Hearing the Stories, Spreading the Word

Hearing the Stories, Spreading the Word

by David Tinning

Juma Ubao illustrates a point

Juma Ubao illustrates a point

Ahead of the muziki wa dansi festival this weekend in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzania Heritage Project team had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with some of the country’s greatest musicians.  Gathering under a shady tree at Makutano House in Oyster Bay, five artists spanning six decades of musical output convened to share stories, film a slot for an upcoming TV show, bust out a few impromptu bouts of vocal harmonising, and generally do some world class hanging out.

Rajabu Samata on bass guitar

Rajabu Samata on bass guitar

A few days previous, we were invited to their Chamaduata (Chama cha Muziki wa Dansi Tanzania) office in Ilala – a dusty, congested area of Dar es Salaam where these relentlessly industrious seniors conduct their union business. We had been asked to come and hear a ‘greatest hits’ package they had been compiling – covering five bands and some 40 years. The recordings are the tip of the iceberg – a selection of a few of the treasures originally recorded at the Radio Tanzania studio, and now housed on reel to reel tapes in the Tanzania Broadcast Corporation’s dusty archive. Juma Ubao, the union’s chairman, (and a distinguished multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and band leader in his own right), attempted to hotwire a practice amp in order to give us a private preview of the tracks in their tiny, run down office. Although he didn’t quite master the technical challenge, we did get a overdriven and distorted blast of what we had come for – the beautifully crafted, insanely inventive, and utterly compelling music that defines Tanzania’s muziki wa dansi sound.

Daniel Kijo, host of "Minibuzz," preps THP co-founder Benson Rukantabula for an interview

Daniel Kijo, host of “Minibuzz,” preps THP co-founder Benson Rukantabula for an interview

A couple of tracks stood out for their simple beauty – both, it turned out, the work of John Simon – now well into his 70s and the man many of the later musicians hold up as a true innovator of the sound. The tracks we heard, recorded sometime in the late 1950s, are a window to another time, blissfully melodic, playful and full of a melancholic optimism that seems to be a trademark of the zilipendwa scene.

Fast forward a few days and we were graced with the great man’s presence for a sunny afternoon. The opportunity to informally chat to the each of the artists was a pleasure, and one that is an integral part of the THP’s goal to document and share the stories and musical legacies of these all but forgotten legends. It was with this in mind that we welcomed a film crew from one of Tanzania’s top-rated TV shows to shoot a piece for an upcoming broadcast.

The show – previously known as ‘Daladala’, and now rebranded as ‘Mini buzz’ – is an inventive hybrid of current affairs, Saturday Night Live style entertainment and lively public debate – on a moving bus.  Or to be more accurate, the bus is one of the Dar’s iconic daladalas – the ubiquitous mode of transport that keeps the sprawling city on the move – in theory, anyway. The producers of the show immediately saw the worth in interviewing the musicians, and in the process bringing about a discussion on musical heritage and the changing face of popular culture in Tanzania. Set to air the first week of October, the show promises to be highly entertaining – watching these warm, engaging and funny guys hold forth on any topic is a not-to-be-missed experience. Stay tuned for an update here after the show is broadcast.

Benson Rukantabula, THP co-founder, interviews the musicians at Makutano House, Oyster Bay, Dar es Salaam

Benson Rukantabula, THP co-founder, interviews the musicians at Makutano House, Oyster Bay, Dar es Salaam

Until then, if you are in Dar, make sure you attend the two day festival this weekend – September 28th & 29th – at Leaders Club in Kinondoni. Also organised by Chamudata, it’s a truly rare chance to see the cream of the crop – from legends such as King Kiki and DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra, to upcoming bands such as FM Academia and Akudo Impact. Come early and be ready to dance –we’ll see you there.

The muziki wa dansi festival begins tomorrow, 28 September 2012 at 7 pm. Entrance is 5,000/- at the gate.

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