Albinism is a rare genetic condition that inhibits the body’s ability to produce melanin, yielding a lack of pigmentation in skin, hair and eyes. In Sub-Saharan Africa, those born with albinism are subjected to unfathomable prejudice and cruelty. Bizarre superstitions exist to this day casting individuals with albinism as “magical” or “cursed,” making their bodies at once coveted and reviled.
According to Amnesty International, at least two people with albinism have been killed in Malawi in this year alone, and seven others attacked.
“Some believe persons with albinism are not human and do not die, but are demons who disappear,” the NGO Standing Voice explains on its website. “The bodies of people with albinism are frequently said to possess magical properties, able to cure disease or deliver fortune; sex with a woman with albinism is thought to cure AIDS.”
Because these horrific convictions persist, bodies with albinism can be considered extremely valuable. One such region is Tanzania, which, with a rate of one in 1,500 people, has one of the world’s highest rates of albinism. In Tanzania, people with albinism have been murdered, raped and mutilated, their body parts sold to witch doctors. And those that are not murdered are most often shunned by their families, rejected by society, silenced and forced to live in isolation and fear.
“I was rejected at birth by my father,” Christina Wagulu, a woman with albinism, told CNN. “My uncles have threatened to kill me because of my condition. Men stigmatize me and don’t like me.”
Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria, in the Ukerewe District of Tanzania, serves as a safe space for people like Wagulu, offering relief from the constant threat of violence and companionship with other people with albinism. The island also served as the origin location of an unlikely music album, titled “White African Power.”
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning world music producer who often introduces underserved and marginalized communities to the healing powers of music. In 2016, he visited Ukerewe Island with his wife, filmmaker Marilena Delli, with the hope that music could provide hope and real change for people living under dismal conditions. Never mind the fact that none of his would-be participants had any music experience, and in fact, according to Brennan, many were actively prohibited from singing even in church.
Brennan formed a musical team along with 18 men and women, age 24 to 57. With musical instruments including a sledgehammer, a beer bottle and a rusty nail, the ensemble formed an unorthodox and unequivocally powerful world music album that makes tangible the plight of Tanzanians with albinism.
The experience allowed the musicians to express their pain and struggles with their own bodies and voices. Just as importantly, people listened. “My parents abandoned me, because I look the way I do,” singer Hamidu Didas recalls. “They said I’m not their child — that I belong to the whites.”
Other song titles ― “I Am a Human Being,” “They Gossiped When I was Born,” “Life is Hard,” and “Who Can We Run To?” ― capture the feelings of desolation amongst the participants. But the album also contains moments, like in the song “Happiness,” that express something else: the joyous feeling that comes from telling your story on your own terms.
We reached out to Ian to learn more about his experience helping to create an album that communicates with a sound that’s quite unlike anything else.
When and how did you first become aware of the persecution people with Albinism face in Tanzania?
About a decade ago, I first heard of the severe persecution in certain Eastern African countries like Tanzania. I was aware of the prejudice towards those with albinism— I had witnessed it myself first hand with peers that had been born with albinism in America. But the mutilations, rapes and murders in Eastern Africa were just unthinkable.
Was there a particular experience you had or account you learned of secondhand that compelled you to visit Tanzania?
For almost a decade now, my wife and I, Marilena Delli, have intentionally sought out underrepresented regions. And maybe more importantly, underrepresented or mistreated populations within those nations. We have had the good fortune of working with amazing artists in places like Rwanda, Malawi, Palestine, Romania, Cambodia, and the youngest nation in the world, South Sudan, among others.
My having grown up with a sister with Down syndrome and witnessed the prejudice she suffered, and Marilena’s being raised by a physically disabled, “immigrant” genocide-survivor mother in the the most racist region of northern Italy, these are factors that might have inclined us both to identify to some degree with those that are often regarded as “underdogs.”
I imagine it is difficult to immerse yourself so intimately with a group of people knowing the impermanence of the situation and the life you will return to. Did you have any reservations about leading this project?
I have been making records for over 30 years. For me, intimacy is the goal over technical polish and virtuosity. From my teens on, I had little choice for survival but to work for decades in the locked psychiatric emergency room for Oakland, California [as a staff member]. Having spent so many hours listening to strangers speak of their suicidality, psychosis, addiction, depression, abuse and other taboo topics that are not usually freely shared socially, probably led to an ability to sometimes more easily connect past interpersonal barriers.
The key is to lead with love. I have great love and respect for the individuals that we record music with (though I do not necessarily invariably always like every last one of them) and I love music. And the best point of embarkment is to have hope for a positive result, but no expectations, and instead to allow the music to potentially lead everyone involved to surprising and inspiring places.
How did the collaborators you worked with respond to your presence initially?
We had the good fortune of the Standing Voice organization doing outreach in advance to the community on the island. So those that participated were already pre-inclined and committed, which certainly helped fuel the process.
We had sent instruments ahead, but upon arriving we discovered that the instruments had never as much as been taken out of their boxes. The participants seemed to have been intimidated by the instruments and held them in too high of a regard. So the first thing we did upon discovering this was take the instruments out of their packaging, literally break and rough them up a bit, and then had every single person touch pluck, strum and hit them, to help demystify the process.
