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"Singing for Life: AIDS and Musical Performance in Uganda"

Presented by Gregory Barz
Thursday, October 25, 2001
Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology
Detroit, MI


No one will listen to us unless we bring our drums!
No one will listen to us talk about Silimu—AIDS—unless we dance!

I sit in a small family compound in Bute Village in the Busoga region of eastern Uganda surrounded by banana trees, fields of cassava, and a dwindling coffee crop. I am struck by the statement about drums made by Aida Namulinda, a farmer, and leader of the local village women's music and dance ensemble with whom I have come to work. Two medical doctors accompany me—Alex Muganzi Muganga and Peter Mudiope—both of whom are involved with HIV/AIDS medical research in Kampala, the nation's capital. While the doctors and I set up our recording equipment, Aida continues to mobilize her village's performing ensemble in order for our research team to document several of the group's songs, dramas, and dances.

As the evening-long music-making begins, several men bring out a set of kisoga xylophones, panpipes, tube fiddles, and drums from one of the huts to accompany the women of Aida's group as they summon and engage the community of farmers returning from the fields. The women encourage everyone gathered to dance, sing, and listen to the group's messages concerning proper condom use, faithfulness to partners, and sexual abstinence.

During a break, Aida continues her thoughts about music with me, asserting that whether by itself or incorporated within dance and drama, music is now embraced by village-based groups such as hers as the most effective and immediate means available for communicating, educating, and disseminating information pertaining to medical and health care concerns. As she returns to lead the group of women, Aida dramatizes a powerful series of songs outlining specific ways women can fight back against the spread of HIV/AIDS, and how they must reclaim their health and change their lives even though they are all HIV+. Aida was in fact "singing for life!"

I would now like to introduce the performers of the village ensemble in Bute, and in particular Aida Namulinda, the group's leader. I have several photographs that lead directly into a video clip, and I provide a brief transcription of a portion of the song text you will hear on your handout. It's given as Example No.1 (4 min.)

This excerpt details a specific description of the physical manifestation of AIDS. As the virus weakens the body, the disease, often referred to as "the sweeper" or "the broom," finishes entire villages, eating its victims. Aida's songs are clearly intended not only to educate, but also to strike fear in her listeners.

Aida—and many other women in Ugandan villages and towns—use music, dance, and drama more than ever to engage aggressively the devastation the HIV virus has caused in their communities. In these communities women often raise multiple generations of orphaned children while simultaneously planning for the inevitable need for similar care and education of their own offspring. With little—and often times no—support from governmental agencies and local and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), women's indemnity groups now often turn to more traditional and demonstratively more effective means of communicating information in traditional Ugandan culture—music, dance, and drama—for purposes of healing, counseling, care, and education.

HIV/AIDS and Uganda

Uganda is at the center of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, in terms of global consciousness and regarding local funding of research on the control and monitoring of fluctuations in infection rates. Testing, education, awareness, and treatment have become highly politicized as demonstrated in President Museveni's initiative to treat the virus and disease as an "open secret"; in this regard the country has dealt aggressively with HIV/AIDS to a much greater extent than other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to latest figures from the Center for Disease Control, more than 400,000 people have died from the disease since first diagnosed in the country in 1984; yet another two million people are now infected with the virus. At one time, these figures represented approximately 30% of Uganda's total population; current infection rates are reported to be under 8%. The HIV infection rate in Uganda is estimated as high as 1 out of 4 in the eastern villages where young women are facing phenomenal risks of HIV infection and ultimately death from AIDS.

Music and the Production of HIV/AIDS Knowledge—My field research with women's indemnity groups led me to understand musical performance as the principle source for the production of knowledge and behavior regarding HIV/AIDS. For many groups with whom I have worked, music is a powerful tool not only for education, but also for patient care and bereavement counseling. (As an aside, music is also a principle tool used in the diagnosis and treatment of HIV by traditional healers, herbalists, and individuals often labeled as "witchdoctors.")

