Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Return of the Professional Satirist

For many people, the greatest danger they could face is mockery; the worst thing they can imagine is to fail and be laughed at for it. In some societies this was institutionalized, and social norms were generally enforced by fear of the mockery you would get for transgressing them. In England there was an ancient tradition of "rough music" that involved catching people in adultery or some other kind of cheating and making a huge rowdy noise to announce it to the world.

In some Celtic societies people with a talent for satire were figures of awe and fear; there is a character in the ancient Irish epics who shows up all over the place, even in royal bedrooms, "because he was a great satirist and could not be kept out." As recently as the 1920s, the people who stole a carved medieval stone on the Isle of Skye were persuaded to return it when a local poet threatened to publish a satire about them. Compared to that, the hundreds of pounds they had hoped to get from selling the stone seemed unimportant.

And now, in Mozambique, the fusion of old-fashioned satire with social media:

Sam Chitsama’s mobile constantly buzzes with WhatsApp notifications: emojis, song lyrics, texts from furious clients and joyful ones — and electronic payments. Chitsama, 33, is a keyboard player and dancer from Mozambique, who has made a name for himself as a singer for hire among South Africa’s 400,000-strong Mozambican diaspora.

Singing mostly in Ndau, a local language spoken across borders in western Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe, Chitsama peppers his songs with Portuguese and isiZulu phrases. There are occasional love songs and pieces in tribute to good employers or charitable acts, but most of Chitsama’s business comes from “gossip songs.” “If paid,” he told Rest of World, “I sing of your private family feuds to the public on WhatsApp.”

In migrant communities, many based around the gold mining towns of Springs and Welkom, and in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, these “gossip songs” are big business. Clients — jilted wives out to publicly shame their husbands’ mistresses, neighbors wanting to broadcast the name of an untouchable cattle thief, a sibling rebuking a brother who has grabbed the entire share of a family inheritance — pay musicians like Chitsama $40 (600 rands) to record, mix, and broadcast songs via WhatsApp. Chitsama also charges an optional $60 “booster” fee every three months to re-share files of a client’s gossip songs to his hordes of offline and WhatsApp fans in South Africa and thousands back home in Mozambique.

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