Mama Esther: Where Music Comes From


Between 1982 and 1985, I lived in Mombasa on the coast of Kenya. During that time I researched the origins of a local Christian music in a style often referred to as “kiringongo” by some, and used almost exclusively by the Mijikenda people. In 1985, I met what one of the few people who was credited with beginning this style of singing, Mama Esther Baya Kahindi. This is a story article describing the life of Mama Esther and the origins of her song. Click below to listen to a sound file of the song I recorded in 1985 at her home. Pictures to be added. When completed, you should be able to listen or view files that accompany the story. At the end of the story are principles and study questions regarding African Christian song, as described and understood in mid-1980.

This is the story of Esther Baya Kahindi. Esther was born in 1930. She was from Kaya Giriama–one of the nine tribes of the coast of Kenya–called Mijikenda in the late 1940’s. The Mijikenda, as the tradition tells, migrated down from Singwaya following trouble with the Galla and Somali tribes. They settled North of Malindi, a Kenya coastal town now known for its tourism and fine beaches. As the kayas grew (there were nine) the people began to live all along the ridge that separates the Taru Desert and the Coast of the Indian Ocean. Esther remembers the many stories her father used to tell. She liked stories very much. He would tell about the drought that caused a famine and how the families were forced to move to new fields. She remembered hearing about the great trading that her ancestors had done with the Wakamba and the Arabs. There were many slaves and much ivory.

He told her about the first white men that came to the area preaching about Mulungu (God). They already knew him as Mulungu. But the missionaries were different in that in order to beckon Mulungu to hear their prayers it was necessary to wear different clothes, to sit in funny chairs with straight backs and even their hands and bodies were bound by being forced to hold books when they tried to sing funny new sounds. The books were an odd sight because they looked like cut white banana leaves bunched together. And the people looked at them to get a special message from Mulungu.

When the Mijikenda wanted to use a drum they were told that it was not good because the drums brought the “evil one” shetani. And this was true because Esther had remembered the Ngoma ya Peho and the Ngoma ya Kufurahisha Peho where the Mganga or witch doctor would call on the spirits to make them go away or try to make them happy. Esther’s father told her of the British from across the sea and how the Giriama had tried to drive them out of the land. She had only seen one of these funny pale men that turned pink in the sun. He seemed to enjoy telling everyone what to do. His pinkness turned to red–from the neck to his forehead when he was angry. Lately though she had begun to see more of them coming and going. They were now call wazungu–people who run around in circles.

As a girl, Esther spent most of her time helping to cultivate the fields hoeing corn, cassava and beans. She learned very early to pound corn, then grind it between the great stone grinder and then to throw the ground corn in the air and catch it in a basket in order to let the chaff fly away. She collected water to drink from the nearby river and wood for the fires to cook. She knew this was her job and took it very seriously. She knew every newborn girl was given a special bundle of sticks to signify their role in the family as one who would make a good house and home. This was different from the boys who would receive a bow and arrow to remind them of their role to provide and protect their home.

Esther helped her mother each day and enjoyed the tasks she was given in looking after her younger brothers and sisters. She enjoyed helping keep the grass houses clean. She learned well to keep wood on the fires that dried the corn stored high in the house. The smoke made the inside of the house look as black and shiny as a fine Giriama dancer in the middle of a contest. She loved music. Music was used many times in the life of the community. There were songs at birth and for weddings. The young people would dance the night away at full moon showing their acrobatic skills in the ‘Mabumbumbu’ dance. The old people had special vyama or clubs where they would spend hours dancing the dance in their honor. Sometimes during the death of a family member they would dance the dance in their honor.