Women sing and dance during group gatherings to introduce interventions specific to women and female youths; many songs, for example, warn against participating in risky environments or engaging in unprotected sexual behavior. Other songs outline the support networks available within the greater community (such as blood testing, post-test counseling, the effectiveness of condoms, and locations of condom distribution centers). The dissemination of information, mobilization of resources, and consciousness raising in this area of East Africa often occurs in no other form of HIV/AIDS sensitization or awareness intervention other than music, dance, and drama.

Song Texts and Blood Testing

Embedded within the texts of many songs I have recorded in various areas of Uganda are direct (and veiled) accounts of the issues women confront on a daily basis. There are many commonly held beliefs associated with the HIV virus detailed in these songs, such as the suggestion that AIDS selects the body it wants to infect, deliberately choosing its victims. Another view emerging in song texts is that if an HIV+ man sleeps with six women, only the 6th woman will become infected with HIV: the other five are thought to be safe. Recurring themes include warnings about men piercing their condoms and that alcohol be avoided due to the potential for one to lose their sense of direction. Songs also warn of the problems associated with attending discos. A more troubling theme found in song texts is the belief that the HIV virus is a biological weapon introduced to Africans from America and Europe.

A theme that I would like to highlight today concerns the efforts of women to encourage villagers to go into town to have their blood tested, especially those who are considering marriage or entering into a new physical relationship. According to Aida Namulinda, "you know, these men that we live with, they cannot do without sex. For men sex is a natural biological act, they feel it is something God given." By singing about the need for blood tests, Aida and other women feel that they can fight the spread of the virus, especially in male-to-female transmission. Performance, for many women, is their only weapon, and communicating to others that knowledge of one's sero blood status translates to power is a primary reason for singing.

Example No.1, "Luno Olumbe Lwatwidhira," Buwolomera Development Association (BUDEA)

Chorus If you have knowledge of the disease, please tell us.
Verse Don't say that we are no longer scared, though talking about it brings more sorrow, but since you have asked me to tell you properly, then sit comfortably and I'll tell you. This disease has sincerely come to finish us.
Chorus Sincerely this disease!
Verse When you first catch the virus, it is fearful, but now that we have all caught it, we are no longer ashamed. When we first came to know we felt sorrow, but now we are used to it, we have no problem. Even you people here today; we are telling you that when you catch it, you need to know. When you get to know you find something to do…then you take care of yourself and continue your life for some days.
Chorus Sincerely this disease!
Verse This disease came for us. Sincerely Ugandans, friends, we are in sorrow. It has combined the adults with the young. Furthermore, it has been a shameful disease to talk about.
Chorus What shall we do?! Girls, you who have not yet married.
Verse It is still a problem. Furthermore, there is no treatment. But, those of you who are unmarried should take an HIV test with your lovers. Also, those of you who are planning to marry should take the HIV test along with your partner.

Example No.2, "Twelile bene," Tulamuke Group, Bugwe Village, Busiki County (Iganga)

Let's mourn, let's mourn, let's mourn for ourselves, wooo, now that we are in hell

Let's mourn, let's mourn, let's mourn for ourselves, wooo, now that we all have AIDS

Clap and drum / The AIDS disease came to finish us

Let's go to IDAAC / Friends, we need to do HIV testing

Example No.3, "Omwishiki yayangire omurekye" ["The girl does not want to get married to you, please leave her alone"], Kanihiro Group, Kitabi (Ishaka, western Uganda)

Summary of drama: A young man wants to get married to a certain young woman. The woman refuses at first due in part to bad experiences she has had with her family and HIV/AIDS. All of her sisters and brothers have died of AIDS. The woman's parents ask the woman and her suitor to take and HIV test first is they wish to get married. They visit a doctor, have the test take and both of them are negative! A big ceremony is then performed where the woman is "given away" in a colorful traditional Kinyankole ceremony with a lot of dancing, drumming, and singing.

Example No.4, "Silimu Okutumala!," Bukona Group

Fellow women, put on a banana leaf if you see your friend, go to IDAAC

Women, put on a banana leaf if you see a friend

AIDS has finished us / Clap and drum

My mom, "Nabirye," let's go to IDAAC for HIV counseling and testing

So we can raise our children for a longer period of time.

