Saturday, May 24, 2008

In Review---Healing a Country Through Music

Singing for Life
Songs of Hope, Healing, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda
Smithsonian Folkways

Music has the power to heal. This we know and time and again this point garners further proof. A new Smithsonian Folkways recording, Singing for Life compiled and recorded by ethnomusicologist Gregory Barz, brings us another hopeful musical project from the heart of sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the ample liner notes, 38 million people worldwide are infected with HIV and roughly two thirds of those infected reside in Africa and 25.3 million live in sub-Saharan Africa. "Uganda is the single sub-Saharan African country that demonstrated remarkable, constant decline in overall infection rates. Many factors have contributed to this decline, and a critical one, Singing for Life, tries to show, is music."

In Uganda where music plays a crucial role in everyday life, acting as a vehicle for educational messages, rituals, ceremonies and other activity, various musical groups, healers, and NGO-workers have collaborated on awareness projects. Singing for Life introduces us to some of the key musicians and groups traveling around Uganda in hopes that their theatrical, educational and musical productions will curb the types of behavior that lead to HIV infection.

But the songs sung on this CD, with their lively call & response vocals, urgent messages and polyrhythms, are not funeral dirges. In fact, if you did not read the liner notes or lyric translations, you might mistake this collection of AIDS awareness songs as celebratory music. The vocals come across as passionate and sincere, as well as, hopeful. Traditional instruments play mostly in the background of the vocals, but even hearing those instruments proves to be a delightful experience.

One of the musicians sums it up best when he mentions that music has a much more powerful effect than educating people by writing on a chalkboard. The theatricality and musicality of this material is mainly aimed at youth who have not been infected yet, but it also speaks about those who have succumbed and perished from the virus and the symptoms one can expect if they live with the virus. Of course it is not unusual for African music in general to carry with it some social message, in the case of Singing for Life, the social message is AIDS prevention, awareness and compassion.

Some listeners will find this recording heart wrenching while others will find it hopeful, even as some of the women inflicted with the disease raise their voices in the choir and join in the dance. That in itself they say proves healing for them because they get their minds off of their illness and enjoy the music.

All royalties from the sale of this CD go to support the social service networks run by two agencies in Uganda that facilitated some of these recordings. For more information, go to

Also check out the recordings of Ugandan musician Samite

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