Surface Noise: a Brief Look at Vinyl in Tanzania

Surface Noise: a Brief Look at Vinyl in Tanzania

“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise.  I said, “Listen, mate, life has surface noise.”      

-John Peel

I recently prepared a ‘mixtape’ for OkayAfrica. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a mixtape is a blend of music people of a certain age used to make for friends before the arrival of iTunes playlists. OkayAfrica is an Africa-focused music, style and youth culture blog based in New York, and I was honored to contribute a mainly vinyl mix for their ‘Africa in Your Earbuds’ series. The mix was inspired by a dusty, unassuming store in downtown Dar es Salaam. Back in the day, this place was Bongo’s premier record shop* – the go-to joint for Tanzanian sounds on vinyl, not to mention styles from across Africa, Europe and the States.  What’s remarkable about this is Tanzania has never had a pressing plant, so the fact that there is any Tanzanian vinyl at all is something of a testament to the vibrancy of the music and the high regard it’s held in across the region.


Tanzania’s muziki wa dansi

In the 70s and 80s the most common route for a band to get their music in the hands of their fans (as opposed to just broadcast on the Radio Tanzania airwaves), was to travel to Kenya and record at one of the numerous studios there. Labels such as Polydor, Phonogram and A.I.T had the facilities to record, cut and distribute vinyl. Many labels and sub labels sprang up in Nairobi to cater to the demand for Tanzania’s muziki wa dansi – the big band dance style much loved and imitated across the East Africa region. Hundreds of tracks were released on labels such as Saba Saba, Africa, Moto Moto, Philips (the Dutch electrical giant’s African music wing), Kwetu, Polydor, and Island. Exactly how many is unknown – sterling work by Tim Clifford’s KenTanzVinyl and Flemming Harrev’s projects are attempting to rectify this, but there remain many gaps.


Most were pressed to the iconic 7inch vinyl format, which was not necessarily the perfect medium for dansi’s extended song structure – a single side of a 7-inch record generally runs to not much more than 4 minutes of audio. As a result the tracks were often broken up into the vocal, melodic part on side A with the B side given over to the more dance floor orientated chemko section – analogous to the way dance music singles in the US and Europe featured dub or instrumental versions on the flipside.

Tanzania’s hottest bands cut records in Kenya (and to a lesser extent, other neighboring countries), that were then distributed across the region – with many finding their way back to Tanzania and ending up on the shelves at Dar’s top vinyl emporium. Here was a place where artists could pick up instruments and equipment for their groups, rubbing elbows with Dar’s music loving public busy getting their hands on the tracks they’d been hearing on the radio or at live shows around town. Ramesh, the debonair, wistful owner of the store remembers it all fondly. He claims to have been born on the shop floor – a business his family has run for many decades.

A dusty cardboard box

On a recent visit, after browsing the now threadbare shelves and finding nothing of particular interest, Ramesh took pity on me and pulled out a dusty cardboard box full of about 80 seven-inch singles. Many were in terrible state, seemingly stored under a pile of dust for many years, caked in decades of grime. Rifling through them produced small gasps of astonishment from yours truly – the moment all vinyl diggers can relate to when they must quickly temper their excitement and resume the standard poker face that won’t communicate exactly how badly they want the black wax they are holding. I’m terrible at this, but Ramesh very generously pretended not to notice.

The haul was a mixed bag, including Congolese bands like Tabu Ley’s Afrisa International, the prolific Ochestre Veve, plus Kenyan outfits like Ochestre Kiam and Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys. The lion’s share, however, was perhaps 50 pieces by local wa dansi legends such as Jamhuri Jazz Band, Tabora Jazz Band, Urafiki Jazz Band, Msondo Ngoma, Dar es Salaam Jazz Band, Atomic Jazz Band, and Vijana Jazz Band.


the single most complete repository of Tanzanian vinyl recordings in the world

Having agreed a price for the whole lot, (and struck up a understanding regarding any future finds), it was time to undertake the painstaking process of cleaning, recording and digitally processing the music so the years of accumulated dirt and neglect was mitigated for the mixtape.  This process got me thinking abut the task ahead regarding the digitization of both the reel-to-reel archive at Radio Tanzania, and the breathtakingly large vinyl archive also housed at the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation.  The Tanzania Heritage Project has rightfully been drawing a lot of attention to the plight of the reel-to-reel collection, containing as it does unique, one-of-a-kind recordings not to be found anywhere else. Yet, it’s important to also bear in mind the wealth of vital musical heritage held on these records. The short amount of time I spent in the TBC’s vinyl archive was enough to confirm that it is quite probably the single most complete repository of Tanzanian vinyl recordings in the world. If the music I discovered at Ramesh’s shop is any indicator, preserving and sharing these treasures must also be a priority for everyone with an interest in Tanzania’s musical heritage – and certainly worth deeper research.


What particularly interested me about the records were the labels that had been based in Tanzania. I had previously been under the impression there were none, but subsequent research suggests that Tanzania had a handful of labels that released material on vinyl – all of which were related to the Tanzania Film Company. Imprints such as Kwetu, Uhuru Stars and TFC were all attached to the state run Film Company, who had what was perhaps the only other recording studio in the land after Radio Tanzania. John Kitime, the musician, activist and fountain of knowledge concerning the nation’s musical legacy, informed me that the TFC had plans for a vinyl pressing plant, but things went awry after vital equipment was left rusting in the port due to administrative problems and dodgy deals. It’s heartbreaking to imagine what could have been – the bands unable to afford to travel to Nairobi could have cut records directly in Tanzania, building a strong national industry and providing essential income and exposure to hundreds of musicians – not to mention strengthening Tanzania’s musical and cultural identity internationally.


Koko Koko no1

As it was, the bands that made the 24-hour trip to Nairobi often did the rounds of three or more studios – making the most of their time there and sometimes pulling a few tricks in order to make it worthwhile. A fascinating example emerged with Stern’s reissue of Koko Koko Sex Battalion a few years ago.

Having already recorded their quota of tracks under their real name, Vijana Jazz Band managed to squeeze a little bit more out of the record label by taking on an alias (unbeknownst to the label), who duly paid for more recordings, apparently believing this was a separate band entirely.  The above mix contains two recordings from that session – a rare instrumental called Koko Koko no1 and the closing number, Urijani Mwema.


Hopefully the mix gives a little flavour of the period. I’ve had the chance to DJ some of these tracks around Dar, and the response has always been fantastic – a mix of awe at the incredible music and curiosity and nostalgia for the format. Perhaps it’s something to do with the crackles, pop and surface noise, or the physical thrill of the needle hitting the groove, but vinyl remains the most evocative of mediums, entrancing generation after generation. And for amateur diggers like me, there’s always the burning hope of turning up the next piece of ‘black gold’ somewhere unlikely, sharing it with an audience, and relating the story to the find to anyone who will listen. You just don’t get that with iTunes.


*Keen-eyed readers will notice no mention of the name of this store- try as I might, I can’t shake the vinyl digger’s compulsion to keep its identity secret. I will however pass the information on if you email me direct.