Encouraging blood testing is just one of many interventions suggested in songs that I could have pulled out today. In other songs community consciousness concerning the immorality of and danger associated with prostitution is raised, as are approaches to sexual abstinence and the practice of zero grazing (that is, faithfulness to one partner). Other songs inform communities of local and regional government initiatives, as well possibilities for developing income-generating activities (IGAs). Song texts also document the histories and goals of many women's groups. The most prominent intervention introduced in song texts, however, is the need for change in behavioral patterns regarding sex.

Musical Performance

Most groups with whom I have worked compose their own songs and dramas, drawing on local musical and dance traditions to support and anchor their performances. None claim to have "borrowed" their materials, although several groups have songs in their repertoire that originate with music and drama groups such as TASO, the AIDS Support Organization in Kampala—songs such as "When We Lose One Member" are common to several groups. The didactic efforts of women's group are typically located within the traditional performance contexts that are interwoven within music, dance, and drama. In the following brief series of video clips you will see one such group, the Buwolomera Development Association, led by Florence Kumunyu. Florence's group draws on traditional forms of dance, drama, and music, to demonstrate the problems that can come if one turns to the traditional, local medical model, the witchdoctor, rather than embracing the so-called Western medical model. The clip is excerpted from a longer drama, and opens with traditional singing and dancing, segueing into a middle portion of a drama in which a female patient stricken with AIDS is taken to a local witchdoctor, and closes with a song.

Women's indemnity groups in eastern Uganda fight an uphill battle on a daily basis against a fast-spreading virus and disease. Women sing and dance for themselves and for others to introduce interventions that focus on gender issues specific to women and female youths; many of these songs warn against participating in risky environments or engaging in unprotected sexual behavior. The songs, dances, and dramas also outline support networks available from the greater community (the availability of condoms and testing), as well as disseminating information, mobilizing resources, and raising consciousness concerning issues related to HIV/AIDS, and to counsel and support women in individual groups.

My work with over 45 women's groups (groups such as the one led by Aida Namulinda) has afforded me many opportunities to record, interview, and get to know women who use music, dance, and drama to educate and support women concerning issues related to HIV and AIDS in Uganda. Indemnity groups that function as extended families—serving financial, educational, spiritual, and advisory roles—are frequently formed in this part of East Africa. That many of these groups sing, dance, and dramatize their response to a crisis in reproductive health and female sexuality, and to promote the adoption of safer sex practices is not unusual in this area of the world.

Problems faced by women's groups include inadequate supplies of drugs; some hospitals have no drugs available to them, no painkillers or anti-malarial treatments or other basic essential drugs, and medicines. Most groups do not have viable, ongoing income generating activities to sustain their collective efforts. The increasing availability of HIV/AIDS diagnosis, follow-up care, and treatment, however, is a source of hope and a powerful incentive for many to go to a testing center to determine their sero blood status.


Drama and music groups led by women are affecting great changes, and perhaps no greater than at the grassroots. In many cases, the government has not been in a position to act, where women's groups work without any funding have been most successful. It was repeatedly surprising for the doctors with whom I engaged research that the efforts to fight the virus and disease in the villages we visited were primarily in the form of musical responses. On multiple occasions, they asked women living positively with HIV why they persisted in their efforts to contribute to local interventions, why they continued to dance when they had such little energy? The answers given remain profound for me; Ugandan women do not want other women and other children to experience what has been forced on them, and they will use whatever power they can access to introduce social and political interventions, no matter how small or the rewards.

These brief and preliminary observations detail the efforts of many women and women's indemnity groups throughout Uganda to combat the HIV virus and AIDS disease in ways where local governments and private multinational and multilateral Non-Governmental Organizations have been largely unsuccessful. Local and external funds rarely trickle down to the village networks that comprise the country. This field research must therefore take into account a challenge issued to me by several women's group; this challenge is to demonstrate the link between the recent decline in Uganda's infection rate and the grassroots efforts of rural and women's groups. Efforts based on the Western medical model have proven largely unsuccessful, inaccessible, and expensive. Only when supported and encouraged by performances drawing on local musical traditions have medical initiatives taken root in local health care systems.


Barz VU Homepage

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


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Singing for life in the shadow of AIDS