We have had similar experiences elsewhere. At Zomba Prison [in Malawi], the women swore they were not writers or songwriters, and they had no instruments. But in the end, their songs went onto make up over half of the first album, though they comprise less than 1 percent of the total prison population. And, yet, that album nonetheless went onto to receive the first Grammy nomination ever for the country of Malawi.
With the Tanzanian Albinism Collective, the bulk of the instrumentation on the album is made up of make-shift instruments from the immediate rural environment — a sledgehammer, a beer bottle and rusty nail, a bow and arrow, a straw broom, a frying pan, school table-tops, a cracked plastic rainwater basin that stands over six feet high, etc. The music is organic in the truest sense of the word. “Zero kilometer” found sound, as it were.
In a CNN interview you mention that people with Albinism were forbidden to sing. How did the musicians you worked with approach music initially? Did they want to sing? What was it like “starting from zero”?
Some, not all of them revealed that they had been forbidden from singing even in church. In light of many of them sharing that they had been forced to eat outside apart from family members while growing up or how they’d been denied well water even in their own village for fear that they would contaminate the water, this additional musical exclusion was shockingly and sadly consistent.
The record is comprised of previously “non-musicians,” but what we discovered then upon arriving on the island was that in this case we were not only starting from zero, but from a negative, so to speak, since their creativity had been actively shut down. This was reflected in how any of them spoke almost inaudibly and had rigidity in their bodily movements that bore sad evidence of how much they’d been forced to walk on eggshells and be wary their whole life.
Do you speak Swahili or any of the local dialects?
We communicated through translators. But most musical exchanges of any kind, anywhere are better processed non-verbally — through movement, gestures, facial expression, and voice. To get out of the head and into the body. Some of the participants’ primary language are the local dialects of Jeeta or Kikirewe that have been discouraged since the unification of the country in 1964. And also some of the collective members are not literate. So creating in their most frequently spoken tongue — which even the translator who is a local didn’t know — leant itself to greater expressive freedom for some of them.
Was there anything particularly surprising about the experience of working together and creating the album?
During the weeks we were there, we witnessed the non-stop stream of villagers coming to draw clean water from the well that is drilled into the heart of the brand-new albinism center. This could barely contain a depth of subtext — a triumph for a population that had so long been regarded as dirty and unfit. And watching over 50 kids twerk in unison for hours to an ad-hoc DJ blasting one large, cracked, hot-wired speaker, all the while intermingling freely with members of the albinism community, this was more than encouraging. It was proof that some palpable change had occurred — for the good of all — and by all hopes would continue to reverberate strongly throughout the rising generation long after the music had died down.
How did you decide upon the album title “White African Power”?
That is the name that the artists came up with. It was born immediately out of their largest collective improvisation (Track 2, which bears the same name, but which also is subtitled [We Live in Danger], which only adds to their complexity and irony) during which there was a lot of physicality, exhilaration and assertion.
The name was by design meant to create some cognitive dissonance — e.g., they live in a society where some people die from skin-whitening overdoses due to regarding lighter skin as “better” and more desirable. But being too white can get you killed. In many ways that psychotic and contradictory thinking sort of sums up the absurdity of so much prejudice and hate around the world.
What has the reaction been like to the album within Tanzania?
In my experience with most artists, if they are playing non-commercial music, they’re never a hero in their own hometown. It’s the “big in Japan” phenomenon. Growing up as a musician I had many musician friends that were forced to work shit, minimum-wage jobs to survive, but on their vacation time they could tour Germany or Spain and be treated like stars.
For example, with the Malawi Mouse Boys they absolutely and unexpectedly triumphed at the WOMAD Festival (which was their first time on a stage ever). But upon returning home, they were completely ignored by the media there. Then a few months later they played a festival in Malawi and just a spattering of people even bothered to come over to their stage and check them out.
Will the musicians continue to collaborate in the future?
Yes, we endeavor to create modest and sustainable models. Five of the collective members will come to WOMAD [World of Music, Arts and Dance] this summer ― that is, if the U.K. border patrol is kind enough to issue them visas. And if they go over well, hopefully this will lead to further opportunities, as it has for some of the other groups we work with like The Good Ones from Rwanda (who later toured mainland Europe) and Hanoi Masters from Vietnam (who went on to play WOMAD in Australia and New Zealand).
What power does music have in times of oppression or immense pain that distinguishes it from other forms of art or activism?
Music occurs in real time. And even the most cerebral and techno music is played with the body, even if that is just a forefinger clicking a trackpad. With most forms of art, process leads to an object — a film, a sculpture. With music, the process is the object.
Many of the collective members have expressed that this project was one of, or even the best thing that has ever happened for them. As Riziki from the collective expressed, since he never, ever considered that he could play music, this experience has given him confidence that has been transferred over to believing that there are many other things he might be also able to do, possibly that he previously feared or felt unable to.
This is much like the “entertain the absurd” psychotherapeutic intervention, whereby you ask someone when faced with a problem to come up with the most ridiculous solution that they can think of. If they are willing to do this process, it scrambles and resets all of the former parameters. And suddenly options that might have formerly been viewed with suspicion and disdain, suddenly seem quite reasonable in contrast. Music at its best is social work.