Interview with Tanzanian composer and performer Mzee Seif Thabit who says he has been censored for his alignment with opposition political parties By Lingson Adam, reporting for Freemuse from Mbeya in Tanzania
“I was being followed up frequently. In the beginning they were polite. I thought they were joking. Later on things changed, and they started threatening me. They even told me that they would evict me from Isanga [his suburb of domicile] and Mbeya in general,” Seif Thabit told Freemuse in an interview recently. When he said ‘they’ he referred to the local leaders of the ruling political party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) at his community and district level.
Mzee Seif, as he is popularly known, (Mzee means ‘old man’ in Swahili language), has given in to the pressure and now sings for CCM, despite his innermost urge to sing for the opposition camp which he was also receiving sound economic benefits from.
You would think that music censorship is something which affects those high profile musicians who are known at a national level. However, there are evidences to prove that things are not much different at the lowest levels of governance, and worse still, incidences at this level go unreported.
Mzee Seif lives to tell his story. He is an old musician based in a small house in a densely populated suburb of the town Mbeya in the south western Tanzania. He does not know how old he is, but people who have been close to him think he may well be over 80 years old.
“They wanted me to stop performing for the opposition parties. When we put up our firm stand they started calling me names. They would even put on me false claims, and I was made to pay fines for no cause. I could see clearly that worse things were coming, so I decided to accept their wishes. But I am not happy,” he informed Freemuse.
Mzee Seif and his group are experts in the Lizombe music and dance style. Because of the predominance of singing in this style of music, it tends to play an important role when mobilising people during public gatherings in the area. In a Lizombe performance messages are efficiently and effectively channelled through while people enjoy the dancing and drumming. This is why politicians have a keen interest in Lizombe performers such as Mzee Seif and his group.
Mzee Seif’s Lizombe group was earning comparatively good wages when they sung and performed for the opposition parties.
“We would earn between 30,000 and 70,000 Tanzanian shillings (30-70 US dollars) per hire with the opposition fellows whereas we get 10,000 (10 US dollars) or less with CCM,” he said, adding that with CCM they are sometimes not paid at all.
“Sometimes they will just dictate upon us to attend their functions and only give us food, offer local brew, transport, and rarely we are offered T-shirts. We don’t say a word, they are the rulers,” said the illiterate but highly talented old musician who has been politically active since his youth far back during colonial times.
Songs as a tool for campaigns
This is an example of what Mzee Seif sang when he was advocating for John Cheyo to become president in 2000. Every recital was followed with a loud uproar from the multitudes that attended the meeting to affirm what they heard from the Lizombe singer, and he also made people hold on to one another. “Art has been a very important component of politics in this country. Since the first political parties emerged here, we, the artists, have been used to mobilise people and channel messages across,” Mzee Seif explained.
He remembers to have started singing in campaign for independence with the Tanganyika African Association (TAA). This was a workers’ movement formed just before the Second World War. Later on, in 1954, TAA gave birth to the first and independence-winning political party, the Tanganyika African National Union, TANU.
“I contributed to the struggles for independence,” he said with confidence and pride despite his belief that art has not earned him enough.
“I prefer compose and perform struggle songs to praise songs. Life is very difficult. Most of us are poor, only a few are well off. I feel obliged to compose songs which will help people to get out of these problems,” he remarked. But at the same time despite Mzee Seif being deeply involved in political activities as a performer, he has never been a member of any political party.
“I decided to be neutral in terms of membership,” he said.
Illiterate as he is, how does he excel in composing political songs? He answered such a question with ease and comfort, “That is not a problem, my friend. My group of nine people is a mix of people most of whom are literate youths. They read for me.”
He said that in several occasions he had demanded to sit with a politician or client to explain things to him.
“I demand time with whoever wants us to perform for so as he gives us the brief and then in a day or two I have everything in place for practice. It isn’t a problem at all. The client can even write down his ideas for us to pick some and get them across.”
Need of support
“They use us only when they need us. It is when they even force us, hurry us up and then drop us when they are done! We have no savings. The little money we get is distributed among the nine of us, we use only worn-out instruments, and there is nobody to sponsor us.”
