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Habibu Selemani, Tanzania (c. 1929-93)

In 1952, the late South African musicologist Hugh Tracey wrote the following memorable words regarding Habibu Selemani:

It was here (i.e. chief's court at Kabale in Bukoba, Tanzania) that we found our next outstanding African artist, named Habibu bin Selimani. . . . Chief Gabriel Rugabandana was very keen for us to record his zither player who, he said, was the best singer of legends in all of the Haya country. Our subsequent recording of the legend, which accredited their tribal origin to the spirit of the Lake, was a masterpiece of narration. It lasted about fifteen minutes and the reciter was word perfect throughout, the accompaniment of his seven-string deep-toned zither giving an appropriate air of solemnity to the whole performance. ("Recording Tour" 47)

This assessment of Habibu Selemani by a man who only met him once and was, moreover, a stranger to the culture that Habibu Selemani represented, is a good indication of Habibu Selemani's stature as a musician even at that early stage in his career--there was no mistaking the fact that here was a great, budding artist. And Tracey was well-placed to make an informed judgment: he and his team had traveled all over eastern and southern Africa recording traditional music, and Bukoba was among their last stops in their musical odyssey. Tracey's assessment of Habibu Selemani is still true today--two years after the latter's death in 1993. As I look back on his repertoire and listen to his many surviving records, I realize that Selemani was a talented master of enanga epic performance who was hardly surpassed during his lifetime, and is unlikely to be surpassed later (since the tradition itself is now dying out and is no longer attracting youthful talent).

The Interlacustrine Region, embracing parts of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, has many characteristics that make it a single cultural entity. In the first place, most of the inhabitants of the region share common origins (they share clans) and a common history. Secondly and most important, they speak similar languages, several of which (e.g., Runyoro, Rutooro, Runyankore, Rukiga, Runyambo, and Luhaya) are probably dialects of a single language. Thirdly, and not least, the region's dominant musical instruments are the drum and the enanga (trough zither). And of course, with the enanga zither there is the enanga heroic poetry tradition.

In precolonial times, the Tanzanian part of the region had a number of kingdoms. Those which concern us here are the eight former Bahaya and Banyambo kingdoms of the present-day Kagera region: Bugabo, Ihangiro, Karagwe, Kiyanja, Kiziba, Kyamutwara, Maruku, and Missenye. Karagwe was inhabited by the Banyambo; the other kingdoms were inhabited by the Hayas (or "Bahaya").

Habibu Selemani (alias Habibu Rajani Gwakubabenda) was born in the kingdom of Kiziba, in a village known as Lukurungo (about 16 km from Bukoba town off the Bukoba-Kampala Road). The year was 1928 or 1929--Habibu himself was not quite certain of the date. His father, Selemani, was probably one of the first generation of Muslims in the area, which means that he was most likely a trader, since many Bahaya traders in those days became Muslims in the course of their trading safaris outside the region. The Selemanis belonged to the Abakyaija clan, which is to say he was a "commoner" within the traditional social hierarchy. His mother was a Muzibakazi, i.e., a member of the Luo Bito clan that ruled Kiziba. She was a spirit medium and died only a few years ago.

Habibu never went to school. He could neither read nor write and could barely sign his name. Though a Muslim, he never even attended the Koranic school, where he would at least have learned to read Arabic. He was thus a true and undiluted oral artist. The bard grew up in Lukurungo village. Lukurungo was then a leading center of enanga tradition in Kiziba and boasted of some of the leading Kiziba bards of the early twentieth century, namely, Njuma, Makwaruzi, and Rutahindurwa Nyabushaija (Lukuuka). These bards constituted what one may call the "Lukurungo school" of enanga tradition. Their patron was the rich aristocrat Lukuuka olwa Kagasha, who was also Rutahindurwa's father. After the death of Lukuuka, probably in the early '20s, his son Rutahindurwa, himself an accomplished bard (he was also recorded by Tracey in 1950), continued to host enanga performances. As a child, Habibu was in daily attendance at these performances, and in the process acquired the art of the Lukurungo masters, whom he was later to surpass.

