Scenes from the Life of a Tanzanian Musician

Scenes from the Life of a Tanzanian Musician

11 February, 2012 

Leo Mkanyia, a Tanzanian musician with an open face, quick smile, and deep laugh, walks the narrow alleyways of Stone Town, Zanzibar looking for a quiet place to play guitar. He is on the island to play at East Africa’s largest music festival, Sauti za Busara, or “Sounds of Wisdom.” The streets are busy with chatter and barter. Tourists and motorcycles clog the paths, and it seems as though there will be no quiet corner in which to play.

Stone Town is a place of secrets and visions that reveal themselves one by one, around corners and through doorways of crowded stone buildings. In the labryinth of the city, every few steps brings a new sight into view, as if you were not traveling in one place but to several in quick succession, like moving from dream to dream.

Leo finally finds a low bench in front of an ornately carved wooden door. The deep brown of the wood contrasts with the bleached wall and exposed gray pipe that frames it. He settles the small guitar into his arms and begins to play.


Young Leo rarely sees his father, Henry Mkanyia, because of Henry’s schedule as a well-known musician with the top muziki wa dansi band, DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra. His father is out all night playing live shows at the various pubs and bars around the city, sometimes long enough to see the sun rise. He sleeps or rehearses much of the day. When he is at home, Henry tells Leo never to become a musician. He wants a better life for his son. He hopes Leo will do something that will enable him to make enough money to survive without struggling to support a family.

But starting when he is eight-years-old, Leo sneaks Henry’s guitar out when he gets home from school. He plays until just before his dad gets back from practicing with the band. Leo sings for his mom in the kitchen while she cooks, trying to pick out the melodies he has heard his father play. She tells him someday he’ll be a musician like his dad.

One evening, when Leo is eleven-years-old, Henry comes home early and finds Leo playing. Leo hangs his head and prepares for a scolding. Instead, Henry laughs and says with surprise, “You know how to play guitar?”

Henry teaches him all he knows.

Early 2000’s

Leo wants to extend his understanding of music beyond his father’s muziki wa dansi style, so he travels to his grandmother’s village to learn the traditional songs of the elders. He transcribes her songs and learns their melodies.

Later, he’s amazed to discover that the pentatonic scales of the WaGogo and WaZaramu tribes are similar to those of the American blues. His songs are already a unique blend of Tanzanian influences. He adds a blue note to his repertoire and dubs his personal style the “Swahili Blues.”

Soon, Leo is a popular musician in his own right, and dozens of musicians want to join his band. He chooses his friend Juma to play drums and convinces the best bass player he knows to join them: his father.

Fall of 1978 

In the early 70’s, Henry Mkanyia is invited to be the guitarist for Tanzania’s army band, JKT Kimulimuli Jazz. Though he won’t be expected to engage in battle, he must first train as a soldier.

Just a few years before Leo is born, the dictator Idi Amin sends a mocking telegram to Tanzania’s president, Julius K. Nyerere, who has been outspoken against Amin’s reign of terror in bordering Uganda: “I want to assure you that I love you very much, and if you had been a woman, I would have considered marrying you.”

Nyerere responds succinctly, “He’s an idiot,” and mobilizes 100,000 troops.

Before long, Henry finds himself in Uganda in the Tanzanian war against Idi Amin’s brutal rule. He prepares to play for the soldiers relaxing in camp, strapping a machine gun onto his back, then slinging his guitar over the other shoulder.

He picks out melodies high on the neck of the instrument, repetitive riffs in major scales that sound carefree and lively. But the muscles in his shoulders are tense, and he’s ready to drop the guitar for the gun, should there be an attack.

15 February, 2012 

Leo practices in his apartment in Dar es Salaam. “Mwanangu, we imara,” he sings.

My son, be strong.

“A sharp wind is shaking our boat, but you young people, you’re still sleeping.”

Leo has no children of his own, but his lyrics borrow wisdom from the ages.

“Like me, your father, if I had slept, where would you be now? Au Nyerere, baba wa taifa letu. Angelala, leo tungekuwa wapi?”

Or Nyerere, father of our country. If he had slept, where would we be today?

“Young people have to take part in decision-making,” Leo says after the strings of his guitar have stopped vibrating their notes through the room. “They can’t just complain. We have to learn from our fathers and our mothers from those days. We have to listen to their songs.”

He smiles wistfully and shakes his head. “We have to.”