“I tell you: art is very important. In any meeting, there must be artists to make people gather and hold them there till the end. We make people concentrate. Moreover, our messages get directly to the target audience in such a way politicians cannot,” he insisted.
He advises that since traditional music is the only sure thing that gives people real flavour of their African lives and is their pride, there should be some informed efforts to sustain and develop it. He called upon NGOs, the private sector and other stakeholders to use the traditional musicians in advertising their services just as they do with other modern artists like beauty models, and bongo flavour musicians.
‘Dirty and unripe politics’
Polisya Mwaiseje was one of the few success stories of opposition politics in Tanzania by winning parliamentary seat for Mbeya town constituency in the first multi-party general elections in 1995. “Mzee Seif is a victim of this difficult political system in Tanzania,” Polisya Mwaiseje said in an interview with Freemuse. “The old man was in the front line in mobilising people through his songs and getting across some refined messages during campaign rallies. He has a very special way of getting across messages in a very simple way that can be understood by everyone.”
Mwaiseje served as a Member of Parliament for a term of five years from 1995 to 2000 when he lost the seat to Benson Mpesya of the incumbent CCM.
He says Mzee Seif’s support to NCCR-MAGEUZI began to decline after the 2000 election and that as time went on the Lizombe troupe could not turn up for shows whenever they were requested to.
“When we were preparing for the 2005 general election campaigns we went to see Mzee Seif to call for his attention. This time he made it clear to us that he won’t be supporting us any more. He told us that following lots of intimidation he made up his mind to campaign for the ruling party to save his life!”
Polisya Mwaiseje confirmed that threatening musicians and artists in general was a common practice in CCM politics. He cited another incidence back to the 2000 election, where a trumpet group in Mbalizi in the outskirts of Mbeya town, even though they had received advance payments for their service, did not show up because they had been threatened by district leadership of CCM
“This is dirty and unripe politics,” he said.
“Artists and their groups are free to decide who to work with and for whatever reasons. It is against freedom of expression and freedom of association to force anybody, let alone an artist, to follow a certain ideology. They are free and they should be free to decide,” he stated.
He further pointed out that political parties have been denied equal opportunities in every arena of expression, and for that reason they have been using public rallies to instil confidence to artists and appeal to the people’s power.
“I urge all artists in the country to realise that they are part and parcel of the struggle against oppression and exploitation. They should therefore not give up to the threats, they should instead further their struggles. Victory is around the corner. Aluta continua!” concludes the political figure who regards himself as the victim of music censorship.
CCM denies allegations
He said that CCM was on very good terms with a number of musicians from small traditional artistic groups to music bands, and as such they would have no reason to force anybody to join the CCM campaigning squad.
Elia Nyando said that they are reputed in paying good sums for the music and dance groups that they hire for the party’s political purposes where he said they pay between 50,000 and 120,000 Tanzanian shillings (50 to 120 US dollars on average).
“When we need any music or dance group we advance them and hire. We never use any artist for free. We never force anybody. We value art. It’s very important in our day to day politics,” he said
He said the party has no problem with musicians and other artists who work with opposition political parties. “After all it is more of a business to them and we can’t deny anybody the right to livelihood,” he said
Nyando admitted, though, that there were reports of CCM members and fans to have threatened artists who are renowned to favour opposition parties in their areas of domiciles. However, he put it clear that his party detests such practices and vehemently rebukes them as a matter of principle.
“We tell them over and over again: that isn’t good. We urge them to be polite and tolerant to other peoples’ freedom,” he said, and added that it would be an act of low standard for the ruling party to embark on intimidating artists. Being ruling party bears the responsibility to nurture democracy.
“He [the CCM district secretary] can well refute what I have said. But what our troupe knows is that they underpay us and they were not happy when I was performing for the opposition camp. I believe whoever came to threaten me had blessings from the top. His words are only political. He couldn’t accept the truth,” was Mzee Seif’s response when Freemuse told him what district secretary Elia Nyando had stated.
Photo by Festo Sikagonamo
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