By the time he was 13, Habibu was already performing enanga. Later, he left Lukurungo and moved to a nearby village called Bugandika--his maternal village--where he settled permanently until his death. He never had a plot of land of his own in Bugandika, since by the Haya patriarchal tradition a child could not inherit property belonging to his maternal clan. Hence, he lived on a plot belonging to his mother, and after his death the plot reverted to his mother's brothers, thus leaving his wife and children destitute.

In the mid-1940s, Habibu moved to the court of Omukama (chief) Gabriel Rugabandana at Kabale, where Tracey was to find him in 1950. At Kabale, the young bard came into contact with the "Kabale School" of enanga poetry. The Kabale School had a different royal epic repertoire from that of the Lukurungo School; theirs was a Kyamutwara repertoire centering on the heroic exploits of the Kyamutwara Bankango rulers, i.e, Kitekere (c. 1820-50), his son Kaitaba (c. 1860-88) and his grandson, Muntu (1901-16). At Kabale, Selemani came into contact with the then leading Kyamutwara and Bugabo bards: Kabyoma Mashulano, Abdallah Feza Ibrahim, and others. These bards had received their training under the tutelage of the most famous Kyamutwara bard of this century, Magangala ga Bwile (c. 1870-1939). The versatile young bard soon learned the repertoire of his hosts and added it to his already considerable Kiziba repertoire. In time he was to surpass some of his teachers, especially in his playing of the zither, as Abdallah Feza readily admitted to the present writer.

In the mid-'50s, Selemani was invited to Nairobi by a recording company, where he recorded several performances and was paid a lump sum of Sh. 50 (equivalent to about US $10 at the exchange rate of the time). He never received any royalties.

Selemani remained in Kyamutwara, playing at the court and in people's homes and pubs, until the early '60s, when the traditional chiefdoms were abolished and the bards lost royal patronage. He returned to Kiziba and settled at Bugandika village, from which he used to travel to Bukoba town and other places to perform for a small fee. In 1961, he was among the traditional artists from Bukoba who were invited to perform at the Independence celebrations in the capital, Dar es Salaam. In 1967, he was recorded by Radio Tanzania. One of his songs, the panegyric on "Lukuuka" which he had doctored for the Radio by substituting the names of Nyerere (then President of the Republic) and his Vice-President Kawawa for some of the Haya names in the poem, was a regular feature on Radio Tanzania for many years and is still aired occasionally even today. In 1970, Selemani was selected to accompany the Tanzania artistic troupe to Japan for the "Expo 70" festival.

In 1967, Selemani was recorded by the American historian and archaeologist Peter Schimdt. From that time he was continually harried by researchers, connoisseurs of traditional music, admirers, and owners of real and fake recording "studios." They all went back bearing several recorded cassettes of his performances, leaving him none the richer for his troubles. In the 1980s, the wave of researchers and recorders continued unabated.

Habibu Selemani married his first wife, Asina, probably in the late '50s. He had two children with her. They later divorced, and Habibu married his second and last wife, Janati Kokulamuka, in June 1971. She is a Muhangaza from Ngara District. With her Habibu had four children: Onesmo (b. 1982), Idrisa (b. 1987), Selemani (b. 1990), and Quraish (b. 1993). In 1988, I visited Habibu at his home and found him in good spirits. He asked me whether I wanted to record a few songs, and I said no, I only wanted to greet him and take his picture. Later, I was to regret that decision. For soon after, he fell seriously ill, apparently from kidney trouble, and could no longer perform in the way he used to.

By 1990, it was clear that he was terminally ill. I visited him in May 1992, hoping to record for the last time some of his songs for posterity. It was too late. His zither, which he had not used for two years, was unusable because the chord had been snapped by rats. I walked back to Lukurungo to borrow a zither from Rutahindurwa's grandson, who was a zither maker. I returned with the zither and handed it to Habibu, but it was poorly tuned, and his attempts to tune it were not very successful owing to his weak state. He tried to perform the "Rukiza" epic, but his fingers were too stiff for the job. He tried "Kishwaga-Marungu," but could not remember the words, as he put it. In the end, he laid down the instrument and exclaimed in resignation, "It is the end; I will never perform the enanga again!" I gave him all the money I had set aside as his fee and left his house with a broken heart. I returned to Dar es Salaam but kept in touch with the family by letter. In May 1993, I received a sad letter from his wife informing me that Habibu had died. He passed away on 12 January 1993 and was buried the next day in accordance with Islamic rites (though I was told that the Muslim community at first hesitated to bury him because he had not been living as a good Muslim; indeed at one time he had claimed to have converted to Catholicism).

