An experimental approach to developing music literacy in central Zaire
Cultural background: Motivation for the project
Kananga is a city of about 300,000 people, and serves as the capital of the West Kasai province of the Republic of Zaire. The dominant ethnic group is the Bena Lulua, who speak the Tshiluba language. They share this language with the Luba-Kasai of the East Kasai province, and are related to the Luba-Shankadi of the Shaba (or Katanga) province.
Like many cities, Kananga is a multicultural environment. Many smaller ethnic groups have enclaves in different parts of the city, and there is frequent contact with Lingala speakers from the capital, Kinshasa. During the colonial period, Kananga also had a sizable European population which was predominantly Belgian. After independence in 1960, the European population declined considerably, but its influence lives on. Currently, there are very few Europeans still in Kananga, and most who remain are missionaries or relief workers.
The musical landscape reflects this diversity of cultural influences. The soukous of Kinshasa are commonly heard on radio and cassette and are very popular. Zairean artists such as TPOK, Zaiko Langa-Langa, and the Kasai's own Tshala Muana are well known in Kananga, and their lyrics encompass at least three languages. Occasionally, one also hears the music of European or American artists in Kananga, but very rarely, and their influence is far less than that of the Kinshasa artists.
The traditional music of Zaire is also present in Kananga, but you have to know where to find it. It is much more prevalent out in the rural areas where there is less competition from the pop music. But the traditional marimba, thumb piano, and drum are never far from the people's musical sensibilities, because they are the roots of the Kinshasa sound. I have heard traditional marimbists playing songs in a village that I had also heard on Tshala Muana's albums, and wondered who had borrowed what from whom.
Another significant musical influence has been the Christian churches. The first permanent missionary in the Kasai regions was a black American named William Henry Sheppard. He and his partner, Samuel Lapsley, were sent out by the Presbyterian Church (US), the so-called Southern Presbyterian Church, and arrived in the spring of 1891. In time, the missionary effort grew to include over a hundred missionaries and the Bible was published in Tshiluba early in this century. Eventually, the work took on its own national identity as the Presbyterian Church of Zaire. Currently, between 50 and 80 percent of the population of Zaire claims some affiliation with Christianity in one form or another.
As has been the case in many areas of the world, the missionaries brought their American church music with them to Africa. About 50 years ago, the Presbyterian missionaries published a hymnal for use in the churches in the Kasai. It consisted entirely of western hymns translated into Tshiluba and notated in standard Western staff notation. Other songbooks were published in French, and some used tonic sol-fa instead of staff notation, but all were of introduced songs.
In recent decades, however, the church has become almost entirely contextualized to the Kasaian culture. It operates autonomously, elects its own leaders, and also composes its own music. Many of the churches have several choirs and compose new music every week. There is a lot of musical creativity going on in the Kasaian churches, led almost entirely by Kasaian composers and musicians.
Unfortunately, after a while it became difficult to remember all this music. The words could be written down, but not the melodies. Soon people realized that their new compositions were being forgotten, or remembered inaccurately. As a result, a felt need for music literacy arose among certain church musicians.
Initially, church composers and musicians approached missionaries with requests for assistance in learning staff notation. This was attempted, but with only minimal success. The Zairean public schools also introduce students to both staff notation and tonic sol-fa briefly in the third grade, but very few people are able to function effectively in either system. Staff notation has many features that are misleading, needlessly complicated, or inappropriate for notating Kasaian music. Alternative ways of preserving and disseminating the locally composed hymns needed to be developed in order to respond to the expressed needs of the people. We decided to experiment with devising a new notation system that would simply, yet accurately, notate Kasaian music as it really is, and not as it had been squeezed into a foreign notation system.