Tune in to any radio station in East Africa and the chances are that you will be listening to “Bongo Flava”. This is used to describe the very popular music currently coming out of Dar-es-Salaam, almost all sung in Swahili but in a wide varety of styles from rap to soul music and with unique locally developed flavours. Some of the groups such as Watatuzi Family seem to draw from Taarab and Mchiriku music styles while others are closer to reggae.
However, the originators of Bongo Flava are undoubtedly the Rap and Hip Hop artists. This stems from back to the early 1990s when The Hard Blasterz Crew and others started recording rap music. While rap in America grew from the streets with disenchanted and disempowered rappers, in Tanzania the early rappers tended to be from well off families, who thought it fashionable to follow US trends. Joseph Haule “Professor Jay” a member of Hard Blasterz Crew who is now a solo star, makes no secret of his wealthy parents. His song “Chemsha Bongo” starts “Kwa kifupi nimekulia kwenye maisha ya kitajiri, Wazazi wangu walinipenda walinipa lile na hili, Na tangu nikiwa mdogo nilionyesha kwamba nina akili, Sio siri nilikimbia umande kusoma sikuona dhili”. (In short I was raised in a wealthy lifestyle, My parents loved me and gave me this and that, and ever since I was young I showed I was intelligent, its no secret I ran to study in the morning dew – I didn’t see it a torture). The song goes on to describe how he was left with nothing partly due to his own excesses and partly because when his parents died suddenly, little known relatives “attracted by the smell of blood” descended and took unfair shares of the estate. When I met him in Tanga in 2001 despite being one of the best known rappers in Tanzania he was having to record in his spare time while holding down a full time job with a mobile phone company. Professor Jay has always tried hard to avoid the association of rap music with the American images of gangstas and lawbreakers (wahuni), and he is immensely respected by young Tanzanians because the lyrics of his songs are truthful and speak to people. “Ndio Mzee” tells of a politician who promises everything before an election, but then disappears until the next election time. “Bongo DSM” is an affectionate but honest take on life in Dar-es-Salaam.
Most of the other younger stars have followed his lead with Juma Nature and Mwanafalsafa among others singing about social problems and AIDS. That said, there are a good number of songs about love, jealousy etc, and a fair number of songs with less wholesome lyrics.
The recent hit Mikasi by MaNgwair describes a night out at a night club – the chorus “Mitungi, blunt, mikasi” referring to alcohol, marijuana and sex. Being the latest slang it is probably not understandable to many listeners, and there were only muted calls for it to be banned. Fagilia by Mr Nice is a nonsense rhyme “Kuku kapanda baiskeli, bata kavaa raizoni’ (The chicken rode a bike, the duck wore high-heeled shoes), and has been criticised in the press for this with Mr Nice labelled a “one hit wonder”.
Part of the reason for the rise of Bongo Flava has been the move away from pure rap songs to more melodic pop/soul music. Lady Jay Dee, Ray C and V2 are all female artists who have sold well, and certainly the Lady Jay Dee song “Siwema” is viewed as a classic and widely played even by Tanzanians living in the UK. There are very few female rappers, Sista P being the only example which springs to mind.
Most artists work independently, but one name which crops up again and again is that of producer P Funk. Paul Halfani is still in his early thirties, but has produced an amazing percentage of the most popular hits, and if any one person were to be credited with the popularity of Bongo Flava, it would have to be him. He has received numerous awards and official recognition, but unlike the artists he produces, he prefers to keep a low profile. I have met him only once in passing, about five years ago when he was working with rap artist Inspekta Haroum.
It is not a coincidence that the birth of Bongo Flava coincided with digital music processing becoming affordable and possible with relatively cheap PCs rather than requiring massive recording studios. Before the turn of the century, the only studios in Tanzania were those
of Radio Tanzania, and recordings were usually made “live”. Due to the poor quality instruments and drum kits and the short time spent recording, the results never sounded as good as the Zairean artists recording in Paris. These days using synthesized instruments professional sounding Hip Hop tracks can be created by someone equipped only with a computer. There are plenty of examples at www.mzibo.net though note that downloading these tracks does not benefit the artists.
Many young Tanzanians dream of being the next star, and pay around 300,000 TShs (£150) to record their song which they then offer free of charge to the radio stations to try and get them played. This means that there is a lot of fairly mediocre music about, but it does encourage creativity and competition. Cassettes are still the main format for music, and sell for around 1,200 TShs (60p) of which the artist will receive about 200 TShs. Pirate copying of tapes has been greatly reduced by police intervention and the fact that more people can afford the relatively cheap “official” cassettes. MaNgwair’s last album sold at least 35,000 cassettes, giving the artist an income of around £4,000. Even more lucrative for established stars are live concerts where they sing along to backing tapes. MaNgwair can command about 1M TShs (£500) per performance. Unfortunately, as in the rest of the world a lot of this money is siphoned off by promoters and managers rather than benefiting the artist. However, their popularity allows artists to sponsor other activities such as Ray C who owns a string of Boutiques in Dar, and MaNgwair who has opened a bar under his nickname “Speed 120″. This financial viability of the music business is another factor in its rapid growth, and differentiates Bongo Flava artists from more established Tanzanian music bands playing “dance music” such as Twanga Pepeta, Tam Tam and OTTU Jazz Band, in that the older bands have many members and performers and tend to be funded and run by external tajiris (rich men/women) who own the instruments and pay the performers a salary. The Bongo Flava artists are seen much more as entrepreneurs and “pop stars”.
Most of the stars are in their 20s and see fashion and videos as being an extremely important part of their work, though from my experience they are much more approachable (and talented!) than their European counterparts. Bongo Flava videos receive widespread coverage on TV, with one channel “East African TV” almost entirely devoted to music videos. A short movie called “Girlfriend” produced in 2003 surprised many Tanzanians by showing that they could produce modern drama of a technical standard as good as what comes out of South Africa and elsewhere. It starred TID (Top in Dar) and Angela Damas (Miss Tanzania 2002) and was accompanied by a hip hop soundtrack.
Another example of close links between TV and Bongo Flava was a competition held in Morogoro to find the “Mfalme wa Rap” (King of Rap). This attracted a lot of media attention and the winner, Mwanafalsafa won a car. Many of the artists have come on tour to the UK, though this seems to be seen as much as an opportunity to get publicity in Tanzania as a commercial venture in itself – excerpts from the concerts in the UK being shown on television back in Tanzania. That said, website www.africanhiphop.com reports significant interest in Bongo Flava in the USA. Sterns Music (www.sternsmusic.com) have finally responded and stock a couple of CDs, notably a compilation called “Bongo Flava” and music from Ray C, Xplastas and Sugu (formally known as Mr II). However, volumes of sales in the UK are unsurprisingly low, at typically only 10 CDs or so a month.
While some may regret the fashion for “copying” Western rap and soul music, in Tanzania Bongo Flava is very much viewed as African music, and is helping to forge an identity for youth all over East Africa. As such it can have a tremendously positive influence as well as reinvigorating the Tanzanian love of Swahili lyrics.