My first contact with Habibu Selemani was through the gramophone records made from the Hugh Tracey recordings. It was in the mid-1950s; the gramophone was then the fashionable home entertainment gadget among the more sophisticated villagers in Bukoba. One of my paternal aunts, who was living in Nairobi, Kenya, had brought one back with her, and people used to gather around it in the evenings to listen to recorded traditional and modern music. Tracey had recorded several leading bards of the day, including Habibu Selemani's Kiziba teacher, Rutahindurwa Lukuuka (who was recorded without his knowledge and raised havoc afterwards), and the accomplished zither player and reciter Abdallah Feza Ibrahim (who was born in 1915, and is still around today, though he no longer performs). I remember, as a child, sitting for hours among eager adults listening enthralled to the bards' recitation of enanga epics and ballads. I used to be particularly enchanted by Habibu Selemani's recitation of "Mugasha" (the "spirit of the Lake" that Tracey refers to above).

Then, in the early 1960s, my father married a relative of Habibu Selemani's, and, as luck would have it, one day Selemani staggered into our house carrying his zither. He was a short, stocky fellow, and appeared to be slightly bow-legged. It was about 11:00 a.m., and he was dead drunk; he had been drinking and performing in another part of our village for the whole night! I was standing outside the house, and seeing him in that state, I mistook him for a madman, and rushed into the house to tell my step-mother. She came out, saw him, and exclaimed, "You stupid child! It is not a madman; it is Habibu!" She then invited the man into the house.

The bard was too drunk to say much; he simply collapsed in the sitting room and immediately fell asleep. When he woke up some four hours later, he had completely recovered, and was quite loquacious and charming. Food was served to him, and after he had eaten, he picked up his zither and began to perform. Thus I had my first ever opportunity to witness live enanga performance. Soon neighbors gathered around, banana beer was brought and served, and my father, who was a lover of enanga, appeared to be overjoyed. The performance went on nonstop until about midnight. I still recall that he performed "Kachwenyanja" and "Mugasha" among other epics and short songs. This time it was "Kachwenyanja" that thrilled me most.

Thus it was almost by accident that I came to meet Habibu Selemani. Ten years later, as a mike-wielding university student out to disprove Ruth Finnegan's claim that the epic does not occur in Africa (Oral Literature 108), I was to follow him wherever he could be found and record his songs. I recorded him in 1973, 1974, 1978, 1980, 1983, and 1992. In time, our relationship developed into a 20-year friendship that was only terminated by his untimely death in 1993.

The enanga tradition gets its name from the trough zither that is usually used as accompaniment during performances. The origin of the zither is unknown; it is commonly found in the whole of the Great Lakes region, and even beyond. The Haya zither usually has seven strings, each string corresponding to one musical note. In reality the "strings" are actually one long cord wound around the notches of the zither. Hence, the enanga is tuned by simply pulling and tightening the cord. The earliest documentary evidence of the existence of enanga in Buhaya and Karagwe was provided by the English explorer J. A. Grant. While passing through Karagwe with John H. Speke in 1861-62, Grant met male and female performers whose accompaniment was the enanga:

Their most perfect instrument was the nanga, of seven or eight strings; it may be called national. In one of these played by an old woman, six of the seven notes were a perfect scale, the seventh being the only faulty string. In another, played by a man, three strings were a harmonious chord. These facts show that the people are capable of cultivation (sic). (183)

A German researcher at the turn of the last century, H. Rehse, mentioned and described the enanga instrument and performance, adding that "the text is of prime consideration" and "melody and text are mutually fitted" (62). The Chadwicks mentioned the widespread use of enanga in the Interlacustrine region, but regretted the fact that "Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any collection of the native oral poetry of Uganda, or any extensive collections of such poetry from any of the Northern Bantu, so far as we are aware" (574-619). Finnegan mentioned the Haya enanga epics in a footnote with the comment that they "need further published elucidation" (Oral Literature 100). D. P. Biebuyck mentioned the Haya "epic-like narratives" but apparently had no access to an enanga performance or text (7). Thus, European travelers and scholars did notice the enanga, but none of them attempted to study its music and vocal "texts."

