Tune In: Tanzania’s burgeoning music scene

This feature originally appeared in Paa Tanazina magazine (February-April 2015) p24. Download a pdf here or read the article here

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From the urban flare of bongo flava to the delicate Arabian sounds of taarab, Tanzania overflows with an eclectic variety of musical genres. Alexandra Petropoulos immerses herself in the rhythms

Tanzania’s music often borrows from outside influences and blends them into a rich soup of local sounds. As early as the 1930s, Cuban rumba made its way into Tanzania and inspired countless jazz big bands. The Morogoro Jazz Band, Orchestra Makassy and DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra were among the first, and continue to be a source of inspiration for today’s musicians. Another strong vein of musical influence comes from Tanzania’s Arabic neighbours: taarab, the lush orchestral sound of the Swahili coast, is the rich product of Indian Ocean trade.

But the pride of Tanzanian music is not in the variety of influences, but the message. “Music is a repository for social, cultural and historical knowledge,” says Fatma Kiluwa, Director of the Dhow Countries Music Academy in Stone Town. “Stories, values, social rules, taboos, allegories, and even details of important historical events are passed from person to person, and from generation to generation, through songs. Historically, music has been a force for social change, protest, and moral education, and it continues to be an incredibly powerful force for reflecting realities and even shaping the discourse of modern life.”

While there are countless musicians creating interesting music today, here’s a quick taste at some of the artists creatively fusing Tanzania’s music. All of them are favourites at the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar’s Stone Town.


Culture Musical Club
One of the defining sounds of the Swahili coast is the lush orchestral arrangements of taarab. It has thrived on Zanzibar since the late 19th century, and one of the key groups keeping the music alive today is Stone Town’s Culture Musical Club.

Taarab is said to have arrived on the island with the second Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Barghash, who imported an ensemble from Egypt. The sound remains largely driven by Arabic instruments – the oud, qanun, violins and percussion – and even the word ‘taarab’ is derived from the Arabic word for ‘having joy with music.’ However, there is a distinctive East African flavour to the sound, primarily due to the Swahili lyrics and to rhythms with a particularly Indian Ocean flare.

Known originally as the social club Shime Kuokoana, the Culture Musical Club started as part of the Afro Shirazi Party. After the revolution in 1964, the club became associated with the Ministry of Culture and changed its name to the present one. “The relaxed sound of taarab grows out of the atmosphere and life of the clubs,” musicologist Werner Graebner once told Songlines magazine. “After the revolution, nothing was happening here. There was little TV and regular power cuts… there wasn’t much else to do except play music.”

One of the defining features of taarab is the unique, slightly lax tuning. Violin strings were hard to come by in Zanzibar during the revolution and the orchestras tuned their instruments down a semitone, which slightly reduced the tension in the strings and helped ensure fewer broken strings. The Culture Musical Club have kept this feature, and it has become an important part of their sound.

While the Culture Musical Club has exported its music out of the social club and onto the international stage, touring all over the world and performing at countless world music festivals, it is still a social club located in the heart of Stone Town. Rehearsals continue to take place at the club, though they have become something of a tourist attraction with the orchestra’s international success.

It is thanks to the Culture Musical Club that taarab continues to thrive today as a testament to the vibrant exchange of Indian Ocean cultures. It is just as much part of the Swahili coast experience as dhows or spices.


Ifa Band
“Homemade snare drums and washing-line bass guitars have never sounded so good. This rumba from the streets of Tanzania brings beautiful harmonies, of which Franco would be proud, into a fresh Swahili interpretation.” UK-based producer Sam Jones admits that this was what originally drew him to this humble band from the Morogoro region. It is hard to resist Ifa’s unassuming, danceable blend of rumba, bongo flava and traditional rhythms.

Founder Jafari Rashid Igomba grew up in Morogoro and developed a love for music early on, spending much of his time listening to his father’s radio. When he was in primary school, Igomba began losing his eyesight and was forced to leave. Distraught, he threw himself deeper into music, which became his only refuge. Drawn to the local music scene, he soon befriended the local band Baba Toni, who helped teach him how to play guitar.

In 2000 Igomba recruited his nephew, Adam Komba, to start his own group, and, after six months of performing as a duo, they expanded to create Ifa Band. They named themselves after the Ifakara district of Morogoro, hoping to help raise public awareness of the often overlooked region. The band’s line-up includes a few homemade instruments – Komba’s ligambusi, a two-stringed bass, and the homemade drum kit of Sylvester Kimwaga – and features Haroun Tangani as the lead singer, Othman Abdallah on vocals and shaker, Selemani Makwata on percussion and of Igomba himself on the guitar.

While his blindness helped him focus on his music career more intently, Igomba is very clear that he does not want sympathy. He wants to be judged on the merits of his music, which is exactly what Sam Jones has done.

After stumbling across and becoming enthralled by their music, Jones and his production company SoundThread helped Ifa Band record an EP and are working on securing them a UK label deal. “They model a uniqueness seldom seen by rumba bands from the region,” Jones explains. “They are not pandering to the well-worn routines of rumba. They are instead rearticulating the music with a certain rough edge, which brings with it its own subtle dishevelled elegance.”


Leo Mkanyia
Combining the cool sounds of the blues with traditional Swahili music, guitarist and singer Leo Mkanyia performs what he calls, perhaps unsurprisingly, Swahili Blues. With added hints of Afrobeat, rumba and jazz, Mkanyia’s music offers Swahili music a modern platform.

