On the Kwaya (Choir)


It is said that if there is one area in which Africa as a whole has no rival, it is in the realm of unaccompanied group singing. Though this writer is certainly no judge of music of any kind, substantiation of such a claim must be said to be lacking in my experiences in Nairobi. This is because the native environment of the kwaya is certainly the open-air church in rural Africa.You are sitting on a tiny bench on the concrete floor of a tiny open church building. The sun is coming up behind you lighting the interior. A cool breeze is rolling down the hillside through the floor to ceiling windows. The prayer has just been finished. Everyone is waiting silently. In the back of the room a young woman has stood up but no one hears her for the grace with which it was done. After standing for several seconds she begins a rhythmic shuffle of the feet as she progresses down the aisle. Slowly, others join her. Soon they are aligned in the front of the church still shuffling in perfect unison. At no particular signal they simultaneously stop and stand at attention. The wait you experience here is the wait between the launch and burst of a firework. This wait spans into several seconds. You notice that the members seem to have entered into a state of sympathetic meditation. You notice that the boy in the front is wearing a corduroy suit coat and bright pink slacks. You notice that the Kwaya is in fact most of the church. With no signal of any kind, the entire group begins. You vaguely remember a time when you were startled by the sudden ringing of a loud bell. You can’t remember the last time that few people sounded so loud, but you wish they were louder.

A few words into the song the Kwaya begins to dip, sway, and roll. The singing is high and maybe what you once would have called nasal. It sounds a little weird. Then you begin to think, “No, this is more right than it has ever sounded.” You can’t understand many of the words, but it matters not at all. At one point one of the women steps forward slightly and launches into an overpowering solo. A woman in the Kwaya celebrates the general exuberance by making a trill rising from the depths of her throat to a shrill squeal. At this, the hair on your neck stands up and you lose feeling in your ankles.

Is all of this possible? I am here to tell you it is.

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