My own study led me to the conclusion that the Haya enanga tradition probably developed endogenously in accordance with socioesthetic conditions and needs. The poems need not have been performed to the zither originally (even today some are not performed to the enanga; other instruments, such as drums, zeze (akanongoli), etc. are also used). Unaccompanied oral singing or recitation also occurs. Chronologically, we can divide enanga poems into 3 groups:

(a) timeless poems (e.g., "Mugasha" and some of the plebeian and spirits' narratives)

(b) semi-historical: e.g., "Kachwenyanja" and "Rukiza": These could be roughly dated using historical methods (e.g., dynastic chronologies)

(c) fully historical: These can be dated almost exactly (mainly historical royal epics from the 19th and 20th centuries. Also current compositions)

In the last 1000 years, Buhaya has gone through 3 major eras:

(a) The pre-Bahinda/Babito era (pre-1400): Indigenous development of clan organization, and probably the beginnings of nuclear state structures. The earliest enanga stories (if not the poems themselves) probably date from this period. The most famous ones are "Mugasha" and "Wamala." Habibu Selemani was a recognized master of the "Mugasha" epic, but he did not perform "Wamala."

(b) The Bahinda/Babito (BB) era (c. 1400-1900): Period of political-economic dominance of the BB immigrant aristocracy from Uganda. It was during this time that the enanga heroic tradition seems to have developed. It was usually centered at the BB, and later Bankango (in Kyamutwara), royal courts. Most of the extant poems date from the period between 1750 and 1900. Examples are "Mugangala," "Muhimbil'Engundu," and "Kishwaga-Marungu"-- (all three were in Habibu Selemani's repertoire).

(c) The colonial and postcolonial era (1900 to date): This was a period of collapse of the traditional framework, hence of transition into new colonially-inspired institutions, values, etc. Buhaya was incorporated into a wider Tanzanian political entity. A number of epics depicting the arrival of the German conquerors were created at the turn of the 19th century. The upheavals of the early years of this century (civil wars, wars of resistance to the Europeans, the dethroning of recalcitrant kings, problems of royal succession, the coming of the new religions, i.e., Christianity and Islam, World War I, etc.) are the usual subjects of these poems.

In the '60s and '70s, Tanzanian nationalism began to feature in enanga poetry; several epics were created on the life of Julius Nyerere, the "Father of the Nation," and on the Kagera war that toppled Idi Amin. Consequently, the Swahili language also began to be used as an alternative medium of epic performance. In the '80s and '90s, most bards of the colonial period were aging and dying, and new, younger bards were not forthcoming. In November-December 1994, Peter Seitel and I undertook a survey of the current state of enanga performance in Bukoba and Muleba Districts. We discovered that in the former kingdoms of Kiziba, Bugabo, and Kyamutwara, enanga performers have virtually disappeared. It is only in Kiyanja, Ihangiro, and Karagwe that many enanga bards are still to be found. The youngest bard that we were able to locate, Klemensi John, was 36 years old in 1994 and lives at Bigaaga Village in Ihangiro (Muleba). He claims to have studied his art under Habibu Selemani when he lived in Bugandika village as a child in the 1960s. Another promising young bard, Jason Rwezaura, died (allegedly of AIDS), in 1991(?). He was only 37 years old. The few young bards who are performing today seem to favor love songs or topical poetry that their youthful audiences want to hear.

Enanga music and performance has not yet been seriously studied by musicologists. Hugh Tracey was only a collector, although his occasional annotations on the recordings sometimes do contain useful insights on the enanga music and content. So far only Mary-Ann Hoffmann has attempted to study enanga performance from a musicological viewpoint, and she has done so solely from tape recordings since she has not had an opportunity to do field research in Tanzania. Lois Anderson of Wisconsin may also be working on enanga music, though we have not had access to her work. The principles of organization of the units of utterance (phrases, lines, etc.) in enanga are currently being studied by Seitel, a folklorist based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. My own 1987 study was more of a literary rather than musicological analysis of the tradition.

