local groups and nongovernmental organisations.

He had no idea of the extent to which local stigmas were going to complicate the project. “The community put out a notice, saying, hey, does anyone want to do this? Eighteen people came forward. We did not know that the majority of them said that they had been discouraged from singing or dancing, even in church. We weren’t starting from zero, which we thought we were doing, but we were starting from negative — people had actively shut down their musicality,” he said.

This was especially evident in the way the volunteers danced. “We saw an incredible level of rigidity in almost every person. That kind of rigidity you see in the West when your uncle gets pushed on the dance floor,” Brennan said.

They danced like white people.

Among the 18 volunteers, now known as the Tanzania Albinism Collective, was Didas. “The music project is a safe place to voice my feelings through singing,” he said.

Another volunteer, Riziki Julius, said: “I love music. I enjoy the opportunity to express myself through singing. The music project showed us we could do things that we never thought possible.”

Brennan handed out instruments and encouraged the new band members to take them home. When they returned, he would ask them to sing something they had written. Some of these songs made it on to a record, titled White African Power, which will be released in early June by San Francisco-based Six Degrees Records.

The track list tells its own story. Track 1: Life is Hard. Track 8: Tanzania is Our Country, Too. Track 10: I Am a Human Being. Track 16: Stigma Everywhere. Track 18: Never Forget the Killings.

Didas wrote the song My Life, which was not chosen for the final cut. “My parents abandoned me, because I look the way I do/ They said I’m not their child — that I belong to the whites,” he sings.

Poignant lyrics aside, the success of the record will depend on the quality of the music.

“The Tanzania Albinism Collective’s story alone is not enough. The songs must stand on their own. And these come as close to fully realising an aesthetic as any album that I have recorded in my 30 years of record-making,” Brennan said. “It would be convenient, but misguided, to dismiss this all too readily as a novelty and miss the point entirely of just how avant-garde and original the sounds that these artists have made are.” 

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