She even enjoyed the game “Kaotokatoto”, the pinching game, while she and her brothers and sisters waited for supper each night. It seemed though that the best time for music was when her family would get together at the ‘hangani’ or long funeral when a relative died. When grandfather had died people came from miles and miles and stayed for six days and nights. What an exciting time. Her father had called in several special dance troops to perform for the many guests. One group was Mavinyo. She liked the song they sang about the child stealing the sweet boribo mangoes. Most of all she liked the special hando wrap-around skirts the women wore and the mirrors the men wore on their backs with the special leg shakers and arm skins. During the hangani there was much drinking of palm wine called Mnazi and eating the roasted meat. She learned how to skin goats and cows and lay the meat up in the trees to ripen. Esther remembers the old men sitting in the circle drinking mnazi and discussing the serious matters of land, palm trees and family.

Sometimes at night when her father was drinking and her mother was busy with mourning in the hut with her grandfather’s wives she remembers walking to the other parts of the village to see he young people dance and the sellers of palm wine and cakes and the gambling tables that some of the young boys from Mombasa began to bring. These days the young boys seemed more interested in the disco than the dancing at the hangani. As Esther became older she enjoyed dancing also. She knew there were happy songs to make people laugh and forget the going of her grandfather but she remembers the sad song, too, that was sung to let others know he died. Every year at planting time when her family would gather at the koma to ask the blessings of her grandfather, she would remember the special music of his funeral. One group was the Kambe Gonda. They were serious dancers.

They danced to the drums and special horn until sweat was pouring from their bodies. Esther liked the special groups very much because they sang beautifully and wore special costumes. Esther also liked to listen to the funny songs of the young men as they drank mnazi. They sang Mwanzele, Chechemeko and Kiringongo. These songs were not sung at funerals but at many places where the young men met to spend their time relaxing. Like her mother, she remembered these songs and when she would pound or grind the corn she would sing the songs she heard at the dance or other places where music was sung. The music made her work easier and she liked the stories within and the sweetness of the melody.

When Esther was 15 her parents agreed for her to marry a fine young man. He was 25 and a very fine dancer. The young man gave six cows for a dowry. The dowry was a show of his ability to provide for his new bride and a contract between the two families. Her strong back, energetic spirit, white teeth, deep rich black skin and of course her dancing skills had made her wanted by many young men outside of her clan. Years passed. She worked hard to make a good home. She was blessed with four strong children and even another wife to help with all the farming duties. She began to notice some changes around her though that kept her trying to understand. More and more young men were going to Mombasa to look for work.

Since the great war, where some of the village men traveled to other places, people needed paper money to buy supplies ad clothes. And yes the clothes. These began to change also, slowly at first. The missions built churches and schools and more and more young people were studying about unusual things she did not understand. They were even speaking in a language she could not hear and they look at “books” which she did not understand. She tried visiting the big church one Sunday but they did not speak her language and spent too much time reading and so little time singing. When they did sing it was those funny songs from the book that held the hands. The new wide paths cut by the white man had brought cars and some two wheeled cars. While she did not trust the white mganga or doctor, many others were following the paths to get the strange new ‘dawa’ or medicine that could cure the diseases. Some people were even moving to the new settlement schemes to get free land. But they did complain that the people from ‘bara’ or up-country were moving into Giriama land.

One day she was visited by a man named john. He said he was an evangelist. He was not like the other “mwenjilisti” she had heard about. He came on a bicycle, he was black and he even spoke her language. While her husband would not talk with him, he had given John permission to speak with his wives and children. John read from the black book about the Son of God coming into the darkness to bring light. This sometimes meant he healed people and cast out demons. Esther understood this because she had gone to the spirit dances at night. She did not like them and had spent many of her chickens to have the mganga to chase them away. Bwana Jeso had been killed by other men because of his good works. He had died on a cross but miraculously had come to life three days later. What power this man had.

Mwana wa Mulungu, Son of God.

Esther wanted this power and wanted to be healed of the sickness that had begun to come to her bones and breath. She asked this Bwana Jeso to come into her heart. John told Esther of a meeting for all believers and those who wanted to hear about Jeso under the Baobab tree near the town center. She wondered if the same Mulungu she used to visit under that tree would be there at the meeting. After John left the house, Esther began to think of her decision and this new Spirit that was within her. With chickens moving about the house and the new little kid goat jumping from chair to table to floor she began to hear a new song. She sang about [1]Mwana we Mulungu.

