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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.