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Safeguarding endangered traditional performing arts

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Recently, the United States Embassy and Museums of Malawi signed a grant in support of a project on the safeguarding of endangered traditional performing arts which includes songs, music and theatre among the three communities of Sena, Yao and Chewa.

Through this grant the US Embassy once again underlined stance in supporting different sectors in the country including arts and culture.

Arts and culture is one of have sectors in the country which has been sidelined for a long time and it continues to play second fiddle to most of the other areas despite having potential to help in economic development.

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Just to show how culture has been resized in the country, the government continues to toss it around during cabinet reshuffles and yet in other countries it is a stand-alone ministry.

The Department of Culture receives poor funding such that many of its projects are yet to be finalised among them the refurbishment of the Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC) which is still in its dilapidated state.

But thanks to donors such as USA Embassy and Royal Norwegian Embassy which continue to play a crucial role in helping propel the arts and culture in the country.

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The coming in of US Embassy this time funding the safeguarding of the endangered traditional performing arts is a move that will help strengthen the arts and culture sector.

Acting Deputy of Culture, Lovemore Mazibuko, said this project was conceptualised upon realisation that traditional music, songs and theatre are not being practiced as much as it used to be in the past.

Mazibuko further said that this confirms fears that slowly Malawi is losing an important aspect of its cultural heritage.

“This is so because most people, particularly the youths, have developed big appetite for foreign music and dance. Already, there are very few people out there who can perform traditional music and songs,” he said.

Mazibuko said the country’s performing arts are thus under threat of disappearing.

“There is fear that if these forms of music, songs and theatre are not collected, documented and properly archived now, they might go extinct and the Museums of Malawi as an institution that is responsible for the preservation and safeguarding of Malawi’s culture might not be in a position to collect these materials in future, resulting in the loss of valuable information on the country’s national heritage,” he said.

He said it was in this background that this project is aimed at redressing the situation by making sure that the various aspects of Sena, Yao and Chewa performing arts are properly identified, documented and archived for future generations.

Mazibuko said the overall objective of this project is to contribute to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Malawi.

Recently Music Crossroads Malawi also organised a Pakhonde Camp in Ntchisi which was part of training artists how to play some of the traditional instruments which were slowly missing on the ground.

Most of the traditional instruments such as Kaligo are played by people of the older generation.

Music Crossroads Director Mathews Mfune said it was high time the country became serious and moved on to teach the younger generation how to play some of these traditional instruments.

Mazibuko said through the project, they intend to produce 120 videos of the elements which will be copied on 12 DVDs with each DVD containing 10 videos.

He added that each DVD will be reproduced into 120 copies making a total of 1440 DVD copies.

“A temporary exhibition on traditional music and dance will be organised at Chichiri Museum in Blantyre,” Mazibuko said.

He said apart from this, they will also organise live performances during which selected practitioners from the participating communities will be brought to perform at Chichiri Museum during the launch of the exhibition.

“This will be part of knowledge transmission to the younger generation and the city folks,” Mazibuko said.

The US grant is administered by the American government under the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural preservation (AFCP).

The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is one of many programmes run by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as part of its mission of public diplomacy through educational and cultural programming and exchange.

According to available information, the AFCP supports a wide range of projects to preserve cultural heritage citing among others cultural sites – such as, but not limited to historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Mazibuko said this is a highly competitive grant which is open to cultural heritage institutions in less developed countries of the world where the United States of America has its presence.

“For us to win this grant, we submitted the proposal which was first vetted by the US Embassy in Lilongwe before it was sent to Washington DC where it had to compete with other projects from other parts of the world,” he explained.

US Ambassador to Malawi Virginia Palmer said during the signing ceremony that only six projects from Africa were approved including the one submitted by the Museums of Malawi.

Mazibuko said the project will also inspire artists to fuse their kind of music with traditional genres and produce different forms of music with traditional Malawian touch.

Apart from that, the project according, to Mazibuko also plans to organise live performances at Chichiri Museum in Blantyre during which practitioners from the participating communities will be brought to perform at Chichiri Museum using traditional musical instruments alongside renowned musicians.

Some artists are also expected to have the opportunity of setting up collaborative ventures through this project as a result of the exposure.

He said at tertiary level, the use of the materials generated under this project will include drawing contests on the documented traditional music and dance.

Palmer said she was looking forward to seeing and hearing results observing that this was the start of a unique opportunity to record, document and archive the fascinating musical instruments and songs of the Sena, Yao and Chewa tribes.

She said that the Ambassador’s Fund was a way to show respect for the cultural heritage of others and that this was an enduring legacy and reminder of the contributions and historical experiences of humanity.

Palmer described music as a snapshot of history and that it has power to instantly transport “you to a different time, a different place.”

“You hear a song, and you are brought back to a day or a person. Maybe your first love; your first heartache. A trip somewhere. A class you once took. It puts you in a moment—and it is that moment we are trying to preserve with this grant,” said the US Ambassador.

She further said music also has an important social role to play.

“I mentioned music is a snapshot of history—well, sometimes that history is more than a first kiss. It can reflect a birth, marriage, an initiation ceremony, or a funeral. It can be a protest, a movement, a cry of pride or joy, it can be tragedy, it can be war, and sometimes that history is the fulfilment of the hopes and dreams of a people,” she said.

Palmer said it was her hope that this grant will help create that snapshot of a history of the people of the Sena, Yao and Chewa tribes, “not only for them, but also for all of us.”

Minister of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development Patricia Kaliati thanked the US government for the grant which is worthy $39,032 (approximately K28 million).

Kaliati said music, songs and theatre are an important aspect of Malawian culture.

“The occasions on which songs, music and theatre are performed are just as varied. They are performed at such gatherings as weddings, funerals, rituals and initiations, festivities, all kinds of entertainment as well as many other social functions,” Kaliati said.

She said that certain forms of music teach boys and girls the importance of morality, thereby, effectively assisting in bringing back value systems to the youths in this era of HIV/Aids.

“These are such traditions that need to be documented and strengthened in the communities. Therefore, the importance of this project cannot be over-emphasized as it aims at collecting, document and archiving the various forms of performing arts so that they are well preserved for future generations,” she said.

Kaliati said the country ratified the UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the safeguarding

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