Tanzania Albinism Collective‘s album White African Power: a rise from persecution to pride

Members of the Tanzania Albinism Collective tell us how music helped them to find their voices.

Sabina of Tanzania Albinism Collective. Photo by Marilena Delli
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Music can be a powerful catalyst for bringing people together, even when the “instruments” involved do not seem particularly musical.

Ian Brennan, the founder of the Tanzania Albinism Collective, experienced such a improvisational, DIY approach during a session last year.

“They were using a sledgehammer,” he says. “Some were banging the tabletop, a bottle, a broken rain barrel. They got pretty tired but it was invigorating.”

The song created during that memorable session was White African Power, the title track from this remarkable collective's new album. It captures a moment when persecuted individuals suddenly became a louder and prouder community.

Brennan, from California, is a producer who searches for unheard voices. A previous project featured inmates at Malawi’s Zomba Prison, and this latest album brought together about 20 people ostracised due to an accident of birth.

Albinism is a condition that drastically reduces skin pigmentation and causes serious eye problems. In Tanzania, the afflicted are often viewed with suspicion, alienated and even subjected to violence.

A sizeable number have found refuge on a remote island, Ukerewe, which is only reachable by an uncomfortable four-hour ferry ride. Brennan made the journey and found people who were almost fearful of music.

“Many of them had been discouraged from singing or dancing,” he says. “It’s such a horrible thing to hear about, and was dismaying for the project. These are people told that they aren’t musical. We were starting on a negative with most of them.”

The participants had compelling stories, though, and were eventually persuaded to write, then sing, about them.

Perhaps the most telling song titles are by a forward-thinking farmer called Riziki Julius: the harrowing Never Forget the Killings and Tanzania Is Our Country, Too. They highlight the tragic history of people with albinism in Tanzania but suggest a better future.

The timing of these sessions was significant. The collective formed at a new centre, provided by support group Standing Voice, on the week of International Albinism Awareness Day last June.

This year, it fell on June 13, so the record’s release is timely, although its producer believes fans of traditional “world music” might not approve.

Tanzania is Our Country, Too is almost a rap track, for example, while Brennan describes the album as "experimental" and "punk rock".

It certainly possesses the punk spirit. These are short, sharp songs, played by novice musicians who have suddenly found an outlet for their anguish.

“The music project showed us we could do things that we never thought possible,” says Julius.

His life is relatively settled but not free from discrimination.

“When I proposed and married my wife, her family did not accept me,” he says.

“They said I could not be a husband to their daughter. I was so heart-broken. I was happy my wife decided to stick by me. She still gets criticised by relatives and friends for marrying a person with albinism.”

Numerous participants had experienced physical intimidation, often from people close to them. Brennan mentions one singer “whose uncle wanted to kill her”. Such fearful isolation caused many to become painfully reserved or withdrawn.

That was the case with Hamidu Didas, whose lyrics reveal a traumatic childhood: “My parents abandoned me, because I look the way I do,” he wrote.

According to Brennan, Didas had been “shy and withdrawn. The guy from Standing Voice knew him, and thought he’d be the last person to participate in the project. Actually, it turns out he has a classic, soulful voice”.

His compositions are varied, too. Didas wrote the protest track Stigma Everywhere and also a love song, You Are Mine.

Such genuine joy is, perhaps surprisingly, apparent throughout the album and particularly on the closing track, Happiness.

Written by Thereza Phinias, it imagines the group leaving that island behind.

“Here we are on the stage,” she sings, “Tanzania Albinism Collective members, far across the ocean.” That dream is about to be realised, a year later. Phinias, Julius and Didas are among the performers who will travel from Tanzania next month to perform at the United Kingdom’s Womad festival.

“This project,” says Phinias, “is one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my life”.

White African Power by Tanzania Albinism Collective is out now