This post is also available in: Swahili
This is muziki wa dansi, a unique style of music indigenous to Tanzania.
And here’s where you can find it: the headquarters for the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s state-controlled media organ.
In its heyday, TBC was known as Radio Tanzania Dar-es-Salaam, and by executive fiat, was the only legal radio station in the entire country. As part of a bid to create an “authentic” Swahili culture, the first President of Tanzania, Julius K. Nyerere, created the Ministry of Youth and Culture. RTD was the only radio station in the country, there were no private broadcasts, and government departments and parastatal organizations sponsored many of the bands. For example, Uhamiaji Jazz was run by the immigration department, Police Jazz and Magereza Jazz by the prisons, Mzinga Troupe by the Army, Vijana Jazz by the youth wing of the ruling socialist party, and NUTA Jazz band, owned by the Tanzanian workers’ union (National Union of Tanganyika Workers). This was a top-down enterprise: musicians were sometimes assigned positions in bands, tour dates were dictated by bureaucrats, the state owned many of the instruments, and the audio masters were considered property of the radio station, to the chagrin of musicians who never received royalties for their work.
Nyerere’s era came and went, and in 1994, when the radio industry re-privatized, the airwaves were flooded with American Top 40, spawning a generation of copycat kids who idolized Biggie and Pac and Jay-Z, just like their suburban American counterparts. And for the most part, muziki wa dansi was forgotten, replaced in the modern day by Lil Wayne and 50 Cent and their local auto-tuned knockoffs, the Swahili rap movement locally known as “bongo flava.” Some stations still play the “oldies” of the past and many of the musicians from the Nyerere area are still performing, but it’s fair to say that times have definitely changed.
And the audio masters of the older era? They were just stuffed in a hall closet.
By the early 80s it became clear that Nyerere’s African Socialist experiment wasn’t working. The collectivized villagers were hungry, the nationalized industries weren’t producing, the government ranks were stuffed with sinecure sluggards, and the western donors were grumpy about all the jailed and missing dissidents. Nyerere, famous for his blunt, direct honesty and his strict intellectual rigor, admitted it in his bittersweet farewell: “Ujamaa has been a failure.” The torch was passed to Ali Hassan Mwinyi, a neoliberal privatizer, and the government’s direct intervention in the music industry was brought to a close.
But the one thing that socialist bureaucracies were always good at was keeping records, records of everything, and while ujamaa may be gone, the music is still with us. It’s a legacy worth preserving, and it’s up to Bruno, and TBC, and all the cassette tape circulators, and the roadside CD salesmen, and the file-sharers, and the torrent leeches, and us, to keep it alive.
-Stephen Witt, March 2010