Mpingo Magic

Category: CASSGB | Date posted: 16 April 2016

Author: Karen Wimhurst

Exciting news arrives just before Christmas. My partner Robin is asked to visit southern Tanzania in the new year, auditing the Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) for a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate. By the time we’ve factored in all our seasonal celebrations, gigs and get-togethers, we reckon the family could fly out on 3 January for a couple of weeks to take advantage of this opportunity. How could I not sign us up for a trip to visit the forest where my clarinet may well have started its life?

For someone who always buys fair trade, considers food miles and monitors my carbon footprint, I’ve remained wilfully ignorant about the wood my dearly loved Buffet DG clarinet is made of. In the recesses of my mind I’ve suspected it’s made from some exotic blackwood that should never have made its way into my hands, so I’ve opted for not probing too deeply. Now it’s time for this to change.

My clarinet is made from grenadilla, the commercial term for Dalbergia melanoxylon, or mpingo in Swahili – a very slow growing, dense and valuable blackwood, mainly grown in Africa and used for clarinets, oboes and bagpipe chanters, as well as for African carvings. Looking at the rather scraggy, isolated mpingo trees we pass in the Miombo forest – twisted and knotted, bark peeling, spiny branches – it’s hard to imagine the lustrous, dense heartwood that is
revealed when the mature trees are felled to be turned into sound. These trees are survivalists, spending the first five to eight years of their lives putting down a root system which can thrive throughout drought, also enriching and stabilising the surrounding soil. They grow slowly, and the peak time to harvest the straightest and tallest specimens is at the age of around 120 years.

The five-hour drive we take from the Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam is down a road that was only tarmacked in 2003. Before this, the whole region was washed out during the rainy season, unreachable by car and thus to some extent preserved from the grasp of illegal logging syndicates. Though infrastructure is a welcome relief in such impoverished areas, it also means that the woodlands have become exposed. The wood is extremely desirable – the woodwind industry being one of the main market buyers – and runs the risk of becoming extinct for the purposes of commercial production in the next 20 years or so.

When we arrive at our estimation we immediately find an emergency going on. A tribe of agriculturalists has arrived in the forest and is implementing a slash and burn practice to clear some land. This is another of the major threats to the indigenous forests of Tanzania. In the nick of time – in 2004 in fact – the MCDI was formed to combine conservation strategies for the woodland with development initiatives for the communities surrounding them. In essence, the MCDI seeks to preserve the forests by putting the stewardship and ownership of the woodlands into the hands of the local villages in the area. It has helped 55,200 people earn a total of more than $269,000, supporting them to secure owner rights and sustainably harvest their timber.

Tanzanian law allows villagers to legally take ownership of their lands. However, this is a complicated process of many stages and intricacies which means in effect that many communities can’t pursue this path. A primary function of the MCDI is to help communities through these bureaucratic hoops and hence receive the profits from harvesting the woodlands, rather than the money being siphoned off into private pockets. The MCDI then supports communities in implementing sustainable management practices within their forests, ensuring their protection and health for future generations.

The encounter

We’re off early in a four-wheel drive to the village of Nainokwe, where I’m being dropped off for the day with my 11-year-old son while the auditing team head to the next village. We turn off the main road and spend the next couple of hours careering over deeply rutted red dirt tracks, taking impromptu diversions around waterlogged holes and eventually arriving. No one knows I’m coming since there’s no electricity in the village – emails don’t flash up and telephones don’t ring.

Rather travel worn, we tumble out of the car and my translator Joel goes off to find the head of the village council and inform them of our arrival. After a hesitant and somewhat bemused exchange of greetings, I sign the village register. It seems my best approach is probably to wander round the village, clarinet in hand, improvising as I go. I’m interested in giving people a chance to see what the wood that they harvest eventually turns into.

Soon a crowd of people have gathered round and we look at the structure of the instrument, the complexity of the keywork and the amazing way it breaks down and fits into the case. I play snatches of music – Playford, Benny Goodman, Bach, a klezmer tune and a couple of African songs I know. The women are then coaxed into song. Vibrant performers with rich voices, they improvise with me and I admire the incredibly complex clapping rhythms everyone throws in. There’s a lot of laughter, enjoyment and a few wry comments my translator decides not to translate as we all get into this slightly surreal morning together, throwing music back and forth. As the music continues, my son gets involved in a game of football, and a few of the men complain about missing the concert as they are summoned a few miles up the road to help the auditing team who have got completely stuck in the mud.

A couple of hours later a simple lunch appears and my son disappears in a gaggle of boys again climbing trees (boys seems to be boys wherever you travel). I wander round the village with Joel, getting drawn into conversations. The women all want to hear about childbirth in the west and whether it’s true that westerners all need C-sections these days. The fact that I have only one child at such a great age is the main topic of conversation. The elderly men who are not at work take a closer look at the clarinet, want to know how much it costs, how it is manufactured. Eventually, the afternoon draws to a close and we end up in the shade of a tree, waiting while the auditing team are dug out of their third bog of the day.

In conclusion

Back in the UK I reflect on the trip. As a freelance player, composer and educationalist, there aren’t that many times in life when I feel materially overendowed in Britain. However, given that the many people in Tanzania live on less than a dollar a day, my clarinet embodies a significant amount of western opulence when looking back down the chain of production to its roots. I’m not used to feeling wealthy, and this was definitely the most difficult thing to come to terms with during my flying visit. There’s no getting away from the fact that the spirited people in this village are subsistence living and need all the help they can get to sustain a happy, healthy, minimum quality of life. In comparison, anxieties about how much a gig pays these days pale into insignificance.

The MCDI is a wonderful initiative for all of us woodwind players to get behind. It seeks to ensure not only a living wage in one of the poorest areas of Tanzania, but also a sustainable forest management programme that allows the mpingo tree a chance to come back from the brink of commercial extinction. In 2010, British instrument maker Hanson proudly became the first clarinet manufacturer to buy FSC certified wood, and as players we should all be checking that our instruments come from sustainable sources. Buffet Crampon are now producing their Greenline instruments from a composite material of mpingo and carbon fibre, which means that mpingo wood other than the finest, straightest stock can now be used. However, one of the limiting factors for the MCDI remains getting enough buyers for their FSCcertified wood. In essence, this comes down to woodwind players researching and demanding an ethical product from manufacturers.

In northern Tanzania the mpingo woodlands have already been devastated, and there is another great local organisation supported by American woodwind players which is replanting these trees (see www. darajamusicinitiative.org). Perhaps in Britain we could create a sister organisation supporting MCDI in southern Tanzania. Is anyone interested in thinking about how we could do this? Do get in touch if so.






About Karen Wimhurst

Karen Wimhurst’s recently released album Clarion with accordionist Paul Hutchinson was featured as Songlines magazine’s ‘Top of the World’ in February www.songlines.co.uk/world-musicnews/category/music-reviews / www.pagodaproject.co.uk)

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at 48 Henniker Point, Leytonstone Road, London, E15 1LQ. Email: finance (@) cassgb.org. Tel: 0845 644 0187

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