Enanga poetry may be divided into narrative and non-narrative poetry. The non-narrative poetry includes both heroic (e.g., praise poetry) and non-heroic compositions such as love poems. The narrative poetry likewise includes heroic poetry, or epics, and non-heroic poetry, sometimes designated as love stories or ballads. The heroic narratives center around the exploits of kings, heroes, and traditional spirits, and now presidents and cardinals. The non-heroic narratives are usually fictional tales depicting domestic comedies and adventures of the common people. Quite a few of them are fabulous tales about animal characters. Habibu Selemani could perform all these types of poetry, depending on the demands of the occasion.

As shown by Finnegan (Oral Poetry), Isidore Okpewho (Epic in Africa), Christiane Seydou ("Comment définir"), and other scholars of the African epic, oral poetry is generated in a given context and is very much dependent on the moment of performance for its success. A good bard is one who can assess the performance situation and manipulate it to enhance the performance. Habibu Selemani was a master of that kind of manipulation. Hence his performances were always dynamic and sensitive to the demands of the occasion.

The performance of enanga involves vocal singing or recitation and instrumental music. The performer sits on the ground facing the audience, which is usually seated in a semi-circle around him. He places the zither on the thigh of his right leg, and supports it with a resonator, usually a large calabash. The other leg is slightly raised to support the resonator. In my study of enanga poetry ("Nanga Bards"), I showed that most of the enanga "text" is not memorized, but is generated during performance. Hence no two performances of the same story give exactly the same in wording. Formulaic units are either fixed or generated from given traditional core-ideas. Hence, as M. N. Nagler has shown, two levels of operation are at work: the generative (or traditional) level and the performance (or personal creativity) level (see "Towards a Generative View" and Spontaneity and Tradition). There is no conflict between these two levels in the art of a qualified bard. Tradition operates at the deep structural level, the level of story and formula generation, while conscious, personal artistry operates at the surface, verbalization level.

My study identified three modes of delivery: the speech mode, the recitative mode, and the song mode. The speech mode is similar to ordinary speech. It exhibits high tension between the instrumental music and the voice, so that the music in this mode serves only as background setting. This mode is used mainly for explanatory parts and interpolations. The recitative mode is somewhere between speech and chant. It is characterized by high syllabic rate, high vocal register, and high tension between the voice and the instrument. The song mode is the most popular mode employed by the bards. This is characterized by solo singing. The singing could be intonative or normal. The structure of the text is very rhythmic, the vocal line fits into the instrumental line, and esthetic tension between the instrumental and the vocal music is low.

The musical aspects of Selemani's performances have been studied by Hoffmann, who is better qualified for the job than I am. My remarks here will therefore be confined to a discussion of the histrionic (theatrical) and literary aspects of Selemani's art. Sensitivity to context was the hallmark of Selemani's performing art. He was always aware that he was performing for a specific audience at a specific time and place. He always strived to contextualize the performance, to interest his audience in the performance, to retain the audience's attention. He did this through various techniques.

The first factor that Selemani exploited to the utmost was his personality. He had natural charisma and charm and made sure that these qualities were used to the fullest advantage through costuming and facial expressions (smiles, laughter, feigning anger or sternness, using eye signs, twisting of mouth, etc.). Of course he could not gesticulate with his hands because they were fully occupied in plucking the zither chords.

Another technique was involvement of the audience in the performance. This he did by introducing well-known songs at given junctures and asking the audience to sing the refrain while he sang the solo. Yet another means of involving the audience was to mention some members of the audience by name in the course of his singing. For instance, once when he was performing the epic of "Mugangala," a neighbor known as Veda Pangani was present, and Selemani noted the fact thus:

. . . Enanga egi ya Mugangala Gubabenda Ruyobya.// Aliwo Pangani inya kazilo, Veda.

. . . This nanga is about Mugangala Gubabenda Ruyobya.// Pangani is also present--poor fellow--Veda! ("Mugangala" line 10, cited in Mulokozi, "The Nanga Epos")

Sometimes he would weave the names of some outstanding members of the audience into his narration, particularly while reciting praise texts, so that it would appear as if the poems were in praise of them.

