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The Politics of Bongo Flava


Political scientists and sociologists who wish to understand the way Tanzania’s society functions need to look beyond macroeconomic statistics, and learn to decipher the text, tone and sound of BongoFlava - the music of the young people in Bongoland. While rates of economic growth, inflation and exchange may allow for the calculation of what for many are fictitious gross domestic product figures, music embodies a language and richness which can help us measure the per capita anxiety rate and gross domestic happiness – fundamental underpinnings of Tanzania’s culture and the glue of its social cohesion.

The unfolding freedom of expression in Tanzania is best observed at the level of the music. If one takes seriously both the axiom that all music speaks – even in the absence of lyrics – and the need to decipher the unspoken dimension of this art form, one cannot fail to notice the impact of music on some of the strong social currents of our time.

Seen from a purely political and economic perspective, for some, the process of social transformation in Tanzania seems to have been slow. However, BongoFlava, the sound of young Tanzania clearly suggests that sweeping social change is in the offing. The new sounds emanating from Clouds FM and EastAfrica Radio announce upheaval, yet retaining hope. BongoFlava musicians are at the forefront of efforts to interpret and transform reality. Now more than ever, the sounds, noises and forms of our music increasingly set the tempo for social change.

It was not by accident that Mangwair’s song “Mitungi, Blanti, Mikasi” was hugely popular. Nihilistic at its core, it depicts the social realities of Tanzania’s youth and speaks to their innermost desires. It challenges the dominant social paradigms, expresses the youths’ yearning for attention, embodies defiance to established cultural norms, and, significantly, pushes the bounds of political expression, basically saying “we enjoy consuming alcohol, procuring prostitutes and using drugs. There is nothing you can do about it and you can go to hell if you don’t like it!” Also, “bangi bangi”, a number by the cantankerous yet enormously talented young artist called 20% is another illustration. Indeed, as much as many young people enjoy the technical aspect of the songs (instrumentation, etc.), most relish the idea of provocation implied in the songs’ lyrics – a la Thomas Kuhn’s “disturbance of the paradigm” – and the fact that they can get away with it. For the songwriters and producers (in their 20s) and all those who enjoyed the songs, it was both a political protest and expression of freedom. And when the government announced that it is considering banning Mangwair's song, it played right into the hands of the song’s creators and the track had served it purpose.

What happened to what was called “Tanzanian traditional music?” Rarely recorded and now listened to less and less, traditional music has suffered from its association with the past and the rather conservative discourse of some of its practitioners. If it is still popular in some quarters, it is most likely because it elicits twinges of nostalgia and assuages their ambivalent and anguished feelings toward the dizzying pace of “modernity.” One must look on in some wonder and bemusement as Msondo Ngoma and Sikinde Ngoma ya Ukae try to “out-Wenge” Wazee wa Ngwasuma.

Despite the repeated prediction of doom, BongoFlava still dominates Tanzania’s airwaves and dancehalls. In touch with the problems of daily life, in tune with today’s atmosphere of disorder, it is often syncretic but nevertheless contributes to the development of a new social order. At times fumbling and repetitive, and occassionally appearing narcissistic or lost in the fun house of such fleeting trends as reggae, ndombolo, rap or zouk, BongoFlava has never stopped playing its essential role – that of recording the frenzied chronicle of young Tanzanians’ collective meanderings, ambitions, and dreams.

Those who dismiss Bongo’s popular music as imitations of American hip-hop and RnB are missing a crucial point. At any given time in a society, there is a hegemonic narrative about where the society is and where it is going. There are many conduits for this narrative and the predominance of each is contextual to a society in question. In some societies, paintings are more important while in others it is music that carries the main messages. In most countries, including Tanzania, before ‘liberalization’, the official cultural politics called for and dictated this universal narrative. In that respect, political insurgence entails the development of counternarratives – with the conduits remaining the same. The same value to be derived from trying to decipher the political goings-on in Medieval France through the paintings of the time can be obtained by doing the same with Tanzania’s music to help us understand our politics. What is evident now with the explosion of BongoFlava, with its technical creativity and incisive lyrics, is the development of a counternarrative. Since this is explosion is self-propelled and free of official sponsorship and endorsement, it is very likely a genuine contribution to what will later be the collective memory of Tanzanians.

The point I am making here is that a society ought to be judged a least as equally on the basis of its sounds, its music, and its taste in entertainment as on its aggregate statistics. Therefore it is necessary to alter our approach to ‘Bongo’s’ social realities - Bongo must not only be “seen” but “heard”. By deciphering the lyrics and the sounds of popular music in Bongo, we can better perceive the concerns and hopes of our people.

The use of language and the degree to which freedom is truly expressed needs to be evaluated through both the lyrics and what lies beyond them. Kiswahili is a multidimensional language and can sometimes be accessed only with the aid of well-defined keys. Similarly, what appears as an expansion and appropriation of freedom, particularly in BongoFlava, also needs to be explored at a strictly musical level (instrumentation), for freedom of expression is not confined only to lyrics. It also involves the choice of instruments, the philosophy underlying the way they are played, the combination of sounds, the construction of harmonies, and the development of arrangements that give a musical work its stamp of originality. To illustrate, the simplicity of instrumentation – a somber acoustic guitar – in Vitalis Maembe’s old “Sumu ya Teja” brilliantly portrays the youth’s desperation resulting from drug use while the lyrics delivers an intelligently sarcastic indictment of Tanzania’s prison and justice system. The fast tempo of Feruzi’s “Starehe” and the sharp tone of its lyrical delivery (even when you mute the content) are brilliantly aligned with the fatalistic message in the song.

January Makamba.

November, 2008.


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