Stagnight: Shela style
We’d been told that there were going to be weddings in Shela this week, but I had forgotten about it. There were actually three: two Swahili style and the other “western” style with karaoke put on by Peponi’s only for the well-heeled and well-oiled. We chose to attend the former as that was the only ones we were allowed into—the other “western” one would require formal attire of which I foolishly left back my tuxedo back in Doha—and rightly so!
We did not get formal invites to the Swahili stag, but it seems most of the folk of this small village were attending—at least the majority of men.
You could hear the polyphonic rhythm of the drums before you actually saw the event. It was stag venue just behind where we were lodging in a maidan or open area that had been roped off and a makeshift wooden fence had been constructed around a sandy square. It seems like this was a familiar venue as many other such events were likely staged here. Edward and Milton (whom I call Abote) led Jeremy, Lynette, Beatrice, Jessica and I to the venue where the fierce drumming and shouting was emanating from.
As Quay Lude, lead singer and front man for the Arizona glam rock group The Tubes would say— “the place was jumping”, well here it was literally. Two combatants squared off in the traditional stick fight in the center of the dusty square. This display was something that I have come to associate with the mini Haj, or Maulidi festival that celebrates the Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday that is held every year in nearby Lamu.
The stick swingers are dressed in the usual garb of tailored shirts or t-shirts and kikois which are similar to the Yemeni futa or what most would say are lungi. I prefer the Swahili word kikoi since we are in East Africa after all. Many local men were wearing the traditional Swahili cap called kofia which is white with gold and silver embroidering with flowery Arabic script—maybe from the Koran. Just behind us were a bunch of young miraa-chewing lads who were sitting atop of an unfinished concrete building oblivious to nasty rebar that was jutting out at weird angles.
At one point, a wayward chicken got into the act, sorry buddy, but this wasn’t the time for the funky chicken dance, just the funky Swahili guys and their moves and feints.
The stick fight is more ceremonial than actual battling, but the younger Turks take it more seriously and there is also a group chanting from the home side and howls when someone lands a blow. The left hand is used to parry the blows with the right hand swinging the stick down hard on the opponents stick or feinting a blow. I am not particularly sure if there is a winning side or how someone would or does win the fight.
The wedding party or special guests are just down the fence from the drummer and they are seated at a long table covered in a flowery kikoi. The best man has what looks like a Remembrance Day wreath with garlands of yellow flowers draped around his neck. It is all makeshift as they have to set up chairs and the table in the sand. A stainless steel tray is brought in with a decanter of what looks like a barium shake—pink in colour. Glad they are drinking it as I fear they have infused this pink, milky concoction with dreaded rose water. Naturally, Arabic coffee is offered to the party of six—all men. There are a couple of kids sitting with their legs swinging in the high wooden chairs.
After a while, a member from the wedding party or an older stick swinger comes and taps one of the younger fighters on the shoulder and after grabbing the stick, he throws the stick to the next willing opponent. At the end of the event, two elders from the wedding party step into the ring and they mostly dance pretending they are fighting and members from the audience run to them and carefully slide 50, 100, 500 shillingi notes under the kofia making sure the notes don’t fall in the sand.
But what really moves this noisy scene is the drumming.
Just in front of me is the drumming section right up against the makeshift fence. The drumming group is made up of two types of drums, two the size of congas, two other drums similar to the Indian dhol drum that is associated with Punjabi bhangra music, and another two smaller conga drums and some wild man wailing away with two thickly knotted hemp ropes at what looks like an aluminium pie plate on top of another larger pie plate. These drummer guys sit at the back of the square facing the stick swingers. The drummers keep the beat going and the stick swingers’ move to it, so to say, much like the Thai boxers do in Lumphini stadium in Bangkok.
What is interesting about the drummers is their nationalities. The main drummer on the conga, maintains and changes the rhythm to accommodate the stick swingers. It’s the same size as a traditional conga drum, but with a zebra skin drum head. There is no drumstand to support it, he just has his legs around it and beats the bejeezus out of it with a huge stick that looks like a rhino or hippo tusk. This drummer is African—the only one there.
Even though everyone here except for us wazungus is African—the majority are Bajuni or Swahili folk, but this main drummer probably is originally from the mainland. As I say, he changes the rhythm with rim shots, missing a beat or speeding up the beat and the others follow as do the stick swingers.
It sounds like the rolling thunder of a train.
Seated on the right beside the African guy is a local guy whom I called Mister Turtle since he is always trying to get me and the family to go see turtles hatching. I guess he does this drumming in his spare time. He merely wails away at another large conga keeping a steady bass drum beat. To the left of the African guy is one guy seated playing the dhol drum and he doesn’t look like a local either— he looks Indian to me and he plays a different rhythm from the others and quite nicely I might add.
Next to him is another dhol drummer—a local guy. The final chap, who is set off from these drummers, is the aluminum pie plate guy who is wailing away with his thick hemp rope drumsticks while another guy facing him makes sure the plates don’t fly off. The sound is much like someone flailing away on an open high-hat of a drum kit. Nevertheless, it is quite hypnotic, if not trancey.
I felt like I could join in if asked to, but I didn’t want to upset proceedings. The whole concert, if that is what we can call it, went on for an hour and a half. In the end the groom and the best man then were obliged to do their part of stick fighting and more shillingi were tucked under their kofias.
On the far side is where you can find the Swahili womenfolk leaning against the makeshift fence. There are also women looking on from the safety of 1st and 2nd floor balconies of nearby Swahili houses. Most of the local women are dressed in their finest chintz and floral kangas and there are a few BuiBui peeking out from under their black chadors. There were a couple of beauties in amongst them, but mostly covered up.
Naturally, I should have been taking shots and filming this with my digital camera, but someone (who shall remain guilty) had dropped that into the salty Indian Ocean—pity.