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‘My Family Thought I Had Lost My Mind’

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In Tanzania, music is played everywhere: on crowded, colorful streets, in dala dalas (minibus taxis), and in roadside bars, which serve grilled corn and roasted pistachios. Tanzanians even walk as if they are dancing.

This passion for music comes from the tribes. In this country, with a population of 50 million people, there are more than 120 of them and all of them have different traditional instruments, tunes, and songs. In the cosmopolitan Dar es Salaam, you can hear almost all of them: from the melodies played on the ilimba, an instrument of the Gogo tribe from central Tanzania, to taarab music, akin to sung poetry, and popular in Zanzibar.

Yet the younger generation prefers bongo flava, a local version of hip hop. And the local stars are more and more inspired by their American idols; they imitate their music, gestures and clothing style. No wonder that older musicians fear that, in a few decades, Tanzanians may no longer be able to make traditional instruments or even play on them.

Hilary More, lead singer of the Cocodo band from dar es Salaam (Photo by Myriam Meloni)

In colonial times, traditional music and dancing encouraged resistance. Today, artists are encouraging resistance against growing western influences to save their rich tradition.

Seventy-two-year-old Warema Chacha is a well-known litungu player, a stringed instrument of the Kurya tribe from north-western Tanzania. The older he gets, the more determined he is to pass on his knowledge and love for music to younger generations.

“I often tell young people that it’s important to value your own culture, because in this way you can know yourself better. You won’t know it by playing bongo flava,” he says at his house in Bagamoyo, 60 kilometers from Dar es Salaam.

“Many times when you don’t appreciate your own things they can disappear. If someone comes to me, I can help and teach him to play the instrument, even making him one for free,” he adds showing a self-made litungu.

An ilimba, a traditional instrument of the Gogo tribe from Tanzania. The Zawose family use it during performances. (Photo by Myriam Meloni)

He has already encouraged his grandson Ally, who plays on the African drums in a popular band Ze Spirits, to also take litungu lessons.

“The litungu is not well known and we are the only ones who can save it from disappearing and introduce it to the world because we are close to Chacha, who knows everything about this instrument,” says 21-year-old Sajaly Sharif, Ally’s friend from the band that plays afro-fusion, a mix of traditional and modern music. “This can also be a good marketing strategy for us. Like most bands, we also play the guitar, but if you go to America or Europe, you’ll find people who do it better. We can be the kings of the litungu though. And thanks to this, people may be more interested in our music,” he adds.

Chacha is also teaching young musicians that music is not only for entertainment. His songs encourage people to vote in elections and warn against malaria or AIDS.

“What is most important is its educational role and the message it carries,” he says.

Music is also an important element of national identity. In 1964, when President Julius Nyerere united Zanzibar and the mainland Tanganyika to form Tanzania, traditional art gained more significance. His government used the performances of traditional artists from different tribes to break down ethnic differences in the young nation. Chacha joined the national troupe of traditional musicians as a teenager, and played in the group on the litungu for over 36 years.

A modern guitar and a traditional African drum, belonging to the Cocodo band. (Photo by Myriam Meloni)

The Bagamoyo College of Art, near Chacha’s house, was founded in 1981 as a training ground for the national troupes. Today, it is one of a few places where people can learn real traditional music. The conditions for learning are something from a dream: classes take place just a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean and the sound of the waves can be heard from the rooms.

“Students are increasingly interested in tribal instruments, because they don’t want to lose their culture. It is now fashionable to combine traditional and modern rhythms,” says Maulid Mohamed Saleman, a teacher at the Bagamoyo school.

He inherited his musical talent from his parents.

“My mother was a dancer, and my father a musician and a village leader. When he wanted to meet with his people, he called them by banging on the drums. Sometimes I wonder how he would have reacted if he had had the chance to listen to young people mixing the sound of the drums with modern guitars,” Saleman says with a smile.

“In the beginning my family thought that I had lost my mind,” says 34-year-old Msafiri Zawose, son of the late traditional musician Hukwe Zawose who played on the ilimba (an instrument made from wood and thin metal plates) and gained international recognition thanks to his collaboration with the British singer Peter Gabriel. “But now they like my music. It sounds different from my father’s music, but still it’s a traditional melody,” he says at his house in Bagamoyo.

Msafiri Zawose, son of the late traditional musician Hukwe Zawose, performs with his family at their house in Bagamoyo

Msafiri has already recorded a few albums, and performed in many countries, including the United States.

Yet some older musicians are a little afraid of the consequences of mixing the styles.

“In 20 to 30 years there will be no pure traditional music. But I think it’s worth paying this price if we save traditional melodies and instruments from disappearing,” says 74-year-old Makame Faki, a famous taarab musician from Zanzibar.

On a hot Saturday night in Nafasi Art Space, a fashionable cultural center in Dar es Salaam, a crowd of young people dance to the music of Ze Spirits. They are drinking local Kilimanjaro beer and eating popcorn.

“Traditional music will evolve but not die. Tanzanians have this music in their genes,” says Rebecca Corey, the director of Nafasi and a co-founder of the Tanzanian Heritage Project, a cultural initiative whose aim is to record traditional musicians, like Chacha.

A man playing the saxophone at the Dhow Countries Music Academy in Zanzibar

Chacha has also recently performed on stage at Nafasi Art Space with his grandson and his band. Sometimes, he even listens to bongo flava songs. He admits that some of them are not so bad, but he doesn’t understand why artists dress the way they do.

“Wearing trousers below the waist is not our tradition, wearing glasses is common for CIA agents so that people cannot see their eyes. Sometimes they wear women’s glasses and think it’s fine, and sometimes clothes for women and earrings. I pray to God to help them,” he says, trying to hold back laughter.

