Steel Band Made in East Africa

Pius Sawa Murefu

Kampala, Uganda - Jul 2007

  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab

Whereas some will use steel drums for water storage, others will use them for making charcoal stoves and some others for storing the local brew; Kenneth Mwalimu from Dar-Essalaam, Tanzania needs them for a band in order to develop and promote the African cultural performance of his primary school children and the younger generation at large.

Unlike traditional drums, a set of steel drums forms a complete set of instruments needed to produce music.  In as much as talking about traditional music being produced by an innovation made out of western materials appears to defy logic, this is what is taking place.  Should instruments for traditional music strictly be made out of hides, skins and wood or should instrument construction evolve and new inventions be created by Africans’ despite the origin of the materials?  That is food for thought.

The drums are like any old drum from a farm or shed.  There are nine full sized drums and eight short ones in the band and each drum produces four different notes.  One may think the tops of the drums are damaged when in reality each dent was deliberately caused by a hammer to produce a specific note corresponding to that produced by a key on a keyboard.  It is fascinating how Mwalimu does it.

The short drums dangle between tiny metallic stands while the big drums stand on small short pieces of timber to allow sound to emanate from the base.  One pupil controls five of the big drums with two drum sticks, while another commands four of the small ones.  The band needs only four pupils to produce music others are able to participate by becoming singers and/ or dancers.

During the second East African Children’s Cultural Festival at Pope Paul memorial Community Centre in Kampala, Uganda, until the master of ceremonies announcement, it had not clicked in anyone’s mind that what the pupils of Tamasha choir from Tanzania were bringing on stage was a band; “up next is a traditional song by Tamasha from Dar-Essalaam with their steel band,” he said.

Before the band began, the MC took a drum stick and hit different notes on the drum.  The entire hall was amazed. The children began with five minutes of instrumental music before their teachers and fellow students got on stage to dance to the famous song ‘Malaika’.  After realizing what the innovation was all about the crowed would not give room to Tamasha pupils to prepare for their next set outside the hall.  The band were surrounded by doubting Thomas’s who had to touch and try the drums for themselves.

During the official opening of the second session of the festival accompanied by the band; the Tamasha school choir sung the three national anthems of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in front of government officials.  This earned them an invitation to the Commonwealth Heads of State Summit (CHOGM), to be attended by her Majesty Queen of England in Kampala, November 2007.

The dream of Mwalimu Kenneth is just two years old and his innovation is yet to spread to other countries.  He says his innovation was necessitated due to the lack of musical instruments in many schools.  Instruments are required to develop the talents of children right from kindergarten to tertiary levels.

“It costs millions of shillings to purchase pianos, guitars and other drums for a band, and most schools can’t afford it.  However, every school has potential musical talents; steel drums are everywhere and far more affordable.  While others may use them to store water, I make instruments out of them.” Mwalimu tells me.

In many places in Africa obtaining electricity is problematic, as electricity is a prerequisite for keyboards and electric guitars to function, even when the instruments are available they cannot be fully utilised.  The steel band does not need electricity, and can be played anywhere at any time.  The drums are robust and can be stored without fear of theft or damage from the weather.

Mwalimu says he even teaches nursery school kids to play the drums.  His dream is to see the innovation go beyond East Africa to the African Union.  He may be making progress because every head teacher who attended the ‘Inter Capital City Federation of Head Teachers Association’ (East Africa) which was part of the festival placed an order.  One teacher bought a set of Mwalimu’s drums at half the price for $500 cash.

In the spirit of East African cooperation, Mwalimu says he was cutting the price in half so that each school can create a steel band.  In practice he doesn’t need to export the drums, all that is required is for interested persons to collect drums locally and then invite Mwalimu to come and convert the drums into instruments.  He is happy to help set up a band if required.

“What is important here is for people in Africa to appreciate the fact that they have the capacity to transform their dreams into reality through simple innovations.  This will lead to savings by not spending money on importing expensive but fragile equipment.  It will also bring in economic development,” says Mwalimu.

A member from Uganda’s popular cultural group, the Ndere Troupe tells me they can combine steel drums with their traditional drums so as to attract tourists and produce what he describes as the real African thing.

One wonders how much money Mwalimu will make out of his simple innovation, imagine all the schools in a country purchasing a steel drum set.

The Inter-city federation of head teachers association of East Africa was conceived in 1994 by a group of teachers from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  One of the objectives is to foster African culture through music, dance, drama, poems and fashion.  The association now includes two new members of the East Africa Community, Rwanda and Burundi.

“We are looking at Africa without borders.” Says Joachim Tamba, the chairman of the head teacher’s federation.