It takes a while and perhaps a bit of patience to actually figure out what separates the ‘music’ from the ‘poetry’ and if there is an element of artistic monologue or innovative speech making to escape censors for unregistered political activity, all sewn up together in performances of Mrisho Mpoto.
The cultural globe trotter seems to represent something unique, which is likely to be everything to everyone – as to whether people follow what he says for its content, its rhythm, or even for its music, as he also runs a music band; it always does drumming in the background as he conducts a poetic monologue. Does the music ever start?
It is hard to find equivalences of Mpoto in recent or decades long African music, as there are similarities and dissimilarities, since he comes up as eloquently in a political sense like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but the latter was talking while doing throbbing music, not ‘distant drums.’
On the local scene there was the late Ramadhani Mtoro Ongala or famously Dr Remmy Ongala, who talked more or less without hindrance, but again the musical part was vivid, and one could say this or that song was performed. There aren’t quite songs performed by Mpoto but rather poems sung, in a monologue style of presentation, which breaks some old rules here.
Since Mpoto comes across as a keeper of tradition rather than a musical campaigner or political poet in that sense, interest in a dialogue would have featured in how he performs, was it a matter of keeping to the tradition, here of ‘ngonjera,’ platform exchanges, dialogues of a mildly competitive sort.
It is as if there is an ethical debate about something where two forms of the matter are presented, but as they come from the same community it becomes a sharing of feelings and exploration of shades of similar sentiments. What one says is complemented by the other, as each is only a witness of broader, shared social experience.
It is unlikely that the ‘ngonjera’ tradition, which is close to praise singing in a traditional ceremony context, actually animates Mpoto, but rather comes close to the Dr Remmy version of things, where it is his viewpoint that is being aired. The ‘band’ becomes something of an instrumental back up rather than a community of artists who are actually doing singing, or even mutually shared poetry.
It is clear who has the stage and what he seeks to say is the purpose of that stage – that it is this expression, the poetry which is intended to be put across, not the potential music that could otherwise be produced by the band.
As a portion of local audiences have not seem images of Mpoto performing to foreign audiences, it becomes a bit interesting to hear from write ups about the poet, that his main interest in foreign appearances is to promote Kiswahili poetry through music.
Unless there is another set of activities which he would embark on for those audiences, locally it wouldn’t add up, to take up punchy political commenting through poetic rhythms, deliver it to audiences who know little of that subject, and in Kiswahili. Unless perhaps it was Kenya or Burundi, and a bit of Uganda, Rwanda and much of the Congo DR, who would grasp the issue?