However, he might be able to forget about their outfits if they start to take litungu lessons.

“In the end, hip hop sounds almost like the Kurya tribe heroic recitation,” he adds with a smile.

Written by Monika Rebala, Photos by Myriam Meloni

This project has been funded by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.

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Celebrating Women With Monumental Strength

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Sixty two years ago, on August 9, 20,000 women of all races, classes and creed marched, singing and chanting, babies on their backs, to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to deliver a petition to then Prime Minister J.G Strydom against the introduction of the apartheid pass laws.

This meant black women were not allowed in urban areas for more than 72 hours unless they possessed a pass with the holder’s details, including payment of taxes and permission to be in these urban areas. The march was led by the struggle stalwarts: Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn and Rahima Moosa.

“I didn’t see much of Helen Joseph at the march, she was in front of the crowd. She was a big strong woman and she led the march with other strong women. They told us that women are holding passes and if we don’t demonstrate against [the government], we [too will one day end up] holding these passes,” recollects Ramnie Naidoo to FORBES AFRICA. She was only was 14 years old at the time, escorting her mother at the march.

Pictured here is Helen Joseph (1905-1992), founding member of the Federation of South African Women, and Rahima Moosa (1922-1993), union activist and member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, both co-leaders of the 1956 Women’s March.

They have been immortalized in the Long March To Freedom, a procession of 100 life-sized bronzes celebrating the pioneers of South Africa’s journey to democracy, at the Fountains Recreation Resort in the City of Tshwane, Gauteng, South Africa.

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Arts

Talking African Writing in London

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Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, dwelt on Afrofuturism and where black British artists see themselves in the burgeoning new aesthetic.

(more…)

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Life

Kingdom Calling At The Bushfire Festival

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It’s an early morning in May and as the sun rises, red, orange and yellow hues bathe the swaying sugarcane fields of Malkerns, a small town in the landlocked southern African country of Swaziland.

Swaziland, renamed ‘the kingdom of eSwatini’ in April this year on its 50th birthday, awakens to the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping birds. Very soon, these natural notes will be replaced by the cacophony and camaraderie of thousands of guests jetting into the country for the annual Bushfire Festival, a three-day fiesta of art, culture, music and food in the last week of May.

It’s a busy time of the year for a kingdom that is one of the world’s last remaining monarchies.

Within the Bushfire Festival arena, djembe drums beat to the rhythm of the heartbeat of Africa. Revelers indulge in traditional feasts at the food markets as the musicians take center-stage.

The likes of South Africa’s Samthing Soweto, Brazil’s Flavia Coelho, Nigeria’s Yemi Alade and Mali’s Salif Keita are present, offering a profusion of sounds and melodies.

In the camping arena is a confluence of cultures, as over 29,000 guests who have traveled here to attend the festival make new friends and form unlikely collaborations.

Many stop to admire a hand-crafted grass hat worn by a young woman who has traveled from Lesotho. Anna Thai is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.

“The people here are very relaxed and accepting of each other. There are so many from different countries, so many languages and so many different faces and I really enjoy the diversity of it,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

What started as a cultural meet around a small amphitheater, where artistes performed in front of a crowd of no more than a hundred, is today one of Africa’s most talked-about festivals.

 

Swazi-born Jiggs Thorne. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

“We started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity.” – Jiggs Thorne

Swaziland-born Jiggs Thorne, the founder and director of the festival, always had a passion for the arts, but admits he had to learn the business aspect of the festival the hard way.

“The important thing is I never studied to become a festival director and that’s the thing with entrepreneurs, you are driven by passion; the kind of passion that gets you up and creates that drive you need to make something work. And you have to be incessant,” Thorne tells us.

Born in Manzini, he was inspired by his parents who owned a restaurant. He went on to pursue a degree in drama and politics at the University of Natal in South Africa.

In 1994, when he finished his degree, he decided to return to his home country and apply his passion for the arts. Thorne wanted to develop the local arts scene.

In 2000, he set up House On Fire, the eclectic venue where the festival is now held.

However, its business model wasn’t sustainable, and Thorne realized that if he didn’t act quickly, his dream would slowly fade away.

“Well, I was very much an artiste and I think I’ve become entrepreneurial along the way and we started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity,” he says.

The Bushfire Festival came into being.

“It was always about a positive light, warmth, about celebrating diversity,” he says.

A majority of the funding came from sponsorships, and partnerships – the festival is called MTN Bushfire.

With his brother Shelton, Thorne fine-tuned the business model to keep its mandate as a creative arts platform and business at the same time. As Thorne came from an arts background, he had to depend on others to make his dream work.

Read More: Setting Fire To Swaziland

“There needs to be integrity in the way in which you deal with people so I think that’s kind of paramount in this equation where you are dependent on others to make it happen,” says the 48-year-old father of two.

The festival grew beyond what Thorne had imagined, he says, contributing over E50 million ($3.7 million) to Swaziland’s economy.

“When the king travels overseas, people ask him about Bushfire, you know. So it’s quite a surreal thing that the concept that came up all those years ago in a sense has become owned by others,” laughs Thorne.

This year, the local newspapers, radio stations and social media were abuzz with news on the festival.

Thorne owes its success to his team and his parents who left the legacy for him and the family to build on.

“It was kind of the fire they started and it’s a light that we’ve been able to follow. They are the legacy, says Thorne, who runs the festival with his siblings and extended family.

“Entrepreneurship is something that you don’t really study, you learn, and it’s something that takes over, and it’s kind of all-encompassing,” he signs off.

After the curtains come down on the festival, it’s back to the idyllic sights and sounds of Swaziland, until next year, when the little town of Malkerns will fire up again.

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