Ian Brennan is Grammy-winning producer (Tinariwen) who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums and published four books while all the while teaching violence prevention around the world since 1993 at places like UC Berkeley, the Betty Ford Center, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome). His latest book is How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-recording and the battle for democracy in the arts.
In the summer of 2016, I traveled with my wife, the Italian-Rwandan filmmaker and photographer Marilena Delli, to northern Tanzania to work with members of the albinism community on Ukerewe Island. Those born with albinism are among the most persecuted people in Africa. Tanzania has the highest incidence of albinism in the world by a huge margin, and due to an escalation in violence directed towards them, many have been relocated for their own protection to the island, one of the more remote places on earth. It’s a place so forgotten that not one single person that I have since spoken to has ever even heard of it before— including even veteran news journalists who report on the region for major outlets like the BBC and CNN.
Traditionally, the albinism community has been discouraged from singing, even during many church services. This project features individuals who’d never played instruments or written songs previously. Almost all of the percussion featured on the Tanzania Albinism Collective’s debut album, White African Power, were “found” zero-kilometer instruments born out of the land itself: a sledgehammer, beer bottle played with a rusty nail, aluminum step-ladder, straw broom, and a broken rain-barrel standing heads taller than a person. When the members of the collective vent their fury via tabletops and a frying pan, the cacophony is real and shared. Unlike studio-polished music, the album captures, 100 percent live, the exact moment of a sound being born from the freeing of emotion.
The video for the album’s title track finds the entire collective raising their voices for the first time as they dance with abandon. The title “White African Power” is not a threat, but an assertion of equality—in East Africa, those with albinism are commonly called “white” as an epithet. And the subtitle should not be overlooked: “(We Live in Danger).” True courage and strength are not chosen, but forced upon a person—and there certainly is never any escape or respite when the threat is due to your own skin.
Beyond albinism being a perilous condition that exposes one more dramatically to severe skin and eye damage from the sun’s rays, myths in Tanzanian culture can lead to those with albinism being targeted for assault, dismemberment, rape, and murder. Albinism was, and in many cases still is, seen as a source of shame. Historically, many of those with albinism were excluded and left behind at home whenever the rest of their families ventured out to the market or church. This led each of the twenty-plus members of the Tanzania Albinism Collective to independently conclude that they were the only person on earth with their condition. This is why their forming a community today is all the more critical and bears such tremendous value.
One member of the group, Thereza, was abandoned by both of her parents shortly after she was born and locked in a darkened room by her grandparents who begrudgingly took her in. They shoved food to her under the door as if she were a caged animal. In the night, men came and sexually assaulted her, fueled, Thereza says, by the toxic and widespread belief that having intercourse with a woman with albinism can cure AIDS. On the streets, as Thereza’s neighbors whisper when she passes, she wonders if any of them are the ones who attacked her in the dark. Most often, what she hears them say is “deal.” They view her body as currency: the corpse of a person with albinism can fetch upwards of $75,000, a fortune in a nation where the average income is less than $7 a day.
Despite all of this, Thereza radiates palpable joy. One day, after she shared a celebratory new song, I asked what it was about. I was stunned to learn that it was called “Mama & Papa” and was a call to her parents to please return and protect her. Master vocalists like Thereza play opposite emotions against the grain of the expected and obvious; sadness and happiness (and other nuances) blend into a reflection of real-life experience.
It would Pollyannaish and a bit hippy-dippy to think that a recording project by individuals that had never before played instruments, written songs, or sung publicly could lead to any healing of familial relationships—but that is exactly what occurred with the Tanzania Albinism Collective. Their music bridged a gap between Thereza and her mother. For the first time ever, the two have now unexpectedly established a relationship—some common ground—in the wake of the record’s success after her mother indirectly heard her daughter sing for the first time.
Every performer takes risk. But for the members of the Tanzania Albinism Collective, many of whom have been forced to walk on eggshells and hide in shadows for a lifetime, singing out is a revolutionary act. Like all of the most courageous people, the bravery of the members of the Tanzania Albinism Collective is not voluntary, but simply a matter of fact, a necessity for survival. The collective bless us with new revelations of what true grit and fortitude are—and with their extraordinarily unique music.