These Musicians Are Making A Contemporary East African Sound
I moved to Tanzania in 2012 after six years in Berlin working around the fringes of the music industry. When an offer came up to spend a couple of years there, I saw it as an opportunity to get involved with some projects dedicated to music and cultural preservation. Working with the Tanzania Heritage Project gave me a chance to witness two sides of the coin right away: an amazing and forgotten musical archive on the one hand, and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that kept it under wraps and under threat on the other. It was equal parts enlightening and deeply frustrating, but through that experience I ended on a path towards developing the Santuri East Africa initiative, which is a project that connects East African musicians, DJs and producers with counterparts elsewhere in the world.
Santuri is a platform for collaboration, from workshops and festival programming in East Africa to record releases and tours. DJ culture has been the vehicle that has driven the project forward and connects the dots between the digging and sharing of amazing and unheard music (such as the Sunburst release on Strut Records) to the development of a network pushing an innovative, contemporary East African sound. I’ve highlighted a few of artists and inspirations that I’ve been lucky enough to come across in the last few years here, but of course there are hundreds more.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with Hukwe Zawose since I first started researching Tanzanian artists before moving there in 2012. Hukwe released a few albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s, toured with the likes of Peter Gabriel and even released on Gabriel’s Real World label. Some of the tracks on this album, recorded as the Master Musicians of Tanzania, are too beautiful for words. Hukwe died in 2003, but his legacy lives on with his insanely talented son Msafiri, who has been keeping the family and their Wagogo traditions alive. Keep an eye out for forthcoming tracks by him and the family. Afro-futurist outernational vibes all the way.
Tanzania wasn’t exactly known for its Afro-rock scene. The dominant style of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which were the so-called “golden years,” was muziki wa dansi—a kind of East African rumba adapted from the Congolese blueprint. Yet Sunburst are a beautiful anomaly; their recent retrospective on Strut was a pleasure to work on and presents a side of the country that’s perhaps unknown even to many in the know. Sunburst revelled in a global soul and funk sound twisted into a Tanzanian style: they played at civil rights activist Angela Davis’s birthday in Dar es Salaam, had links to black militant movements hosted by former Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere in the newly independent country, and moved to Zambia to record their zam-rock inspired album. It’s a great story and a fine band.
Biashara Jazz Band
“Megenge” is one of the tracks passed on by musician Juma Ubao to the Tanzania Heritage Project while I was working for them. It was originally sourced from the Radio Tanzania archive in Dar es Salaam, which is very controversial in terms of ownership because the station grants zero rights to the recording artists. As a side note, this points to some of the problems related to Tanzanian music archiving initiatives. The artists are very unhappy that Radio Tanzania (now the TBC) have been selling bootleg cassettes and CDs of their music for years, with nothing going back to the musicians. Musically, however, the track is much more representative of the muziki wa dansi sound, but also seems to brim with various other influences. There’s a surf-y vibe to it with the bright guitars and a ferocious solo that I struggle to equate to the charming old timer, Jumo Ubao, who authored the track. As far as i know, this was never released officially, so this is an exclusive of sorts, 40 years after the fact.
Mim [pictured in the cover photo] is from Zanzibar but has been living in the UK for 20 odd years. She hooked up with longtime house producer Maurice Fulton in her hometown of Sheffield through a friend, and the result is a string of three albums that mix Fulton’s signature production with Mim’s taraab-influenced vocals and Swahili singing. She’s an incredible woman with a fierce perfectionist streak. Working with her on her return to Zanzibar was an exhilarating experience: she whipped the all-male band into serious shape over a week or so. This is one her best moments and a killer part of her live set.
Jagwa Music is a crossover band. That’s not to say that there’s anything commercial about its sound, but nevertheless it truly strikes a chord with European audiences, despite that the group’s almost unheard of in their native country, Tanzania. Their full-on aural assault combines six drummers who seem to play independently of each other, a Casio keyboard run through a cheap Tannoy speaker system and distorted to hell, and a extremely charismatic, intense front man. They play local gigs in their neighborhood and, amazingly, at weddings. Beholding them perform on the street in a neighbourhood of Dar es Salaam at dusk was the most visceral, electrifying and actually dangerous music show I’ve ever seen. The audience were ripped on cheap spirits and weed, and whipped into a frenzy by the Jagwa onslaught operating at full force. Their short-lived project with the Teichmann Brothers from Berlin signaled further potential crossover with the art/electronic scene, but perhaps their unique sound is best left unfettered.
There’s a lot of fun music brewing in Kenya, including this awesome band, Sarabi. Santuri East Africa had a chance to work with these guys a few years ago, and the results were pretty spectacular. They have since landed some pretty big tours in Europe, and they’re developing into a really great young band with strong political and social views to share. The tracks “Koko’s Vibration” and “Fire”, both of which are taken from the Highlife World Series: Kenya edition released last summer, are incredibly dope productions of killer songs. Big up for Esa Williams, Aluka Akwabi and Sam Jones for their work on these, and expect a killer album from them later in the year.
East Africa Wave Crew
Nairobi is bubbling up right now. Tons of bands are starting up, producers are making beats and DJs are digging into all sorts of sounds. The EA Wave crew—Jinku, NuFunk, Mvroe, Ukweli and Hiribae—have been incredibly proactive and productive over the last few years in creating a mini-scene around East Africa Wave, which is a hybrid of various electronic styles including trap, hip-hop, soul and local flavors. It’s really cool to see them building a following and pushing an independent sound on their own terms, and getting serious props in the international press for doing it.
Mugwisa International Xylophone Group
Working with Santuri has led to a number of incredible musical finds. The Mugwisa International Xylophone Group are essently a village ensemble of local farmers from the Iganga province of Uganda. We made contact with them though our partners at Bayimba Festival and got the opportunity to record their sound in its natural environment. Their setup is centered around the massive Embaire xylophone, which needs seven players to operate. It’s dug into the ground to create the necessary resonance—the bass from the lower keys has to be felt to be believed—and is either played with sticks, hands or flip-flops, depending on the required intensity level. The recordings made by Santuri with Sam Jones in 2015 are now surfacing as a remix package with the awesome On The Corner Records from London. It will feature some serious remixes and furnished with amazingly dope artwork.
Published July 19, 2016.