Ahead of their headlining appearance at Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar on February 15th, Nils von der Assen recalls a night dancing to Mlimani Park Orchestra at their regular Friday show in Dar. (Above photos by John Kitime).
Break Point Bar on a Friday night. The harmonious sounds of a choir of crickets have been replaced by those of another orchestra. ddc Mlimani Park is in full swing: star singer Hassan Bitchuka, four guitarists, a drummer and a substantial horn section are treating their audience to some classic Muziki wa Dansi. Their evergreen “Neema”, twice voted Tanzania’s ‘Song of the Year’ in the early 1980s, never fails to get people up and moving. Bitchuka, well in his seventies, is an éminence grise of Dar es Salaam’s dansi scene, a veteran who has been captivating audiences throughout the city for decades. He is still the man of the hour, his voice seeming to have lost little of its enchanting timbre over the years.
The band has been playing for over two hours now. As the night progresses, the songs get longer and louder. The chemko—the fast final part of each song, featuring the tight interplay of the four guitars interlaced with forceful riffs by the horn section—gets the audience sweating and moving. Around midnight, Bitchuka signals break time: after a short interruption, the musicians will play for a good three hours more. During the break, a DJ makes for the turntables and fills the air with the catchy beats of “Haba Haba”, a song which has been topping Dar es Salaam’s charts for weeks now. Immediately, the dance floor is crammed with young enthusiasts lining up to dance to kwaito, a type of percussive house music originating from Johannesburg which has gained massive popularity all over East and Southern Africa since its emergence in the 1990s. It is a fascinating sight, as the young men and women are performing exactly the same dance steps and move as one carefully choreographed block, completely in sync with the beat.
When the song is finished, the DJ announces a final special act before Mlimani Park resumes their show, and a young boy takes centre-stage. As far as his outfit goes, he is every bit a Michael Jackson look-a-like, dressed in tight black jeans with a glitter jacket and wearing a hat plus the unmistakable white glove. Cheers of admiration go up from the crowd as the Tanzanian MJ performs an energetic rendition of “Beat It”, exposing his impressive dancing skills.
After what has been an entertaining intermezzo, Mlimani Park Orchestra take up their instruments again. Starting off with a cover version of Cuban immortal “Guantanamera”, they go on playing their well-known Swahili repertoire for some three hours more. The audience dances the night away.
This post is an edited version of the introduction to Nils von der Assen’s remarkable thesis “Resonation”, focusing on Muziki wa Dansi in Tanzania. We’ll be publishing more from this work in the coming weeks.
Nils is a journalist / researcher recently relocated back to Dar es Salaam and contributing his talents to the Tanzania Heritage Project. His (Dutch) blog can be found here: Nils von der Assen’s Blog