On Saturday night many people began to move toward the big tree. But they did not come too close. Most were waiting to see what would happen. They did not want to participate in anything that would not be acceptable. John began to clap his hands and sing a simple song in Swahili. The melody was sweet and the people began to laugh with excitement and appreciation of this new type of worshipping. It was much close to what they were use to. They began to clap and even dance to this singing. John was happy because he too enjoyed these new songs he learned from the white Pentecostal missionary in Mombasa. He had encouraged many new songs in Swahili. It was a growing church that he enjoyed while he was working in Mombasa. But then he had felt the need to return to his own people and tell of the new life he had received. Even when the people of the big stone church criticized and abused him for singing such songs and healing and casting out demons he knew he was doing the right thing in God’s eyes. Had not even Bwana Jeso been criticized for such things? As they service went into the night more and more people began to sing ad praise God. There was singing and preaching.

The new Christians and even some Christians from the Stone church spent the entire night singing. As each one had opportunity they stood to give testimony of what Bwana Jeso had done for him. Usually this testimony was in the form of a new song. Others would join in the singing. Many miles to the south near Kilifi, Justin Ngoma had also accepted Christ. Justin had been an excellent kayamba player and enjoyed very much drinking and singing the kiringongo dance. If Jeso could save him and he become new why couldn’t he also save the kayamba he played and the music he sang. He began to sing the narrow way the Christian must follow. Njia Hiyo. As years passed more and more people began to accept Bwana Jeso. They read the black book, those that could, but mostly they began to spend the night in singing and praising God much the way that the long funeral had been. But instead of drinking and dancing to forget the death they sang and danced songs to remember the new life in Christ. It was their way of showing victory over Satan and the darkness he brings. Naishenga.

Church Music in Transition: The development of Indigenous Church Music.

Music of culture is constantly in transition. It has a constancy passed from generation to generation but is dynamic like culture. Music of the church has changed by an initial complete break with tradition like the introduction of the western hymn. The introduction of the western hymn was among a number of cultural traits which affected the cultural and musical ecology of the local congregation. Over time these are adopted and adapted into a third “Christian culture” and a transfer of elements of traditional style as was the kiringongo. Local Christians come to a church event with their cultural lives. As a result, they continue to sing in their musical language using musical and linguistic semantic space to index their new belief.

The music and other worship elements introduced into a new Christian community may at first appear to be forced. However, the is a “differential negotiation” (in the phrase of Jak Njoku) in which different people come to the event and negotiate the difference. This negotiation takes place in cultural time as a community. Circumstances may be strong enough to cause a radical change in music. “You (we) must not use drums because they are associated with evil.” If the person desires to be a Christian (or associate with the culture it represents) they will conform, initially. The introduction of the western hymn was foreign. It was accepted by some and became indigenous to their new belief. In the case study above, social, economic as well as religious perception between 1953 and 1980 made it possible for more Wamijikenda, a people group thought resistant to the gospel, to accept the Gospel and express that acceptance through their own form of modified traditional-indigenous music.

Events beyond their control shaped their lives: the coming of missionaries and literacy development, British colonialism, World War Two, a cash economy, better roads and medical care. While some refuse to be affected by these changes and are forced to react, others chose to adapt for better or worse. It was difficult for the first Christians to accept Christ because it meant a great change for them. It was liberating for some. Others welcomed the changes to escape what they might have felt a lower position in life. They would receive a new status in a new day and time. But about 1953, and even more in 1970 it became easier to change, but not one less important, for people to accept Christ. He was understood in their own language and in a form they could understand, one that was closer to their lifestyle and cultural traits. The elements of the gospel were open to their own interpretation led by the Spirit. They praised him more fervently and heartily than ever before.

