“Combat musicians” gird for battle in Guinea-Bissau

By Rose Skelton

BISSAU (Reuters) – Exhaling a plume of marijuana smoke
while perched on the only chair in his shack, self-styled
“combat musician” Bob Tones looks an unlikely candidate for the
job of keeping Guinea-Bissau’s politicians in check.

“They have to know that we’re still here,” said Tones, who
was dressed in military-style fatigues, army boots and a red,
yellow and green “Rasta” woolen cap.

The singer is one of a group of artists who sing in defense
of democracy and justice in this tiny impoverished West African
country where simply finding electricity to power a guitar
amplifier is a challenge.

Tracing their ancestry back centuries to an oral tradition
that has long given singers an influential place in West
African society, the “combat musicians” now have a new battle.

After years of coups, counter-coups and civil war,
Guinea-Bissau held elections last month to establish a new era
of democratic rule and end years of instability that have
hobbled efforts to fight chronic poverty.

Former military ruler Joao Bernardo Vieira was proclaimed
the winner by electoral authorities but the results have been
rejected by the ruling PAIGC party and their candidate Malam
Bacai Sanha, raising fears of more unrest.

During the campaign, musicians were paid around $30 a day
— half the average monthly salary of a doctor — to accompany
candidates and hand out gifts like T-shirts or banknotes.

Tones backed Sanha but said he would have remained true to
his mission to keep politicians in check whatever the result.

“Even if my candidate was in power, I would continue with
my combat music, to let him know that we’re watching what he


Musicians have long played the role of watchdogs in West
African societies, where the strong oral tradition and low
literacy rates have put singers in a privileged position as
social and political commentators.

“Music really is the best way of communicating with the
people,” said Jacob, 22, an unemployed man. “Each politician
asks musicians to come and sing their praises.”

Tones, who lives in a compound surrounded by sugar cane in
the rundown capital Bissau, said musicians have more sway than
traditional leaders — a fact appreciated by politicians.

“If they asked the head of the village to talk to people,
no one would listen to him. Instead they asked the new
generation of musicians to go out and campaign for them, to
sing their praises, to mobilize the people,” said Tones.

This influence can be turned against those in power as
well, as Tones’s music shows.

“The children are crying because since yesterday they
haven’t eaten,” he sings in a song on his album “Alerta.”

“And why? Because the government didn’t pay their papa for
the work he did,” he sings, referring to civil servants’
chronic pay arrears in a country where more than one in five
children die before they reach five years of age.

Ancient heritage has given Guinea-Bissau’s modern musicians
a wide range of sounds — from electric guitars to traditional
percussion like the water drum, a gourd suspended in water that
produces a resonating “thud” when beaten with a closed fist.

Contemporary music has also been influenced by Cape Verdean
and Caribbean zouk with its easy-going, romantic rhythm often
known in Africa as “Zouk Love.”


During Guinea-Bissau’s struggle against Portuguese
colonizers before independence in 1974, musicians accompanied
fighters to mobilize supporters.

The artists went on to criticize corruption among the ranks
of the first generation of rulers. Some were killed, others
disappeared and many blame the authorities.

Justino Delgado, Guinea-Bissau’s best-loved musician, wrote
a song in 1985 criticizing the government run by Vieira, who
took power in a 1980 coup and ruled until he was ousted in a
putsch in 1999 after a devastating civil war.

After writing his song, Delgado spent four months in jail
before being exiled to Portugal.

“A lot of things were not right in the government but
people were afraid to speak about it. I wrote the song to
reveal the reality as I saw it,” he said, his voice cracking
with emotion.

“I am more than an artist, I am an interventionist.”

During this year’s election campaign, Delgado was employed
as Sanha’s official singer, telling people to a rousing beat:
“Mothers, fathers: Malam Bacai has the solution for the
country, give him the key to the presidential palace.”

The words became the catchphrase of the campaign and were
sung or played wherever Sanha went.

Politicians are not the only ones to see the power of music
in Guinea-Bissau.

“If you are a businessman and want to be popular, you pay a
musician to sing nice things about you,” says Waldir Araujo, a
radio reporter.

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