Zambia’s Kalindula Music: Death, Drums, And Poetry

Photo of Malama Katulwende
20 October 2016

Originating from the town of Samfya in Zambia’s Luapula province, kalindula is only one of the many types of music performed across the area. However, its melodic structures, complex cadences, and close relation to Zambian folklore make it a multi-faceted genre, with kalindula songs often played at funerals, celebrations, and recorded by popular artists. Culture Trip explores the history and place of kalindula music in Zambian society.

Bangweulu Swamps near Samfya town, Luapula Province | © Mehmet Karatay/WikiCommons

There is a small town which lies on the southwestern shore of Lake Bangweulu, in the Luapula province of Zambia; it is called Samfya. Samfya, whose name derives from the icibemba expression samfya impoto, twipike isabi (‘clean the pot, so that we can cook some fish’), has been inhabited by the Khoisan and Bantu-speaking peoples since the 1600s. The area, renowned for its vast swamps, clear waters, fertile soils, stunning beaches, islands, wildlife, tasty fish and spectacular waterfalls, is said to have a rock called Lucele Ng’anga, where (according to traditional folklore) the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone left his footprint on his way to Chitambo.

In the recent past, though, Samfya has increasingly gained its reputation for producing something dramatically different – artistic works. Indeed, the area has created a fair share of authentic music, fiction, poetry, plays and, more recently, some films which have taken the public by storm. Shot in Lubwe and other parts of Luapula province, Journey to Paradise and Kalulu ne Nsofu, for example, are some popular comedies which satirize the idiosyncrasies of youth. Yet the focus of this article is not on the success of these comedies – whatever that success might be – but on kalindula, a traditional form of music which is associated with Luapula province and Samfya area in particular.

Map of Luapula | © Kwamikagami/WikiCommons

In order to appreciate the roots of kalindula, it is important to understand the many types of music genres stemming from Luapula province. There is akalela, infunkutu and kalindula, of which the latter is the most popular and dominant, but all three types have a special place in the local people’s hearts. Akalela, for example, is created by beating three large drums while over 30 people dance in well-choreographed formations, an organizational feat that is usually performed in large, open spaces and draws huge crowds. The sound of drums can be transmitted over a distance of ten kilometres. Infunkutu, on the other hand, is created by beating very small drums which can fit between the knees. This basic rhythm is accompanied by the clapping of hands, dancing and singing. This type of music is mainly performed at traditional wedding ceremonies. Kalindula is a fusion of the two; it is made by playing at least two lead guitars, a bass guitar, percussion and drums. Other instruments such as flutes, saxophones and rattles are sometimes added to beautify the music.

In terms of the creation of the lyrics and lyrical sound, kalindula draws much of its deep and complex poetic imagery from icimbo ca malilo, or icibonga, dirges that are composed by Zambian women and sang without any instruments. Icibonga has a specific meter, a certain lyrical cadence which has been passed on from generation to generation, and whose lyrical structure has been transposed to create kalindula. However, the material and philosophical basis of kalindula actually draws on the changes that define human existence – birth, growth, love, marriage, illness, and inevitably death.

In constructing this poetry, the female poets have used their genius to express the human predicament in terms of metaphors based on diverse species of birds, wild animals and plants. These are the metaphors that accomplished kalindula composers such as P.K. Chishala, Albert Mule, and Costa Chola have seized to convey very powerful emotions about what it means to be human. It is extremely rare to find a kalindula song without images of birds such as akapele, akatyetye, akambasa, and mubangwa mpopo; or images of animals which assume the human face. Because of its exploration of the various deep instincts of the human being, kalindula has so far transcended time and space, and become one of the most celebrated, popular and original musical genres in Zambia. Its most important limitation, however, is kalindula’s inability as a musical form to embrace and cope with modernity. There have been very few kalindula artists who have understood modernity and exploited its potential as a subject of social discourse.

To help the reader appreciate kalindula, let us review the case of ‘Weshamo’, from the album Abakali Bakali by Sansamukeni Jazz Band from Samfya. The songs are sung in the Icibemba language.

Weshamo lyaba mayo ee, Weshamo lyaba mayo muno calo: ‘Bati bakulepo ‘ng’anda –

Bafwa bwangu, ‘Bati bakule ng’anda Bafwa bwangu;

Kanshi nga balikulile mu mpanga Mayo ee;

Akoni ukupala mayo wamfyele, We koni ukupala mayo wamfyele, No mukoshi ukuba ati ewamfyele, No mukoshi ukuba ati ewamfyele; Nokwenda ukubati ewamfyele Ala mwana wandi wilakulila Bamayo nebo baliya ku manda ee Maliya twashala fweka…


The tragedy that has befallen my mother; The tragedy that has befallen my mother in this world: She tried to build a hut, she died too quickly; She attempted to build a hut, she died all too soon; Perhaps she should have just built the hut in the bush;

This bird resembles the mother who gave birth to me; O bird that is like the mother who gave birth to me; The neck, too, looks like the one who gave birth to me; The gait, too, is like the one who gave birth to me; Oh, my child, please do not weep; My mother has gone to the grave yard; Maliya, we are just alone now…

In this touching kalindula song, a father is mourning the death of his mother, whom he believes to have been killed by some kinsmen for building a hut. The internal suggestion is that his mother could have survived if she had built her hut in the ‘bush’, away from jealous and mischievous people. Like so many kalindula songs, ‘Weshamo’ is an artist’s attempt to comprehend illness, suffering and eventual death through what, in African anthropology, is called ‘drums of affliction’, a term referring to the religious processes in which causation and its social significance and meaning are understood in the context of magic, rituals and the ancestors.

In almost all of kalindula music, there is a tendency to eulogize death, a link that has its roots in the funeral dirges of north-eastern Zambia. When someone dies, the funeral is held at the house of the deceased. In villages where there are no mortuaries, the body and the coffin are taken to the deceased’s home (or the home of a senior relative) until the burial is held. The mourning is done very methodically; there are professional weepers who lead the choir of mourners in singing icibonga or icimbo ca malilo (funeral dirges).

The lead-weeper often stands up, while other women are seated, and gesticulates as she points to the coffin. In leading icibonga (the art of mourning through song), she already has mastered the entire life of the departed person, and uses this information to remind friends and relatives of the accomplishment of the departed. The funeral then becomes a celebration of life, a recital of the history of the clan and ethnicity, which connects the living to those who have long departed. During this recitation, it is impossible for those who are present not to cry, as the sheer poetic power and beauty of the music arrest the soul.

In some cases, however, this rule does not apply. P.K. Chishala, for example, who is probably the best kalindula musician and composer of this generation, used this type of music to arouse happiness in people. He believed that the drum, possessed of therapeutic powers, existed in order to lighten the souls of those who were dispirited and overburdened. This is best expressed in some of his best works such as ‘Chimbayambaya’ and ‘Icupo ni nsansa’.

But while styles and approached to kalindula music can vary, it is indisputably a music that defines Luapula culture and conveys, in a somewhat magical way, profound emotions that stretch beyond life and death.

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