We Sing What We See

by Raphaella Friedman, Emma Sokoloff-Rubin, and Rebecca Distler:

X-Plastaz begins his music video barefoot on the slopes of a 9,700-foot-high volcano named Ol Doinyo Lengai (“Mountain of God” in the Maasai language). He stands alone, his red cloth robe stark against the snow. The scene cuts to the narrow streets of a gritty urban neighborhood in Arusha, where this popular Tanzanian musician raps in jeans and a white t-shirt, surrounded by teenagers who smoke and glare at the camera. Depicted throughout as a man with a message, he describes the problems facing many young Tanzanians and praises their resourcefulness: “Those whom you’d depend on until the end will let you drown / You’re not educated, don’t have any special talent / But strength, tongue, frugality you have…” Blending traditional symbols with a modern art form and tough political realities with eloquent lyricism, X-Plastaz’s work draws on one of Tanzania’s most popular and outspoken forms of music: a genre of Swahili rap known as bongo flava.

Bongo flava hip-hop group Knuckle to Knuckle performs in front of a mixed crowd ranging from locals to French tourists, all gathered on the lawn at Via Via's Cultural Cafe. (Friedman/TYG)

Until bongo flava emerged in the early 1990s, the music on Tanzanian radio stations came from outside the country. The images and messages put forth by Western hip-hop were foreign even to those who understood the lyrics, and Congolese music, also popular at the time, focused on a different set of issues from those Tanzanian listeners faced at home. The first bongo flava musicians began creating their own music in their homes or in small studios, starting a tradition of rapping in Swahili that continues today. The word “bongo” means brains, without which, the artists sing, locals could not survive the streets of Dar es Salaam. While the rhythms of bongo flava closely resemble those of the hip-hop it has begun to replace, the lyrics come directly from the daily lives of a growing number of musicians and fans.

At first, Tanzania’s then-socialist government banned bongo flava songs from the radio. As the country transitioned from a socialist to a capitalist economy, Tanzanian musical culture liberalized as well. Bongo flava is a constant on radio stations, in clubs, and in the street. Even government programs and international NGOs now use bongo flava cassette tapes and CDs to spread messages about politics, health, and education throughout the country.

The Studio

“Here is the real hip-hop,” insisted Gilbarth, a hip-hop artist known as GMG, as he surveyed a tiny room in Arusha where musicians in their 20s and 30s produce their own music and work with local teenagers to do the same. The studio Aang Serian, which means “house of peace” in the Maasai language, has gained international recognition since it started in 1998, and today counts the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as partners. Outside the studio’s windows, passersby range from tall Maasai men to women in burqas selling fruits and vegetables.

The studio is little more than a lone microphone and a desk with an old computer and speakers. But it is a place away from the clamor of Arusha’s daily traffic where Gilbarth and other young musicians can lay the music tracks that have earned them names in their communities. Aang Serian’s efforts to empower youth and preserve the various elements of Tanzanian identity show through their music, putting a unique spin on the worldwide hip-hop phenomenon by incorporating tribal chants and instruments like the marimba. Despite the modest equipment and the paint peeling off the walls, nothing is off limits for Aang Serian. Their artists rap about issues like the environment, HIV/AIDS, corruption in politics, and the loss of tribal identity. “The hip-hop music emerging from Tanzania is a form of ethnography,” noted Rutta, another member of the organization. “When we used to meet in Kisenge, almost every week we would be burying someone we knew who was a victim of HIV/AIDS.” The young musicians have a clear purpose in mind: “We sing what we see.”

The Factory

In Dar es Salaam, a 10-hour bus ride away, GMC Records factory produces bongo flava cassette tapes, CDs, and videotapes to sell in stores and outdoor markets throughout the country. Because of the genre’s immense popularity, GMC Records now produces music created in Tanzania almost exclusively. “Fifteen years ago, I would have given you the name of five or 10 bongo flava artists,” said Zahir Shivji, the owner of the GMC production factory, his voice barely audible amid the whirring machines cranking cassette tapes out onto a conveyor belt. Now, he says, he can name more than 100 bongo flava artists.

On the first floor of the GMC Records factory, Zayn Khakoo, a young video editor born in Dar and trained in India, edits fledgling music videos in front of a wide-screen, state-of-the-art Macintosh computer. The glow of the screen reveals a music video of a man in hip clothing serenading his girlfriend on a docked boat, wishing aloud that he could give her fine gifts though he has no money. The video is a departure from the heavy political focus of artists in Arusha, yet in its focus on love and money, this video also addresses issues that Tanzanians deal with every day.

The range of clothing in bongo flava videos — everything from traditional garb to trendy American outfits — reflects the multiplicity of cultures that intersect in this musical genre. GMC’s music video may well be marketed in Rwanda, Uganda, and other East African countries as well as in Dar. Yet bongo flava artists always rap in Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. Bongo flava musicians view their art as an exciting example of Tanzania’s role on the world stage and hope that their music will help protect a sense of Tanzanian national identity in the face of increasing globalization.

The Street

Once critical of bongo flava for being “too western,” the government now incorporates songs about violence, drug use, and HIV/AIDs into public health campaigns. Through radio, cassette tapes, and CDs, the music gets back to the same kinds of narrow streets and varied realities in which it was made. Rather than ban bongo flava songs from the radio, the government has recognized the music’s potential to resonate with people on the ground.

Non-governmental organizations also use this tactic, or, in some cases, pioneer it: Emily Churchman, director of SIC Change, an NGO that runs HIV/AIDS testing and education programs in rural villages, knows that “setting up speakers is a great way to draw a crowd.” She hires a local disc jockey who will “drive down any road” to blast bongo flava on HIV/AIDs clinic days. In Churchman’s view, when people produce, perform, and even listen to this music, they are actively en•gaging with local issues, rather than “pretending that the problems aren’t here.”

The Stage

Nestled between a wildlife conservatory and the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, Via Via’s is a cozy expatriate café renowned in Arusha for its weekly musical lineup. While nearly invisible to passersby, every Thursday night the white-walled building overflows with patrons eager to hear the café’s medley of performers.

As cultural coordinator of Via Via’s, Aziz, a self-assured young man with dreadlocks and effortless charm, has the job of selecting the talent that performs each week. The challenge, he said, is finding balance. “You have Westerners wanting to hear local music, and locals wanting to hear Western music,” he said. This means that in a single night, you might find the traditional dance and song of a rural tribe, followed by a breakdancing crew, topped off by an energetic performance from Knuckle to Knuckle, a well-known rap group from Arusha.

This site of cultural innovation is a place where the challenge of balancing varied cultures and experiences is most evident. As bongo flava gains popularity across East Africa and beyond, artists who began by singing about their own communities — singing about what they see — may face increasing pressure to look outwards as well. These artists will have the opportunity to pioneer a model of music built from the ground up, so long as looking beyond national borders doesn’t blind them to the place from which they’ve come.

Raphaella Friedman is a sophomore History and Political Science major in Trumbull College. Emma Sokoloff-Rubin is a junior History major in Timothy Dwight College.  Rebecca Distler is a sophomore Political Science major in Davenport College.