Has John Hall’s epic musical quest come to an end

Has John Hall’s epic musical quest come to an end


Every music lover has experienced that thrill of deep connection with a piece of music, and the resulting desire to unearth every last detail surrounding it. Thanks to the internet, this has become a routine process, normally taking just a few minutes. But some among us have worked a little harder for our passion.

THP meets John Hall, a Taraab loving mechanic from Sioux Lookout, Canada, who just might be coming to the end of a musical journey that started 23 years ago with Radio Tanzania.

Producing an MP3 player from his bag, the affable mechanic John Hall searches excitedly for some recordings to play for Bruno Nanguka, the head Librarian of the Radio Tanzania archives. John tells Bruno in Swahili how he has travelled a long way for this moment – from his birthplace in Kampala, Uganda via the frozen wilds of Sioux Lookout, a small town in northern Ontario, Canada. John has lived and worked there for the past four years – his wife and foster kids settled happily into a place unimaginably different from John’s youth, and where winter temperatures regularly reach minus 40 degrees.

Here in sweltering Dar es Salaam, he hopes his long search for the music that has haunted him from his youth is coming to an end.  The files he plays for Bruno is Bruno’s dusty, run down office at the TBC are voice recordings of John himself singing the melodies and half-remembered lyrics of a handful of Taraab songs he heard 23 years ago on Radio Tanzania, when he was just 18-years-old.

This wasn’t John’s first experience of Radio Tanzania – as a child in the late 70s he built a rudimentary radio from a phone receiver, a tuning capacitor and an aerial – displaying a precocious talent for engineering and mechanics. He would secretly listen to RTD broadcasting into Uganda, reporting on the progress of the rebel forces and Tanzanian soldiers fighting against Idi Amin’s murderous regime. Amin had apparently issued a decree banning Ugandans from listening to Radio Tanzania and Deutsche Welle, under pain of death.

John explains his mission to Bruno Nanguka, the TBC’s librarian.

John finds the files and we hear him half-humming, half-singing five songs – he originally recorded them to cassette and then, as they began to deteriorate from overplay, re-sang them to his MP3 player, in an attempt to keep his memories alive. So far, his efforts to find the originals have been fruitless – despite years of contacting people on the internet and cold calling radio stations, he still doesn’t know the names of the artists or the songs. But that’s about to change, as he’s come to exactly the right place.  The songs he is looking for may only exist in this building – part of the legacy of the Radio Tanzania years – recorded in the legendary RTD studios and only ever broadcast via Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam.

In 1989 John finished his studies in Kampala and packed his bags for Musoma, Tanzania, some 500 kms southwest across the great expanse of Lake Victoria and the hometown of Tanzania’s first president – Julius K Nyerere. He stayed for four months studying Swahili, and remembers tuning in to Radio Tanzania at every opportunity –at that time it was the only station on the dial. He recalls that every Tuesday night he would become entranced by Shida Masamba’s Muziki wa Mwambao (‘music of the coast’) show – a treasure trove of the exotic and bewitching sounds of Taarab.

Bi Kidude, legend of Taraab. Photo by Aubrey Fagon

Around the time of John’s stay in Musoma, Taarab was still hugely popular in Tanzania. A melting pot of south Asian, European, Middle Eastern and African styles, Taarab’s diverse influences were a result of the Swahili coast (particularly Zanzibar) and its historical trade routes. Popularised in the 1920s by its first star Siti Binti Saad, and later by her protégé Bi Kidude, Taarab was often performed by large orchestras of up to 50 people. Characterised by Swahili lyrics that dealt with day-to-day issues, traditional Taarab would feature a subtle and poetic form of expression unravelling over the course of songs that often ran over 15 minutes long. Its popularity has since waned somewhat with the rise of a modern, dance-oriented Taarab sound, but the archives of Radio Tanzania still contain an estimated 800 plus reel-to-reel tape recordings made by traditional orchestras from the 50s to the 80s. Somewhere in those tapes are the songs that have entranced John Hall for so long.

“I fell in love with the music,” says John. “My friends think I’m different – that I listen to weird Arabic music. But Taarab is African – the language is Swahili and the lyrics are about life and everyday troubles for Africans. They are stories. I’m touched by it.”

John and Bruno outside the TBC building, Dar es Salaam.

Bruno, with almost 40 years working at the archive under his belt, listens bemusedly to John’s renditions, making the odd note as he goes along. He’s often asked to find particular tracks, but it tends to be the hits of the zilipendwa era more than these almost forgotten pieces. He thinks he knows most of them – he’ll have to check in the archive, but he’s happy to make a CD for John and post it back to Sioux Lookout­ – the other side of the world. John is understandably ecstatic – years of internet searching, contacting friends in Tanzania, and scouring the markets of Kariakoo in downtown Dar on his yearly pilgrimage have reaped nothing so far.

John heard an NPR broadcast in November about the Tanzania Heritage Project and the plight of the Radio Tanzania archive, and he got in touch with the organisation, sensing a new lead in his quest. Once the archive has been digitised and is accessible to all, it will be much easier for people to find and reconnect with this unique music, whether they are, like John, trying to piece together a treasured part of their youth, or simply music lovers discovering it for the first time.

When the CD reaches him, 8,000 miles away in the bitter winter of Sioux Lookout and 23 years after he first heard it, John Hall will hopefully have reached the end of his musical journey. His house and workshop will be reverberating with the sweet sounds of the Swahili coast – a testament to the power of music transcending time and place, and a reminder of the importance of our quest to ensure that this cultural goldmine is preserved for everyone.

Hear one of John’s renditions here: