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Singing for life in the shadow of AIDS

By David Glasgow
May 6, 2002

In Africa, AIDS is a pandemic that has already destroyed millions of lives directly and indirectly. In remote villages the problem is worsened by the lack of information and modern medical care. While researching indigenous tradition's in Uganda that combine music, dance and drama, Vanderbilt ethnomusicologist Gregory Barz found local women's support groups fighting back.

Barz returned to the Lake Victoria region of Uganda last summer to demonstrate and document the link between a recent decline in Uganda's HIV infection rate and the grassroots efforts of these rural women's groups. In the area where many think the HIV virus first emerged, he found that efforts based on traditional Western medical models have proven largely unsuccessful, inaccessible and expensive. "Only when supported and encouraged by performances that draw on local musical traditions have medical initiatives taken root in local health care systems," he said.

In villages, drums beat out an invitation to the locals returning from the day's labor in the fields. With no other promotion or advance work, such calls often are answered by more than 100 men, women and children from the network of small villages surrounding a particular venue. In a culture where the word for music, ngoma, includes singing, drumming, dance and drama, such traditional performances are as much about education as entertainment.

The complicated tenets of many faiths have long been made easier to remember through psalms, hymns and chant. From the "Alphabet Song" to "Schoolhouse Rock," the value of music as an educational tool is familiar to most Americans. Halfway around the world, Barz sees these women's groups literally "singing for life."

Aida Namulinda is a farmer and the leader of one of the 45 women's groups that the ethnomusicologist studied. While her group prepared for the performance, she explained to Barz, "No one will listen to us unless we bring our drums. No one will listen to us talk about Slim (AIDS) unless we dance."

As the evening of music-making began, several men brought out kisoga xylophones, panpipes, tube fiddles and drums from one of the grass-roofed huts to accompany the ensemble. Wearing brightly colored dresses, the women encouraged everyone gathered to dance, sing but most importantly to listen for the very direct messages concerning proper condom use, zero grazing (faithfulness to partners), sexual abstinence and the virulence of HIV/AIDS.

During a break, Aida explained that music is now embraced by village-based groups such as hers as the most effective and immediate means available to educate the people of remote villages about medical and health care concerns. When the music started up again, she demonstrated her point through a series of songs dramatizing the ways that women can fight back against the spread of HIV and how they must reclaim their health and rebuild their lives even though they may have tested positive for the virus.

"We have a lot to learn from the Ugandan example," said Barz. "Too often Western cultures deem catastrophic illness as rendering the victims helpless." Many of the HIV-positive women report that dancing energizes and singing gives them back more than it takes. "Rather than just being positive, the women we spoke to are choosing to live positively, helping others," said Barz.

"A lot of money flows into that part of the world because of the AIDS pandemic, but not a lot trickles all the way down to the local villages," Barz said. With little or no support from government or charitable agencies, these women now often turn to demonstratively more effective means of communicating information through traditional Ugandan culture using ngoma performances for the healing, counseling, care and education of their neighbors.

"The women are proving that one person can make a difference, without money, without outside support," said Barz.

In many ways Uganda is at the center of the HIV/AIDs pandemic in Africa. The nation has become a leader in the funding of research on the control and monitoring of fluctuations of infection rates. Testing, education, awareness and treatment have become national issues, with Uganda's President Museveni taking the lead in de-stigmatizing the disease by pronouncing AIDS an "open secret."

"They have separated the disease from sex and taken away the shame so people are willing to take care of others. This is a model for a more compassionate response," Barz said.

"In this regard, the country has dealt aggressively with HIV/AIDS to a much greater extent than other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa," said Barz. According to the latest figures from the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 400,000 people have died from the disease since it was first diagnosed in the country in 1984. It is estimated that another two million people are now infected with the virus. At one time the figures represented approximately 30 percent of Uganda's total population.

While current infection rates are reported by the Ugandan government to be below 8 percent, in many of the eastern villages it is estimated that one in four people is already infected. "The women in this region face a phenomenal risk of HIV infection and ultimately death from AIDS," said Barz.

"On many occasions we asked the women living positively with HIV why they persist in their efforts, why they continue to dance when they have so little energy," said Barz. "The answers given remain profound for me. They do not want other women and children to experience what has been forced upon them, and they will use whatever power they can access to educate others, no matter how small the rewards," he said.

Barz found that women are often raising multiple generations of orphaned children at the same time they are faced with the reality that they must also plan the inevitable need for similar care and education for their own offspring.

As AIDS has devastated entire villages, women have joined other survivors to form what Barz describes as "indemnity groups" that take the place of extended families to provide financial, educational, spiritual and support networks. "Most rely on subsistence farming for food in the region naturally rich with bananas and cassava," said Barz. Fishing and cultivation of a diminishing coffee crop round out the majority of goods available for trade.

On previous trips to record and document the indigenous music of the region, Barz had found that women's music was considered to be more private than men's and was little studied. "It was unusual even to see a woman with a musical instrument," he explained.

"Ethnomusicology is concerned with understanding how things change: how music can be used in social action, even with no money in a small Ugandan village," said Barz. "The goal is to understand how others live in the world and to learn about ourselves in the process."

"There is a very fine line between studying something and changing it," warned Barz.

Traditionally it has been the men who were sought out and recorded by visiting scientists. "So the act of recording these performances provides validation and attracts more attention for the messages the women are trying to convey," he explained. "I inadvertently effect change when my recording efforts forefront women's voices."

There is value to the medical community too. Doctors involved with HIV/AIDS medical research in the Ugandan capitol accompanied the Barz team to some of the villages.

Because of the social climate in these areas, men often reject or pay only lip service to prevention efforts. "In this region alone there are over 50 different terms for HIV/AIDS," said Barz. "Music is a primary form of communication and education. Research that ignores these performances may miss key factors in the way the most vulnerable people make sense of this disease."

Imbedded in the texts of many songs are both direct and veiled references to issues and commonly held beliefs surrounding the HIV virus. "Many believe that the disease selects the body it wants to infect, deliberately choosing its victims," said Barz. "Another myth is that if an HIV positive man sleeps with six women, only the sixth will become infected; the other five are thought to be safe."

Sexual abstinence and the practice of "zero grazing" or faithfulness to one's partner or partners are radical ideas in a society where polygamy is widely accepted and practiced. "You know, these men that we live with, they cannot do without sex," said Aida. "For men, sex is a natural biological act; they feel it is something God given."

By singing about issues like the need for blood tests, Aida and other women feel they gain strength and fight the spread of the deadly virus.

In addition to field research Barz teaches courses on jazz, world music, and African music and religion at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music. He plans to return to Uganda in the summer of 2002 to follow up and confirm the link between the recent decline in Uganda's infection rate and the grassroots efforts of local groups like Aida's.

-VU-

Barz VU Homepage

The World of Music, Journal of the Department of Ethnomusicology, Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg
(Barz is the recording editor)

UNAIDS/WHO Fact Sheet

The HIV / AIDS encyclopedia


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"Singing for Life: AIDS and Musical Performance in Uganda"
A presentation by Gregory Barz