Folk music and masculinity in Western

It serves as vital expression of cultural identity and societal values

In Summary

• Initiation season is characterised by folk songs, where Micah Wanyenje is shining

Balotelli locks horns with reigning champion Nasa at Malinya grounds during a bullfighting event in Kakemga county
Balotelli locks horns with reigning champion Nasa at Malinya grounds during a bullfighting event in Kakemga county

2024 is initiation season among the communities of Western Kenya. For Bantu cultures there, the performance of masculinity is often intricately intertwined with indigenous rituals, festivals and songs, serving as vital expressions of cultural identity and societal values.

Among various Luhya communities, these rituals play a pivotal role in delineating gender roles and expectations, shaping individuals’ understanding of what it means to be a man within their respective societies.

From initiation ceremonies to communal festivals, these cultural practices couched in songs serve as platforms for transmitting indigenous knowledge, values and virtues associated with traditional masculinity.

Within this age-old heritage of indigenous traditions, rituals like bullfighting among the Isukha in Kakamega county and circumcision ceremonies, such as Embalu among the Bukusu, stand as public examples of how Luhya cultures imbue masculinity with deep cultural significance.

Through these rituals and performances, these Kenyans uphold and reinforce their collective identity, while passing down ancestral wisdom to future generations.

Bullfighting holds a profound significance as a cultural expression intricately linked to the performance of masculinity. Here, bulls are not merely animals but embodiments of virility and masculine prowess, with their owners’ social standing intricately tied to the prowess of their bovine companions in combat.

The belief permeates that those who command superior fighting bulls garner greater respect within the community. This cultural reverence extends to figures like Kakamega Senator Bonny Khalalwe, who treats his bulls with the reverence befitting royalty.

The clash of the bulls mirrors the symbolic struggle for dominance and prestige among the Isukha, underlining the deep-rooted significance of bullfighting as a cultural touchstone for masculinity in Kakamega county.

In contrast, the Bukusu of Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties celebrate masculinity through their Embalu initiation ritual. This ceremony, held every even year in August, is characterised by lively dances and communal songs, inviting the community to witness the initiates’ demonstration of stamina and endurance.

In Bukusu culture, circumcision songs hold significant importance in elucidating the gender roles ingrained within the community. Rural extravaganzas filled with singing and dancing serve as the platform for this cultural transmission.

These festivals and their accompanying verbal arts are often imbued with sexual themes, reflecting the community’s age-old approach to sex education and the performance of gender identities. Through traditional initiation songs, both boys and girls are provided with insights into sexual education and the cultural expectations surrounding their respective gender roles.

In this context, one can appreciate the rise of Micah Wanyenje on the music charts of the Bukusu today. Micah is a vibrant contemporary Bukusu musician who is dominating the airwaves of Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties with his hit songs. His song 'Takwei' is a reappropriation of a traditional initiation song known as 'Mulongo' all over the country.

In the original popular song Mulongo, aspects of Bukusu masculinity are identified and celebrated in descriptive detail. The song is common among Kenyans all over and is played ironically in most weddings across the country and TV wedding shows.

The persona describes how his sexual vitality led to a calamity. He performed his carnal duties with much aplomb, only to discover after climaxes that his gymnastics were sending his lover’s young pregnancy towards miscarriage. The juxtaposition of sweetness and bitterness masks the celebration of male stamina much admired in this community.

However, the new version of the song, as rendered by Wanyenje, is admirably creative and informative. The singer dropped the Mulongo title and baptised the song Takwei. This moniker is derived from the name of Wycliffe Matakwei, the leader of a guerrilla militia that arose in 2005 in Bungoma county around Mount Elgon and named itself the Sabaot Land Defence Force.

Before it was crushed by the Kenya Defence Forces, the SLDF had wreaked havoc among the Bukusu and Sabaot communities of that region. It killed a thousand people and displaced 100,000 more on a path of pillaging, torture, rape, vandalism and daring attacks on police stations and camps of chiefs.

In the song, Wanyenje revisits this bloody period almost two decades later and, in a series of rhetorical questions, pondering on the ill fate of Matakwei. Most of the victims of this uprising, quashed by President Kibaki, were Bukusus.

Matakwei was a Sabaot. The two communities have lived for centuries together on Mount Elgon but engage in border disputes heightened by postcolonial political chicanery and mischief.

The singer positions Matakwei in the dubious league of Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. He then unleashes parallelisms to describe to his audience the dark fate of all these infamous dreaded leaders.

He does this to show that the Bukusus, whose power lies in stamina and endurance, are invincible. One may choose to antagonise them, but such exploits will simply be exercises in vain because the populous tribe is a strong, old rock.

He then proceeds to link the secret stamina and power of the tribe with initiation and masculinity. He celebrates the performance of masculinity of the Bukusu nation by extolling sexual virtues of manhood. In a call and response, typical of indigenous songs of Kenya, he leads his energetic band in stanzas of parallelism on the subject.

Wanyenje has discovered that the future of popular music lies in local subjects and global technology. He has digitised the songs of his community and engaged the change gear. He has discovered that YouTube and other social media platforms are the way to go for traditions in transition.

His songs are trending on such platforms. One can listen to 'Takwei', 'Kobola Engo' (Return and Build your County after getting a job/Invest in your county), 'Alimo Sindu' (This Leader is Capable), and the current club banger, 'Niamshe' (Wake Me up), which is trending in nightclubs across the country.

Besides adopting ICT, the self-branded ambassador of Luhya music has invested in bilingualism to broaden his audience base. In 'Niamshe', he fuses Sheng and Kiswahili with Lubukusu lyrics, with excellent results. He is the future of Luhya music.


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