THP catches up with retired British doctor Julian Shelley, a conscientious objector to National Service who found himself hosting a popular jazz radio show in early 60s Dar es Salaam.
In 1957, a newly qualified young British doctor arrived in what was then Tanganyika to help run a TB hospital near Moshi. The British Government sent Dr. Julian Shelley – wife and 6-month-old daughter Anna in tow – to Kibongoto after he conscientiously objected to the requirement to spend two years conscripted to the military.
Fresh out of medical school in Edinburgh, Dr Shelley threw himself into the assignment, developing an affinity with the people of the region that would last a lifetime. He stayed on to work for a further two years in Maasailand, (the area of central Tanzania extending north into the Serengeti Plains and on into Kenya), and was then asked back to help create a new anatomy wing of the Muhimbili hospital in Dar es Salaam. In Dar in the early 60s, Shelley forged a friendship with fellow Brit Tony Baker, a journalist working for the Tanganyika Broadcasting Corporation – the national broadcaster created by the colonial government in 1956.
Interestingly, in the years to follow, the indigenous style of music known as Muziki wa Dansi would also become known as Swahili Jazz, with many of the top practitioners affixing “jazz” to their band name. Morogoro Jazz, Atomic Jazz, Dar es Salaam Jazz, Tabora Jazz etc. used the name perhaps both as a signifier of modernity and as an umbrella term for genres associated with big bands.
Discovering a mutual love of jazz, Baker introduced the doctor to Ed White, who while employed by the US Embassy, was also an accomplished jazz musician. A plan was hatched to produce and broadcast a series of short radio programmes on the roots and evolution of jazz – with Baker as the producer, White supplying the records and Julian Shelley as the host. We Call It Jazz was born, airing 13 shows during 1962 / 3, for which Shelley was paid the princely sum of 100 Shillings. The show caused something of a sensation in Dar es Salaam, giving the city what could have been for many their first taste of jazz.
The show did an admirable job of tracing the history and evolution of jazz though the years, drawing parallels between the African work songs recorded by Shelley on the building site of Muhimbili hospital, to the work songs of the American Deep South from which jazz grew. Some 50 years later the show retains its historical accuracy – the exact same examples of jazz’s genesis being made by composer Howard Goodall in his recent UK TV series “The Story Of Music”.
Listening to it now is a step back in time, from the archaic linguistic style and vocabulary (we hear the term ‘negro’ – jarring to a modern audience but commonly held to be the most ‘politically correct’ usage until the late 60s), to the scratchy recordings of the workmen’s song. We Call It Jazz is a powerful glimpse into the period of Tanzania’s newly found independence, as well as being an impressively researched treatise on jazz, and a thoroughly entertaining and informative listen. No wonder it was repeated twice due to public demand.
Speaking to the charming, erudite 81-year old on the phone from his home in Newbury, UK, Dr Shelley sheds some light on how this all came about.
THP: How did you become involved with Radio Tanzania? (Tanganyika at this stage)
JS: I went out to Tanganyika as it was then in 1958, as a medical specialist and I worked in a TB hospital in Kimbogoto near Moshi. Then I worked in Maasailand for two years. That was my first tour of duty, so to speak. They then asked me to come back to Dar es Salaam to set up the anatomy department at what was then called the Princess Margret hospital –which then became Muhimbili.
While I was in Dar es Salaam I got to know a journalist who worked for the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation, called Tony Baker. And it was he who knew of my interest in jazz and put me in touch with one of the staff of the US embassy in Dar – Ed White, who was actually a jazz musician. Using Ed’s record collection my collection, and making some recordings in Dar es Salaam itself of people on worksites, I set up these 13 programmes, each a quarter of an hour, and that’s how the series was prepared. Tony Baker was what you might call the producer, and we recorded this shows using beautiful Ampex tape recorders, which the VOA had given to the TBC – so very good equipment. They went out once a week and were extremely popular –they had so many requests they were repeated twice more that year. I left Dar es Salaam in 1963 and went to work in Kampala for a year, and I returned to England in 1964 and took up my medical career in Britain again.
You were the presenter of We Call It Jazz?
Yes, I wrote it and chose the records, and I made the recordings. When the plan to build a medical school was set up, the hospital couldn’t cope. Lots of new buildings had to be built, and while that was being built we had lots of Tanzanians working on the construction, and I used one of the work songs that they used to coordinate their work, so to speak, to draw a parallel between the work songs of the American deep south, and those used in Tanzania. I played that tape through and you can quite clearly hear the words and the tune and the hammering away in the background, so it’s quite authentic. It was through Tony Baker and my friendship with Ed White that we got access to the VOA tapes and equipment. That was the troika, if you like (laughs) of how it worked.
This was around the time of independence?
No it was after that. When I was working in Maasai land, that’s when Tanganyika became Tanzania. This was two years into independence, with Julius Nyrere as the head of Government. It was 1962, the early years of independence.
What was the atmosphere around TBC at the time? The radio was central to Nyerere’s plans for a truly Tanzanian cultural identity. Did you feel that at the time?
Oh yes, but I was working full time in the department at Muhimbili. I literally used to go in after I had been working and record the programs and I didn’t meet the TBC staff on a regular basis. Tony Baker will have more info on that side of things.
I understand the TBC authorities checked programs for content and messages. Was this true?
Yes, but not for me. My programmes were considered to be politically neutral. Because after all I was drawing parallels between the plight of the African Americas in the middle of the 19th century and – and – not exactly a parallel to the state of Tanzania in the 1960s, but obviously I was trying to draw some common links, particularly with the work songs. But there hadn’t been any program of this nature that was actually trying to talk about the roots of jazz. That was the first time that it was done. And I took the roots of jazz from American folk songs, sung by whites and blacks, spirituals, marching songs, church parades and those sorts of things. And then talked about how jazz evolved through the late part and into the early part of the 20th century with the development of swing, the role of the voice in jazz, and coming right up to be-bop and the really quite avant garde people of the 60s. People like Thelonious Monk.
How do you feel your shows were received by Tanzanians? Were they interested in this music?
Yes they were. And it was the response from the Tanzanian audience, principally in Dar es Salaam – who were musical and probably heard bands playing in dance clubs and things like that – that prompted the authorities to repeat the programs at least twice more. I don’t think many Europeans requested repeats of the program!
Did you witness the development of what has become known as Swahili jazz?
I used to go to the dance clubs and things, but I only had a passing interest in that because my work occupied most of my time. I left Dar in mid-summer 1963 and went to work in Kampala before leaving Africa in 1964. So I couldn’t give you any expert view on the development of indigenous – the sort of fusion of African dance rhythms and American jazz.
You must have been excited to hear these tapes again. How was it listening back to them?
Very, very odd! I’m pleased with some and less pleased with others. I made copies of 6 of the programs – just as a memory. So that’s turned out to be quite useful!
It’s been a real pleasure talking to you about this!
And you! It’s been a delightful flashback into a period long long ago.
Dr Shelley enlisted the help of his friend Sebastian Scotney from London Jazz News to have the reel-to-reel tapes digitized and sent to the Tanzania Heritage Project. Also, many thanks to Anna Shelley for her invaluable assistance in completing this piece.