Namibian and Finnish Musicians on Fire!

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By Jana-Mari Smith

Music forms an essential part of world cultures. It is something through which a culture
breathes and expresses itself, something without which humans would not survive. Values,
understanding, beliefs and knowledge are channeled through music in every culture. – Sakari Löytty | People’s Church – People’s Music, Contextualization of liturgical music in an African church.

Have you heard about The Dogg? Lady May or Gazza? Probably. But have you heard about Joseph Tjinana and Naimbundu Shilengifa? Do you know what a Okambulumbubwa or a Otjihumba look and sound like? These are the guardians of ancient musical traditions, gatekeepers of an important ritual form of storytelling that predates writing and books by many, many years.

These two men, and others like them, are masters of ancient traditional instruments,  man-made objects designed to satisfy the most basic of human emotions and needs – to keep loneliness at bay and to satisfy the human enjoyment of a good yarn.

Both Joseph and Shilengifa performed an eye-opening joint jam session with Finnish musicians hailing from the Sibelius Academy of Finland this week.

The musicians displayed their technical skills on their respective historical instruments. The result – harmony and a striking example of how cultures can bridge their significant differences with the pick of an instrument.

Okambulumbubwa. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Okambulumbubwa. Photo Jana-Mari Smith

 Joseph Tjinana musician crafts namibian people Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Joseph Tjinana. Photo ©Jana-Mari Smith

IMG_Shilengifa Naimbudu musician arts namibian people Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Naimbudu Shilengifa – contemporary storyteller in praise song and gate-keeper to key human history of music and storytelling. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

The performance took place following a seminar attended by a delegation of musical historians from Finland’s top music institution, the Sibelius Academy, who joined hands with Namibian musicians and historians.

Harmonic jam session. Photo Jana-Mari Smith

Harmonic jam session. Photo Jana-Mari Smith

Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Traditional instrument – Namibia. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

The Sibelius Academy delegation included Dr. Sakari Löytty, professor emeritus Heikki Laitinen, professor Hannu Saha and research assistant Vesa Norilo. The Finnish representatives performed together with Dr. Francois Tsoubaloko aka Papa Fransua and lecturer Jabulani Moyo who are lecturers at the University of Namibia. And of course, Joseph and Shilengifa.

DSCF7391Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Shilengifa Naimbudu performs on the bow-like Okambulumbubwa. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

The musical partnership between the Finnish Sibelius Academy and the University of Namibia (UNAM) started in 2007, as part of a cultural exchange deal that was launched in 2000 between Finland and Namibia. The goal: to create a Namibian museum to research, document, preserve and revive ancient Namibian folk music, instruments and history.

Sakari Löytty explained that music and the study of it, provides people from different backgrounds the opportunity to understand their shared humanity.

Sing it loud.

Sing it loud.

Pastor Johannes Tolu, a keen student of Namibia’s ancient musical traditions, noted that one of the key elements of the project is to introduce the notion to a younger generation that a connection to the past can tell you who you are by identifying where you come from. “It belongs to you”.

Research assistant Vesa Norilo, a Sibelius research assistant, said that their work in Namibia revealed a rich diversity of musical traditions and that the project’s goal is to safe-keep this aspect from “disappearing”. Many of the traditional instruments are now hard to find, and as part of the revitalisation of these traditions was to build the instruments. As such, the Academy approached Finnish instrument maker Juhana Nyrminen, who was tasked to replicate a traditional Namibian instrument – the Otjihumba.

The true test of his work came when Joseph was shown the instrument earlier this week and finally, when he played it.

Juhana Nyrminen and Joseph Tjinana does a test run on the Finnish built Otjihumba and compares it to his own version. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Joseph Tjinana during the test run on the Finnish built Otjihumba. Juhana Nyrminen, the instrument maker, looks on. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Juhana Nyrminen and Joseph Tjinana joined by the Otjihumba. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

His verdict: Some difference in the structure and build, but overall, he gave the thumbs up to the cue of an 80% test score.

Otjihumba Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Otjihumba. Photo © Jana-Mari Smith

Sakari Löytty, who was born in Namibia during his parent’s missionary placement here, said the project is an opportunity to address the neglect of appreciating local traditions. He noted that following Namibia’s independence, the enthusiasm to establish a modern democracy opened up a gap in exploring, and preserving, past traditions. This project is a way to exercise a responsibility towards ancient traditions and to strengthening the link between the past, present and future.

Löytty concluded by saying that ultimately, “a musician is a musician. We share a common humanity and even if we don’t share a language, we share the music”.

Music is a universal language.

Sakari Löytty and Naimbundu Shilengifa. Student and Teacher.

DID YOU KNOW (Sourced from Sakari Löytty | People’s Church – People’s Music, Contextualization of liturgical music in an African church.

  • Traditionally, instruments such as the Otjihumba was used to accompany herdsmen while looked after grazing animals.
  • Hunting and nomadic life have apparently contributed to the creation of musical bows, such as the Okambulumbubwa, which presumably developed from experiments of producing sound with a hunting bow.
  • In many African cultures, as in Namibia, the use of instruments is practice specific.
  • Their playing is regulated according to the particular cultural tradition and context in where they appear. This can involve meanings, taboos and unwritten rules determining the performance of an instrument.
  • Okahumba (or okaxumba in Oukwanyama) is an instrument similar to the otjihumba of the Ovahimba and Ovaherero.
  • Pre-colonial cultural music in northern Namibia, particularly that of the Ovambo, was well structured and functionally organized.
  • Vocal music was common and singing was integrated practically in all spheres of life, often in communal ways.
  • Instrumental music was practiced by musicians specialized also in building their instruments, but it was mostly performed for self-delectative purposes.
Ambassador to Finland Anne Saloranta.

Ambassador to Finland Anne Saloranta.

The objectives of the Namibian / Finnish musical project are as follows:

  • Collection, documentation and archiving of traditional Namibian folk music and dance, rites and rituals, audio and video recordings and photography
  • Digitising the traditional music collection in the music library of the NBC
  • Reviving the building of ancient Namibian Folk instruments
  • Organising joint concerts and tours in Finland and Namibia
  • Lectures and workshops for students in Unam and Sibelius Academy
  • Producing ethnomusicological study materials



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