Mwezi WaQ. - Songs of moon and hope
A creation by Soeuf Elbadawi
Appropriating the tradition to rejuvenate it and breathe new life into it, such has been the undertaking of Mwezi waQ. A concept rather than a band's name, Mwezi Wa means "moon of" in Shikomori language and the letter Q evokes the Arabic transcription (1) of the name "Comoros", the archipelago where this project originated, notably carried by the desire to bring the star of poetry into play in order to grighten up the daily life of a defeated people.
Originally, the Comoros were called djuzru’l’Qamar – the moon islands, a name given to them by Arab sailors who arrived on their dhows in the moonlight and were surprised by these black lava landscapes suddenly looming up from the water. A nation developed on the epics of mixed-blood people, a land that was for long a place of refuge for all kinds of lost souls, pirates, men of the book and thousands of other persecuted humans. Austronesians, Bantu, Persians, Arabs, Indian, Portuguese etc., it would really take time to make the list of the original antecedents of the people in this country –a list which, among other things, would tell improbable stories of the Indian Ocean.
In the spiral of Southern people still under tutelage after almost two hundred years, the Comoros Islands struggle on as best they can on the seawaters between Madagascar and the East-African coast. Their history is mapped out with things unsaid, which their musical heritage bears witness to. As the historian and anthropologist Damir Ben Ali explains, throughout the centuries, it is “almost exclusively through singing and dancing” that the Comoros “have expressed their thought, passed on their life experiences from one generation to the next, and exercised their imagination as well as their artistic and literary talent.” In this land it is music, more than any other form of expression, that has served to retain a living memory. The artistic collective gathered around Mwezi WaQ has honoured this in its fashion, either covering long established songs or composing original pieces based on today’s real-life experience, to remain in tune with the deep realities of this land of a thousand faces.
In a language that sometimes sounds very ancient, each piece on this album seeks out to reweave the drab story of a land of lunar fate. This album is totally related to and follows on from the heritage of past centuries. Mwezi waQ asserts its rooting in a tradition that represent the epic of the archipelago’s inhabitants. Certain songs recount the slow disintegration of an archipelago in full denial. The Collective draws its strength from the knowledge of elders, revisits the heritage and extends its duration in time, with the clear purpose of producing music that is at the same time traditional, deeply rooted and resolutely contemporary. In a musical landscape caught up in the increasingly pop direction taken by world music, Mwezi waQ offers a possible alternative: culture as a way to oppose standardisation and mass mind-numbing.
Music for a new age, resolutely Comorian and drawing its spirit from the most ancient melodies, yet with a strong desire for renewal. Music combining the past and future, with no other claim than being connected to the present times and necessities, on an insular scene seriously damaged by the crisis. This is where the true story of Mwezi waQ will probably be conceived –in its ability to depict the joys and sorrows of its fellow citizens. Indeed, the Comoros are amongst the rare countries where the status of artists, as it’s understood on today’s world scenes, has had but very little meaning in daily life. Given the economy it entails, the very notion might even seem abstract or even absurd to decision-makers, whether local politicians or businessmen. Until recently, for the archipelago’s inhabitants one could not be an artist by profession and the act of creation first had to correspond to a well-determined necessity in the operation of the traditional social order.
Admittedly, connections with the artistic world used to be based on poetics of rare aesthetics, yet each of the declared genre, shape or object was totally related to a necessity of life. There were works of creation embodying a common fate and corresponding to the questionings of determined times; they did not necessarily claim an author’s signature, although memories have retained the most revered pieces and the creators most in phase with their fellow citizens. Long ago, following radical society changes, some works disappeared from the heritage without being regretted by anyone –which sometimes posed a problem as regards the passing on of memory, in as much as these works represented the only record of certain events. More recently, such was the case with the “hwimbia ikoza”, the soothing parturition songs that accompanied women during difficult and risky deliveries. Since the idea of modern maternity homes has spread to the inner country, these songs have disappeared.
Were it not nurtured by real life experience or social questioning, the poetic act itself –including amongst songwriters– could not survive the moods of time. Rather than fanatical utilitarianism regarding artistic matters, this comes under the logic of sense. By embracing reality, in a communal society music de facto asserted itself in everybody’s life, from birth to death. There was no need to fight in order for it to be honoured, celebrated or appreciated. So long as it could give an account of people’s daily life, it naturally found its place in the rituals of life, until it gave way to other necessities and emerging new practices more in phase with the questionings of the moment. In the image of the hwimbia ikoza, other music forms, such as the famous hwimbia misi that opens the album, have disappeared from the repertoire because they no longer meet any life command. In the archipelago, music people evolving in other forms of artistic expression never tried to bypass this rule until recently –now that acknowledgement comes in terms of international broadcasting and record market.
However, Mwezi WaQ follows its path with the view that the mission of creative works is to reconcile men with their past and immediate history. In its approach, the collective takes over the dialectics of necessity and reality –this at a time when uncertainties of a new genre cross the cultural landscape of the archipelago. Most Comorian artists henceforth ask themselves the embarrassing question of which market they should create for and which concerns they have to meet. Many of them only wish to make a name for themselves on the world music scene, recording in the best possible conditions, (inevitably) for a foreign label, and touring the world over at the risk of losing touch with their country’s realities. These artists are less and less curious about the expectations of their “immediate” audiences who (other than through piracy) cannot always follow their dreams of international consecration –the only way likely to ensure them a sizeable income.
Many of them write according to what they believe to be the demands of the international scene, including how it manages to mould the tastes of their contemporaries. In Moroni, as in other places, ears have been won to the less demanding trends of world music, which in turn outshine local forms of expression rooted in the tradition. Wanting to be in tune with the faraway, urban Comorian audiences dance to the sound of international pop music, which is often standardised.
Mwezi waQ tries not to break with these “immediate” audiences. In combining various energies, the collective that came about at the Muzdalifa House in Moroni is more than ever keen to hang on to the views of elders regarding the role of creative works in society, whatever their domain. Mwezi waQ has the desire to re-forge links with the Comorian melodrama and to echo the archipelago’s traumatisms –the syndrome of the “inescapable place” stated by Edouard Glissant. The collective’s profession of faith specifies: “We are just convinced that no experience towards globalisation is possible if we cannot root our vision of music in the very place where we live. For a long time, music works were the only means to convey and pass on our ancestors’ life experiences on these islands. If, for the sake of entertainment, we turn our back to our reality, we risk having nothing more to tell to both our people and the world.”
In a way, Mwezi waQ tries to find its place by pondering on its existing environment: four islands whose destiny was crushed by some long history of planters and soldiers, forever stuck at the entrance of the old Mozambique canal –a country that deeply sustains Mwezi waQ’s works. Whether “covers” or new compositions, the pieces on this album talk about renunciation, the defeated, sullied memory, how to better live together, ultimate prayers and divine greatness, the deceitfulness of those in power and paradise on earth. “The guiding thread is our desire to tell of our woes and not to cling to the tradition as one would in a nostalgic relation to the past, but to question it in terms of new musical practices, to deconstruct and embody it in a new fashion –in the daily life of men who, admittedly, are disillusioned, yet still upstanding.
Soeuf Elbadawi : lead vocalGuitarGuitar, bass guitarPercussions