Mkanyia was born into a musical family and began playing when he was just eight years old. “But, it was in secret as my dad didn’t want me to be a musician at the time.” His father was the lead guitarist in the famous DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra and was well acquainted with how hard life for a musician in Tanzania can be. But that didn’t detour Mkanyia, who continued to play his father’s guitar in secret, until his Dad eventually accepted that he wanted to learn and helped teach him.

Influenced by his father’s music and both American and African blues musicians, he is also keen to mine the wealth of traditional Swahili music. Like many traditional songs, his lyrics tell stories with a social message. Mkanyia explains: “Tanzanian classical songs are often like this. They are long, like stories. They often have a narrator/persona speaking to somebody who represents wider society.” For example, in ‘Wazazi Wangu’ a young man begs his parents’ forgiveness for treating them poorly. ‘Che Maria’, which features some excellent old-school rumba guitar and vocal harmonies, is about a young woman leaving the village and touches on the larger themes of urbanisation and the importance of not forgetting your roots. “People like songs that portray ordinary life and social problems, because they can relate to them. But it’s important not to exploit this and convey messages that are damaging. My music is supposed to get people thinking about a better way of life, but often by leaving it open, by not giving people solutions, but rather getting them to think deeper about social problems.”

Drawing on Tanzania’s rich tradition, Mkanyia is able to breathe new life into the music, and this is something that is very important to him. “I want people to know that it’s possible to make modern music from the roots of our traditions. I love my traditional music, and I want Tanzanians to be playing similar kinds of modern expressions of traditional music in years to come, when my baby daughter is grown up and beyond!”


Msafiri Zawose
Though he hails from the coastal town of Bagamoyo, multi-instrumentalist Msafiri Zawose proudly represents Central Tanzania’s Gogo music. “Gogo music is unique in Tanzania and in Africa as a whole; when you hear it, you know immediately where it comes from.” Msafiri is clearly proud of his musical heritage. And as the son of the well-respected and internationally famous Gogo musician, Hukwe Zawose, he has every right to be.

But what is it that sets this genre apart from the other regional musics of Tanzania? “Traditional Gogo music incorporates vocal harmonies and the songs are often cyclical.” Msafiri is clear to note that he doesn’t perform straight-up traditional music. “For me, the idea was fuse traditional music with these more modern styles to create something completely new,” which means combining all his various influences, from traditional Gogo music to hip-hop, reggae, Latin music and R&B.

Despite the modern twist, Msafiri prefers to remain rooted in tradition, writing songs in the Gogo language as well as Swahili, to help preserve them. But he admits that he occasionally updates the subject matter. “Many traditional songs relate to everyday life in the village –the harvest, special ceremonies, love, death, and so forth – but with my music I have tried to expand my lyrics to make a positive social impact or to raise awareness around certain issues.”

As such, his songs deal with everything from health issues (‘Bila Magonjwe’) to the importance of raising children and protecting them from the negativity in the world (‘Ramse Wana’). While Msafiri admits that not all his songs are serious, and that some are “just for fun,” his work covers a range of important topics. “My themes vary with what is going on in the world and in my life. Recently I’ve been writing more songs about peace and connecting with people. In our modern lives, people are forgetting about what is important. I also write about the importance of preserving our traditions, especially for Africa, where there is a huge influx of Western culture.”

And it was with this in mind that Msafiri started the Art Promoters Foundation in 2006.. “I felt so sad to think that this music could disappear, so I wanted to teach the next generation our songs, our traditions, our music… We must not forget our roots.”


Mgodro Group
The Mgodro Group was created in 2013 as the brainchild of Mohamed Isaa Haji Matona, Artistic Director of the Dhow Countries Music Academy (DCMA) in Stone Town, and it has since become a fruitful arena for musical exchange between the Indian Ocean island communities.

Matona was born in Stone Town as the son of a professional composer, violinist and singer. He began learning music by imitating his father at concerts and rehearsals. While he plays a wide range of instruments (oud, violin, nay saxophone, percussion and keyboards to name just a few) in just as many musical genres, he is best known for performing taarab. In 2001 he became one of the founding members of the DCMA and established his name as an educator. He helped introduce various musical genres to the curriculum, including reggae, Western classical, jazz and hip hop, and works to promote international collaborations between musicians of different genres.

In fact it was one of these collaborations that inspired the creation of the Mgodro Group itself. In 2010 Matona was invited to the Comoros and Mayotte as part of the Song of the Moon project, which aimed to revive and preserve taarab on those islands, and then again in 2012 for the Violins of Zanzibar project. While he spent much of his time teaching and performing, he also met several local musicians and was able in turn to learn from them. Musicians from both the Comoros and Mayotte, such as Bwana Riziki, Athamani Subira and Ahamada Smis, helped Matona expand his musical palette even further.

The music of the Indian Ocean islands is rooted in the strong rhythms of maloya, chakacha, salegy, and mgodro among many others. The sound is upbeat and meant to encourage dancing and participation. It is with this in mind that the group, who took their name from one of the local genres, perform their blend of the islands’ musical flavours.

“It is a band that reconnects people, music, cultures and traditions,” Matona says. “It encourages the lost arts of playing traditional instruments and forms   a brotherhood between peoples and cultures.”


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