‘Artist the healer’: Music therapy, trauma healing

Nyatiti music player Onyango Rapasa.

Nyatiti player Kake Wakake.

Photo credit: File

It’s for a good reason that I am seated in a restaurant along Monrovia Street on a Saturday afternoon. I am here at the invitation of Dr Humphrey Jeremiah Ojwang, the self-driven and indefatigable African narratives epistemology scholar.

I am not alone here. I am part of a small crowd of three men and a lady. We are all Ojwang’s people – each of us connected to him in a way or another. As soon as Ojwang shrugs off the Monrovia Street buzz and walks into the room, we reflexively rise to acknowledge his arrival. To say he is in high spirits is an understatement; he is in a very loud mood.

“Why ‘artist the healer’?” This is the question Ojwang throws at me as soon as we settle down for a conversation on his latest academic project. As is characteristic of most exceptionally gifted scholars, he openly exudes impatience. He doesn’t give me time to answer the question. Instead, he swiftly rebounds with a response.

“Okot p’Bitek wrote an anthology of essays that were published posthumously – in 1986. These essays were published under the title, Artist the Ruler: Essays on Art, Culture and Values. In these essays, Bitek looks at an artist as a ruler since artists dictate a number of things in society. Artists document the happenings in a society, render realities in artistic forms and entertain people. Musicians heal the sick through healing songs.”

Ojwang leans back on his seat and reaches for his bag. He dips his hand into it, pulls out a manuscript and dangles it before my eyes. Artist the Healer: A Traditional Musical Rendition of Okot p’Bitek on Trial and The Substance is the title of the manuscript.

“This is the project I am working on. I wrote Okot p’Bitek on Trial and the Substance at 26. I am now adapting the book into a musical rendition. I am working on this project at Goethe Intstut, Nairobi, under the directorship of Odingo Hawi, a one-time director of John Ruganda’s plays.”

Acknowledging Bitek’s influence on this piece of work, Ojwang hails the Ugandan poet and anthropologist as the father of the song literary tradition.

“It was not without reason that Bitek anchored his literary works on songs – Song of Lawino (1966), Song of Ocol (1970), Song of Prisoner (1971) and Song of Malaya (1966).” Ojwang is unapologetic and unequivocal in his argument that music has the capacity to offer therapy and trauma healing.

“Think of my people, the Luo of East Africa. People sing and dance in Luo funerals. Someone who is not well-versed with Luo culture will wonder why people clap their hands, beat drums and dance and yet someone is dead. That is the Luo’s cathartic journey of coming to terms with death. So, artist the healer refers to the therapeutic aspects of music, dance, poetry and all the performances in that realm. ”

To drive his point home, Ojwang makes reference to a Biblical tale. He reminds me of the role little David – who would later rule over Israel as King – played in King Saul’s court.

“King Saul had mood swings. Whenever the King flew into a fit of madness, David would play his harp to sooth and calm him down.” While acknowledging that music cannot numb physical pain, Ojwang insists that music is indeed an effective remedy for psychological pain.

“Psychological pain – pain of the soul – is deep. In fact, the modern social science of psychology is an attempt to understand the human soul. The psychic pain is located in the human soul and requires non-physical interventions.” He cites spiritual anguish as yet another shed of pain. Hymns, he says, cure spiritual pain.

“Like every other human being, I have suffered emotional pain many times in my life. Three weeks before my mother passed on, I paid her a visit at the hospital. I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I knew – beforehand – how the visit would go. I knew my mother would set her eyes on me and break down in which case, I would have easily followed suit. But nothing of this sort happened.

“Contrary to my expectation, when my mother saw me, she broke into a Seventh Day Adventist Church hymn. Yiengri mana kuom ruodhwa yesu, lean only on Jesus Christ, was the song Mother sang for me. And the song gave me the strength I needed to withstand my pain! Music offers holistic therapy. This is what inspires my intellectual reflections on music therapy and trauma healing.” At this juncture, Ojwang willingly cedes the floor.

“I am a researcher and my phenomenon of interest is in the room. I discovered him last year at the Kenya National Theatre. When I listened to his nyatiti, the tunes made me connect to my roots. His music connected me to my people, the Luo people of east Africa. He deserves a chance to speak for himself!”

This way, Ojwang draws my attention to Kake Wakake, a young man whose music he has been analysing under the topic, Traditional Nyatiti Music Therapy and Trauma Healing in African Landscape. At a glance, Wakake cuts the image of a prototype artist – he wears dreadlocks, an African print shirt and a matching pair of trousers. Around his neck, a very unique set of tigo, beads, dangle.

“I am an Afromusicologist, a practitioner of a dying art! Playing nyatiti offers me therapy and helps me cope with my challenges as a young person,” Wakake says when I ask him to tell me about himself. Wakake reveals to me that the art of playing nyatiti runs in his genealogy.

“I was born in a nyatiti playing family. My grandparents and uncles who came before me played nyatiti to not only entertain people but also calm them down and sooth their emotions.”

Considering that he is at the prime of his youth, I ask Wakake about the kind of reception people his age have given his music. Figuratively speaking, this question sets him on fire. He tells me about his performances in some of Nairobi’s private schools and the engagements he has with The University of Nairobi.

Wakake rises to the crest of his passion and excitement when he talks about his street performances in Korogocho Slums and the Nyatiti Centre he runs over there.

“I grew up in Koch, Korogocho. After we had all grown up and left the nest, I asked my family to allow me turn our home into a Nyatiti Centre. At the centre, I intend to keep nyatiti alive. And we don’t only focus on playing the instrument; we teach people how to make it. For a long time, our centre has been relying on well-wishers’ donations for infrastructural development.”

What saddens Wakake is that people’s interest in nyatiti ends at its ornamental value. Many people buy the instrument from him for display at their homes as souvenir or memorabilia. Few are keen on learning how to play nyatiti.

Wakake is unbowed, nevertheless. He is resolute in his aspiration to propagate his musical therapy across the world. He candidly tells me about the public drumroll ceremony he occasionally holds at the Hilton Hotel’s court. He explains to me that this is a public musical performance during which his audience joins him in playing his instruments.

As we check out of the restaurant, there is no doubt that the researcher and his object of fascination agree on one thing – it’s high time medicine, as a discipline, embraced music therapy and trauma healing.