He also sometimes addressed a member of the audience directly. For instance, while I was recording him, he would sometimes tell me to listen carefully so that I would get value for my money (as he put it):

Eeeee eeeee ai bambi!
Na Bwana Mugyabuso, ohulile Enanga egi, yaani
Otakwija okagila oti "Amahela gange ningalipa busha!"
Eeeee ai bambi!

Eeeee, alas the day!
And you, Bwana Mugyabuso, listen well to this nanga
Lest later you complain that you did not get your money's worth
Eeeee, alas the day! ("Rukiza" lines 5-8, cited in Mulokozi "The Nanga Epos")

In one performance of "Mugasha," Selemani began by addressing the women who were present, thereby underscoring one of the central themes of the epic, the theme of motherhood:

Mbwenu nkugambile nyakusinga iwe
Mara ningambila abakazi bazala
Muhulile okwo yazailwe omwana w'enchulo za Kagulamo iwe
Muhulile okwo yazailwe Mugasha . . . .

Now, let me tell you esteemed one
Indeed I am telling (you) women who give birth
Hearken how he was born, Child of the Fountains of Kagulamo
Hearken how he was born, Mugasha . . . . ("Mugasha" lines 2-5, from transcript of tape)

Another technique of contextualizing the performance was to draw comparisons between what was happening in the story and what happens in society today. For instance, in the epic of "Muhimbil'Engundu," one of the characters had to bribe the gate-keepers so as to be allowed to enter the palace, and Habibu Selemani added the following aside to the incident:

Aho olushwa ti lwa mbwenu!

--You see, bribing is not a recent habit!

And the audience laughed because they were all aware of the corruption going on around them.

Very often Selemani contextualized his performances by emphasizing the characteristics and exploits of the local regiments and heroes (or their forbears) in his narration. Thus the audience would feel that they were listening to their own family histories. I remember that in his performance of the epic of "Rweshabula na Karutasigwa," which is about a civil war that occurred in Kiziba in the 1890s, Selemani used to list and praise the warriors from the local villages, whose sons or grandsons were sometimes in the audience. Such recitals usually earned him monetary rewards from the audience.

Habibu Selemani was also able to attract the interest of his audience through humor. He was capable of creating humorous situations that drew laughter from the audience. One of the most humorous episodes occurs in the ballad of "Kajango" where a man learns of the death of his beloved (who happens to be somebody else's wife) and decides to go to the funeral to weep for her. But in order to do that without raising the husband's suspicions, he has to invent a reason for being there (since he is not a relative) and for "weeping louder than the owner of the corpse" (as Achebe would put it). He tells the husband that he too has recently lost a bride, hence he understands what it means for a husband to lose a wife! That is why he felt he should stop by and offer his condolences. His reason manages to convince the bereaved husband so that the two weep together and drink from the same calabash like old friends!

Sometimes Habibu Selemani employed humorous descriptions, asides, or characterization for the same purpose. For instance, his characterization of the serf Kalondano in the epic of "Rukiza" is quite humorous, and he uses the opportunity to draw parallels between the serf and himself, exclaiming in an aside:

Eeeee ai bambi!
Kyonka otinega omwiru!
Ta Yoweli otinega mwiru!
Mala mutinega akairu nka 'nye!

Eeeee, alas the day!
But beware of the serf!
Ta Yoweli, beware of the serf
Really, you ought to beware of the serf such as me!
("Rukiza" lines 302-05, cited in Mulokozi, "The Nanga Epos")

Finally, Habibu Selemani managed to draw and retain the interest and attention of the audience through his instrumental music. His playing of the zither was acknowledged to be unequaled, and he exploited his talent to the fullest. Often he would play the instrument for some minutes without saying a word, just for the sake of regaling the audience with the sweet tunes.

Habibu Selemani drew his poetic techniques from tradition. Nevertheless, he managed to manipulate the techniques in such a way that his creations were always new, personal, and exceptional. His language was a complex mix of simple storytelling language and difficult, allusive metaphorical expressions. He creatively employed the well-known poetic techniques of parallelism, word-play, recurrence, chain-linking, etc. He never used rhyme because that was not in the tradition. Occasionally he used non-Haya words and phrases for special effect. Unlike the younger bards (and even some of his contemporaries), Selemani always avoided obscene words and expressions. This was probably a result of his court training.

