Many people in sub-Saharan countries, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania among them, believe those suffering from a lack of skin pigmentation- or albinism- have magical properties. As a result, albinos are sold for tremendous sums and murdered for body parts. Their corpses are excavated from graves because their bones are believed to be good luck. Others are convinced that having sex with an albino woman will cure AIDS, which leads to rape. Those who manage to survive live in constant fear and deal with bullying and other misunderstandings from their neighbors. To make matters worse, their condition makes over-exposure to sunlight life-threatening; their skin wrinkles and ages as well, making African albinos appear much older than their years. In already impoverished places, where survival is often the focus, they carry an extra-hefty burden. Daniel Rodrigues' stark New York Timesphoto journal on the tragedy can be found here
In Tanzania, the problems are so constant that many albinos have been abandoned on Ukerewe, Africa's largest inland island, which sits a 4 hour ferry ride north of Mwanza. And it's here that Ian Brennan, who has documented music made by survivors of the Khmer Rouge and the American war in Vietnam, as well sounds played in increasingly rare cultural context from Mali to Malawi, made the boat journey in order to encourage these residents, now supported by the Standing Voice community, a Tanzania-based NGO, to write and sing their own stories. The results are astounding. Having been musically discouraged, the 18 people who agreed to participate naturally took to themes of isolation and loneliness, with song titles such as “Life is Hard,” “Sorrows,” and “Mistreated,” translated from long- discouraged dialects Kikirewe and Jeeta. And with acoustic and electric guitars, cheap keyboards with built in drum tracks, and their own voices, the island's inhabitants created a highly original, unfettered avant garde. Here there are sounds that fans of rampantly strange, varied, and unclassifiable albums such L' Voag's This Way Out, DNE's 47 Songs that Humans Shouldn't Sing, or the Raincoats' Odyshape will be floored by. There are eerie synth-pop concoctions about Tanzania, choruses of children singing as if in a tunnel, their nursery rhyme melodies underpinned by clanking metal.
Other tracks feature distorted, untutored droning electric guitar or keyboard, while others, such as the gorgeous “I Am A Human Being,” are nearly a capella until distant feedback appears near the track's end. With 23 tracks, the variety is seemingly endless. In fact, there has never been music collected in all of the continent that sounds quite like this much of this record. If there's a frustration, it's that, like the Brennan-produced 2-volume Zomba Prison Project, tracks are often a minute long, or sometimes much less. The entire endeavor is edited to 30 minutes and no doubt tampered with sonically. While the snippets carry their own power, the listener wishes these tracks might have gone on longer. Aside from their being plenty of room on the disc, the music here is too important, inventive, and infectious to render so brief. But whatever the case, it contains a fragile grace, a sense of discovery, and the ability to give some of Africa's most marginalized people a voice. One isn't so much listening to this music as she is listening in on it. And the heavens know the title of this disc has most certainly earned its irony. - Bruce Miller