Various Artists – Witch Camp (Ghana). “I've Forgotten How I Used To Be” (Six Degrees Records, 2021)

Interview with Ian Brennan and Marilena Umuhoza Delli 

How did you develop your interest in recording projects involving “non-professional” musicians?
Ian Brennan - Would you like to recall for our readers some of your most remarkable “field” recordings? My sister has Down syndrome. Marilena’s mother is a physically-disabled immigrant to Italy from Rwanda. So we both grew up witnessing marginalization. We have worked very intentionally to try to provide platforms for those that might be less advantaged— communities and individuals not just internationally but also within the USA— artists like the Homeless Oakland Heart project and with the intellectually-delayed/developmentally-disabled population in California that created the Sheltered Workshop Singers’ album. When we visited Rwanda with Marilena’s mother in the summer of 2009, after weeks of searching for music we were fortunate enough to meet the amazing acoustic folk trio, The Good Ones, and have been blessed to have a relationship with these men and their families that continues to this day. Since then in 2009, we have been lucky enough to produce over thirty records by artists from four continents (Africa, Europe, Asia, North America)- such nations as Malawi, South Sudan, Romania, Comoros, and Vietnam, amongst others. As we have done with those targeted for albinism on Ukerewe Island, genocide survivors in Rwanda and Cambodia, and prisoners at Zomba Prison in Malawi, our objective is to try to provide a platform for those otherwise censored, persecuted or unheard. Particularly, we have often focused on those who are of advanced ages as a way to oppose the trend of ageism in so much popular music. We are committed to the belief that there is music everywhere and within everyone. Similar to virtuosos, often “amateur” musicians are able to express themselves intuitively in a way that is much freer and more original than well practiced, but overly-formal musicians.

How is witchcraft framed and perceived in today’s Ghana and how do these attitudes relate to the recent economic growth?
Marilena U. Delli - As leading feminist, Italy’s Silvia Federici, writes and lectures about: Mistakenly, many assume that the persecution of witches is an ancient and “primitive” practice. But quite the opposite is true. Almost all witch-hunting in Africa was imported, occurring only after colonialization. This modern-day persecution mirrors the storied, medieval witch hunts of Europe and later in America’s colonies. Those, too, arose as communal land began to be fenced and sub-divided. It is routinely older women who prove the boldest— the most outspoken and resistant to capitalistic developments and ownership claims on previously shared property. Therefore, it is they that have historically blamed for standing in the way of “progress.” But their advanced age also renders them most vulnerable to survival in newly competitive and individualized economies.
As with most everywhere in the world and throughout history, the worst behaviors are often inflicted by a very small group of extremists and are not necessarily a reflection on the belief and intentions of the majority.

How did you come across the witch camps in Ghana and how did you choose the three camps that you visited and how did you organise the recording process?
Marilena U. Delli - As with many projects, we went to Ghana without knowing anyone. We just started searching and following whatever leads people offered. We recorded in three camps— one an official camp, another denied but openly known as a witch camp, and the third a remote and secret enclave. To locate some of the unofficial villages required passage down bumpy dirt roads. And then being sent to the wrong village or in the wrong direction on purpose. Once located, the next step involved being vetted through a maze of elusive middlemen— each providing vague suggestions, shrugs, and denials— until finally an audience with the chief was granted. As with almost all of projects, the recordings were done outdoors, live and without overdubs.

What is life like in the camps? Some interpret the camps as “total institutions”, some others as sanctuaries and a strategy of local containment. What is your perspective?
Ian Brennan - 
It is a complex issue. The government desires to close the camps— and did close one of the six official camps just before we were there at the end of 2018 and another camp was closed during the time since we visited— but before the camps can be responsibly closed, the attitudes within the larger community have to shift and also the women have to have other places they can go and live safely. And neither of those are easy tasks. Many of the women have been assaulted and/or threatened to be murdered if they return to their villages. And this threat is real: tragically, last summer a 90-year-old woman was beaten and set afire by a mob led by a “witch hunter.”
In many cases the woman are being assisted and protected in the camps, but sadly there are also known instances of them being exploited for labour in the fields and even prostitution.

How did the women that you recorded get involved in the project? Would you like to introduce them to us (affinities and diversities, age range, languages, instruments, song topics…)?
Ian Brennan - Over one-hundred women were involved, recording over six hours music. Most were elderly, with many in their seventies. Many are visually impaired or have physical disabilities and some struggle with mental health issues including dementia and Alzheimers. Sadly, it is these very conditions that led to or contributed to their vilification. All but one had never played music or written songs before. The lyrics are untranslated and indecipherable even to many locals as they are not in the dominant languages of English or Akan, but sung in regional dialect or the lesser spoken languages of the north. The songs on the album are mostly mantras— almost prayers, saying the same words or phrases over and over again. 
The titles tell entire stories by themselves such as “Hatred Drove Me From My Home” and “Left To Live Like an Animal.”

Are the songs “communal songs”? Or rather an expression of “individual self”?
Ian Brennan - The majority of the songs are composed entirely of “instant compositions” improvised on the spot, often using objects from the immediate environment for instrumentation— a tea-pot, corn husks, tin cans, soda bottles, tree limbs, to name a few. A few of the songs are choral. But even in those cases— such as the song “Love, Please”— one elder, visually impaired woman suddenly stood up and took the lead. And what a belter she turned out to be.

What do you expect from the publication of this album?
Ian Brennan - Our interest is in process versus product. We record far more music than we ever release. As compelling as any back story might be, the music must stand on its own. The records are decidedly non-commercial, therefore they are not expected to be to everyone’s tastes. Over the years, I have discovered that the majority of music that I like is not necessarily embraced by all that many people. I don’t wear that as a badge of honor. It is just a reality that I’ve had to face over the decades when finding my aesthetic enthusiasm not shared by family and friends, etc. Not everyone wants to listen to Ornette Coleman or Vic Chesnutt or songs in languages other than their own or watch a classic film like “Il Vitelloni,” and there is no “right” opinion. But Marilena and I have to believe in the songs before sharing them. Otherwise, it is almost a disservice to the artists and listeners. It has been heartening that due to the women’s voices the witch camp issue has received some renewed attention— both within Ghana and overseas with media outlets like the BBC and The Guardian. Hopefully that attention helps in some small way towards the government and communities forging a stronger commitment to continuing to work to protect these women and find better living alternatives for them so that they can be reintegrated healthily into the community and not face such stigmatization.

What role do the visual recordings play in your work and how do you plan to disseminate them?

Ian Brennan -  
Marilena specializes in cinema verite. The clips are atmospheric and often allow people access to music they might not entertain otherwise. In her films, there are almost never any interviews, voice-overs or text. Marilena’s empathy and love shines through in her photos and films. The interest is not in finding the “exotic,” but to de-exoticize and feature the common humanity no matter what the region.

Anything more that you would like to add?
Ian Brennan -  Thank you to Blogfoolk for helping support these women’s voices and stories.
It is important to emphasize that it is the poor, elderly, and disabled that are targeted as witches. This fate almost never befalls people of stature. And it is critical to remember that the mentally ill and physically disabled hospital patients were the first to be exterminated by the Nazis, who deemed them to possess “life unworthy of life.” Whether in the witch camps of Ghana or the over-incarceration of minority males (and women) throughout the world, cases of de-humanization anywhere around the globe are far from trivial matters.

Alessio Surian e Ciro De Rosa
Pictures by Marilena Umuhoza Delli

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