We may illustrate Selemani's poetic depth and excellence by looking briefly at his use of metaphorical language. Selemani's metaphorical expressions were drawn from the totality of the Haya world and experience: nature and the landscape, history, war, the cattle culture, the banana culture, beliefs and customs, human relations, water and the Great Lweru (Lake Victoria), flora and fauna, wildlife and the wilderness. Extended similes and metaphors are very common in his poetry. The following example is an extended metaphor drawn from the banana culture:

Kagogo nkajunda eila
Nkanga 'ugwa ntatengiibwe
Ayakuntengya na'ugwa nawe!

Dead banana stem: I rotted long ago
But I refused to collapse without being shoved
He who shoves me would collapse with me!
("Rukiza" lines 34-36 , cited in Mulokozi, "The Nanga Epos")

In actuality, the metaphor summarizes the epic of "Rukiza" from which it is drawn. Rukiza is a "dead banana stem," i.e., harmless and weak (compared to the king), yet he is capable of causing harm if he is "shoved." In other words, an upright dead banana stem appears harmless until someone leans on it, and then it tumbles over with the person who may end up being hurt. That is in fact what happens in the story: King Ruhinda "shoves" Rukiza, and they fall together; Rukiza dies and Ruhinda also loses his life. Almost the whole panegyric of "Lukuuka," as performed by Selemani, is also an extended metaphor praising a cow and its herdsman; in reality, it praises Lukuuka's manhood (as a lover) and wealth (in cattle).

In the epic of "Muhimbi'Engundu" Habibu Selemani makes use of many complex metaphors, as in the following quotation:

Oli w'Endimi Lwata-Bishwa
Nyamugenda akataka aha mugongo
Oli w'Ebifu bya Kitahya
Ebitabolooga noluga Ikimba . . .
Kati ka Kabale Ruinaina
Ak'Engoma ilikwekoonya . . .

You are of the Anti-bear that smashes the Termite Hills
And carries a clod on its back
You are of the Big Fishes of Kitahya
That never scream, you come from Ikimba
The Rutting-Stick of Kabale
That the Drums fear . . .

The lines refer to King Kitekere of Kyamutwara (c. 1820-50). He is the "Ant-bear that smashes the Termite Hills," i.e, he is the hero who defeats kings (in Haya oral traditions the termite hill symbolizes kingship). The "big fishes of Kitahya that never scream" refers to Kitekere's maternal origins: the big fishes that never scream are the lungfish, and they symbolize women. Hence women in Buhaya do not eat the lungfish and are forbidden to cry out when giving birth. "The rutting stick of Kabale" has both phallic and royal reference: Kabale was Kitekere's capital, but it also means "stone," hence hard, tough. The "rutting" (ruinaina) stick, is the hard, erect penis that is ready for sex; it is feared by the "drums"--i.e., by the vagina (the drum is sometimes a metaphor for the vagina) and by kings (the drum symbolizes royalty). Hence, in this excerpt, several layers of meaning and references highlighting the sexual, heroic, and royal qualities of Kitekere are condensed in one metaphor. Some of these metaphors were obviously not of Habibu Selemani's own creation, as they belong to the characters' personal praise poems. Nevertheless, they do show Selemani's sensitivity to the poetic use of language.

Most enanga performers have limited repertories, usually confined to their own home kingdom. A few really accomplished bards can perform stories originating in other kingdoms. Habibu Selemani was such a bard. His repertoire was wide and varied. He listed about 15 narrative and non-narrative songs that he could perform well. Most of the poems originate in the former kingdoms of Kiziba, Kyamutwara, and Ihangiro. A few are pan-Haya, i.e., they are not confined to a particular kingdom. I recorded them all, but some of the tapes were later stolen or destroyed by age and humidity. The poems may be categorized thus:

I.Pan-Haya Epics
1. Mugasha (mythological epic, prob. pre-1400 CE)
2. Rukiza (legendary epic, prob. 15-16th century)
3. Kilenzi (Kachwenyanja) (legendary epic, prob. 15-16th century)
4. Enaku Ishenya Amalembo (song, lament)