Since those years there has been a fusion of music from the western hymnody and English anthem brought by the Anglicans and the traditional Mijikenda. There are also influences of radio music from the west and other parts of Africa. This is the creation of a third culture, in the words of Heibert, belonging to neither the host or visiting culture completely. Following are some examples. Local churches (youth) introduced the guitar and fused the verse refrain song of the gospel hymn with the musical semantics of the local culture. Joyce Scott has called this Town Music. The Malindi Baptist Choir has been a center for such fusion shown in the example, Bwana Ndiye Nuru. This song uses the form of the gospel songs and the instruments of guitar, kayamba and drums. The music semantics are related to the Mijikenda. In recent years the youth choir has introduced electric guitars and a synthesizer. This church choir has been innovative because of the pastor, Rev. Morris Wanje, and his sons.

Rev. Wanje was one of the first converts of Baptist missionaries in the early 1950’s. An able evangelist, he began preaching and singing in his home of Malindi. He has traveled widely, as a chairman of the Kenya Baptist Convention, and two of his sons have been educated in the United States. Local musicians and ministers who were naturally aware of the principles of communicating in languages people understand began to write Christian words for traditional idioms and record them on cassette for public distribution. Robert Yaa, and Anglican pastor trained in an evangelical bible school, has used music in his ministry in this way. His use of “home” and “town” music are illustrated on the cassette (not available here.).

Principle: People express their religious and spiritual natures in the languages and symbols closests to their hearts.

For a traditional reading of Mijikenda customs try reading a local novel: The Wrath of Koma by Maurice Kambishera Mumba. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya Limited, Kijabe Street, P. O. Box 45314: 1987. [1]

The harvests songs of the Coast do not appear to have been influenced directly by the oppression and political activity. The coast though influenced by world and national events does not react in the same way that Nairobi and surrounding areas do. The growth of the music seems to begin in remote area. But one should not perceive that this would happen outside of political and social influences. There are now and have been other indigenous spontaneous music harvests at other places running parallel to that of the coast. In 1959 Jack Hull, a Baptist Missionary came to Kenya and then to Nyeri. He worked in an area that was considered dangerous because of remaining negative attitudes of the Kikuyu following Mau Mau protests. Hull liked singing, though he would not consider himself a musician. He received the local named “heavenly sunlight” after he taught this and other gospel songs to local churches. Between 1960 and 1970 the Hulls lived in Nyeri. His observation was that in the early 60’s there was an independent (not related to the independent movement suggested by David Barrett in Schism and Renewal In The African Church) movement of the established church. There was a strong PCEA (Presbyterian) and CMS (Christian Missionary Society) influence at the time. These services were often stayed an formal. But following this service people would congregate outside of the building to sing and share testimonies.

This same informal time grew to house worship with people sharing from many denominations. Choruses began to be sung in these groups-#80 of the current hymnal was used (Nyimbo Cia Kiroho-Kikuyu Hymnal) This means that the 1972 hymnal would be a collection of previous songs. The songs were Kikuyu in origin. It was discussed that the tunes were from the story telling song of the older Kikuyu (possibly, much like the transference of Mama Esther). The same tunes are used for numerous tunes according to James Nganga. This movement that cultivated in a new church music was influenced by several political and social events. In 1930’s there was a reaction against the churches negative stand against female circumcision.

Jomo Kenyatta in 1936 published Facing Mount Kenya, an ethnography of the Kikuyu people which took a strong statement against colonial power and the missionaries associated with it. In the late 40’s and 50’s a Revival Movement (Eastern Revival) spread from Rwanda east through Kenya. And the Kikuyu in the 50’s revolted against colonial power in what was called Mau Mau. In the revolt, the Anglican and PCEA were identified with colonial power–except in a paradox the hymns of the church were transliterated with political songs and sung in “church” gatherings. Thus they were at times the direction of hostility. Last Updated ( Saturday, 26 February 2005 )

August 1, 1994

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