II. Kiziba Kingdom Epics/Songs
5. Mugangala (Ruyobya) (19th-century historical epic)
6. Kanyoro na Ndangwa (19th-century historical war epic)
7. Maburi ga Muganga (19th-century royal historical war epic)
8. Rweshabula na Karutasigwa (1890s historical war epic)
9. Lukuuka (panegyric, early 20th century)

III. Kyamutwara, Kiyanja, and Ihangiro Epics/Songs
10. Muhimbi'Engundu (Kitekere) (19th-century royal historical war epic)
11. Kishwaga-Marungu (Kaitaba) (19th-century royal historical war epic)
12. Ruhinda IV (royal episodic poem about Ruhinda's death, 1936)
13. Entuwa (Mulondo) (love-cum-political song, prob. from 19th century)
14. Kajango (fictional narrative)
15. Engonzi (love song)

That he could perform so many songs, including ten full-fledged narrative poems, is clear proof of Habibu Selemani's virtuosity.

As noted by Tracey ("Recording Tour"), Hoffman, and several other musicologists who came into contact with Selemani's art, his stature as a musician was of international standards. At the peak of his career, he could probably have competed with the likes of Fa-Digi Sisòkò of Mali (see Johnson) and Mamoudou Kouyaté of Guinea (see Niane), to name only a few of the outstanding African griots.

The litmus test of a good bard is the esteem by which he is held among his own people and among fellow bards. On this score, Selemani was one of the most outstanding Haya bards of the present era. In terms of repertoire, the ten long narrative poems (including nine epics) that Habibu Selemani was able to perform easily place him among the leading African bards. With respect to poetic skills, there is no doubt that Selemani had mastered the art of poetry, which is essentially the art of communicating through images. His poetry compares well with the poetry of the other Haya and African bards that we have mentioned.

Why then did Habibu Selemani remain relatively unknown outside Tanzania? Because of sheer historical and geographical accident: he was unknown because the tradition he represented was not known outside its homeland. The enanga recordings made by Tracey and others were not studied by anyone, largely because few scholars in Europe and America at the time had the necessary linguistic and cultural resources to undertake the task. And local scholars with the necessary literary or ethnomusicological training began to appear only in the 1970s. Indeed, to date, apart from myself, not many Tanzanians have undertaken serious and extended research on the enanga tradition, though a few have written papers on limited aspects of the tradition (see Kaijage). Not surprisingly, the majority of scholars studying the enanga tradition today are not Tanzanians, but Americans (e.g, Hoffman, Seitel, Lois Anderson, etc.).

Unfortunately, the present growing interest in enanga poetry is occurring at a time when the tradition is dying out owing to changed circumstances, lack of patronage, and sheer neglect on the part of the Tanzanian cultural authorities. Most of the masters of the '50s have died, and with them their repertories. It is now difficult to find a bard who can perform well the classical heroic poems of the precolonial period, such as "Mugasha," "Rukiza," "Omuti Mwata," and many of the royal epics. A few formerly famous poems, such as "Mitabuuko," "Mukabalinda," "Mboneko," "Rutinwa," "Burungu," and "Kitabe," have in fact disappeared from the tradition because no one can perform them today. Many of these poems were unfortunately never recorded in the past.

Hence, as we bemoan the loss of Habibu Selemani, it is imperative that resources be mobilized immediately to preserve on discs for posterity the extant recordings of his poems. Equally important, his songs need to be properly reproduced on cassettes and marketed commercially to enable his widow and children to earn some livelihood, as at present they are living in abject poverty. In the meantime, the present writer is looking into the possibility of organizing training courses for budding enanga players as a way of transmitting the tradition to the next generation.


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Seitel, Peter. See So That We May See: Performances and Interpretations of Traditional Tales from Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980.

_____. Discourse Genres in Verbal Art: Power, Logic, and Style in Haya Folklore. Forthcoming.

Seydou, Christiane. "Comment définir le genre épique? un exemple: l'épopée africaine." Journal of Anthropological Society of Oxford 13.1. English trans. in Folklore Forum 14.1 (1983): 47-68.

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