The Beauty of Tanzania in Its Music: From Ngoma to Bongo flava

In pre-colonial Tanzania, there was only one musical form, which was found among Tanzanian communities, namely ngoma (traditional dances). Every ethnic group in Tanzania had its own ngoma. The performance of ngoma differed from one ethnic group to another. The word ngoma also has different meanings among Tanzanian communities. It can mean singing, dancing, and playing a musical instrument. Ngoma, by itself, is a musical instrument and ngoma can be used to indicate a social function or an event like an initiation ceremony.

The foundation of dances and songs were based in the people’s way of living. Ways of dancing and musical instruments were much affected by the physical environment. For example, in the western part of Tanzania, in Shinyanga and Mwanza, there were many large forested areas. Perhaps, that’s why many ngoma in that area were accompanied by dancing with big drums and snakes.

In the northern part of Tanzania, among Maasai, rhythm sticks normally accompanied dances, as the Maasai are from a pastoralists’ society. In the southern part of Tanzania, music is associated with military steps, because of the Maii Maji war, Ngoni movement from South Africa and the imitation of colonial military drills. A dance like mganda of the Wangoni of Songea is one such example. In the eastern part of Tanzania, the music of Wazaramo is often associated with initiation ceremonies, and in the central part of Tanzania, the Wagogo, for example, practice both music that is associated with pastoralists and with agriculture. This means dances were performed to serve a social purpose or function. Ngoma were performed in marriages, at work, in the initiation ceremonies, or in other rituals with the aim of building social solidarity, communication, and imparting values and norms from one generation to another.

After colonialism, many musical forms emerged in Tanzania. These forms were much influenced by ‘visitors’ from inside and outside Africa. Musical forms were based on commerce and entertainment rather than education, as it was before colonialism. Apart from ngoma, other musical forms in Tanzania today are kwaya (choir), including muziki wa injili, muziki wa mwambao (taarab), muziki wa dansi (jazz band) and the current hip hop music or bongo flava.

Looking at how artists perform ngoma today, it is evident why this traditional art form is popular in urban areas like Dar es Salaam. The drum is the main instrument in this form of music; however, a mixture of electronic guitars is very common. The famous ngoma groups in Tanzania include Muungano Cultural Troup, Parapanda Theatre Arts, Sisi Tambala, and others. Their performances are based on the use of indigenous rhythms in expressing contemporary socio-political issues.

Choir is a musical genre dominated by Christian believers. Many choirs are found in churches. Choirs in churches can be categorized into two groups. The first includes the church singing bands, Kwaya (Muziki wa injili). The singing of these choirs appears to be characterized by the use of Western musical instruments, such as electric guitars and keyboards, employing indigenous Tanzanian melodies. Examples of these choirs include Unjilist Kijitonyama, AIC Vijana Chang’ombe, Nazareth choir Kurasini and others. The second category is ‘choir’ in which the singing is a cappella; that is, singing without the accompaniment of musical instruments, but employing Western four-part harmony. Examples of these choirs are KKKT Kipawa, Ubungo Anglican and others. Characteristic of these two categories of choirs is that singing is not the only feature of their gatherings. They also support each other in times of social need, study the Bible and sometimes play games.

There are also a few choirs outside the church (secular choirs). Most of these choirs are found in schools, or based in political groups, such as Tanzania One Theatre (TOT).

Taarab is found in the coastal region and it was given a Swahili name, muziki wa mwambao. The origin of taarab can be traced back to Arab and Islamic cultures. Mentioning this musical form is like talking about Siti bint Saad, and Bi Kidude, without forgetting Issa Matona. This form of music is popular in Zanzibar Island. Taarab is sung poetry, so the lyrics and voices are crucial. Musical instruments such as the oud (lute), qanun (zither), violin, cello, electric organ and small drums called ki-dumbak are famous in this musical form. Taarab today can be divided into two categories: orchestra taarab (taarab asilia) and modern taarab. In the taarab asilia style, singing in unison while sitting is common, there is no dancing, and instruments like ki-dumbak drums, violin, mkwasa (claves), cherewa (maracas), accordion, and qanum are common. Zanzibar Culture Club and Ikhwani Safaa are examples of musical clubs representing taarab asilia. On the other hand, modern taarab appears to employ electric guitars, electric keyboard, drum kit machines, and dancing is vital. Also, the so-called mipasho are important in this musical form. East African Melody and Jahazi Modern Taarab under Mzee Yusuph are examples of groups that represent mipasho style.

Muziki wa dansi (jazz band) is another form of musical expression especially in the urban areas. In the cities, there are regular bands that play on a weekly basis. Looking at this from its historical perspective, Mbaraka Minshehe was the leading singer, guitarist and composer working with the group called Moro Jazz Band in the 1960s. In the 1970s, DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra was formed, featuring great musicians such as Hassani Bitcuka, Cosmas Chidumule, and others. The Mlimani band was famous for the intricate poetry of their lyrics.  In the 1980s, Hugo Kisima started the International Orchestra Safari Sound. Today in Dar es Salaam, for example, there are bands like the Kilimanjaro Band (Njenje), Msondo Ngoma, Sikinde, African Stars (Twanga Pepeta) and FM Academia (Ngwasuma). Muziki wa dansi has contributed a lot to the profound exploration of the beauty of Tanzanian music in a contemporary society.

Bongo flava is a Swahili rap from Tanzania. It expresses what youth in present East Africa think and dream about. Unlike American hip hop, bongo flava went unnoticed by the rest of the world initially, but it has became the best selling pop music in East Africa. Featuring only a few examples, rappers like Juma Nature and Professor Jay are stars and they are loved for their amusing way of tackling social problems through the lyrics in their compositions. Gangwe Mobb from Temeke, is known for creating at least one new slang word in each of their comic-like cartoon rap songs. Their neighbours, LWP Majitu, are popular for their hard-hitting, hardcore lyrics. Mr. Ebbo has become the most popular urban ambassador of the Maasai, giving them a hymn with his song, Mi Mmasai. X-Plastaz, from Arusha, is probably the only Tanzanian rap crew known in Europe and America, so far. Afande Sele’s song, Mtazamo, was chosen as the best Tanzanian rap song. He was then elected mfalme wa rhymes. Wagosi wa Kaya, which include local instruments, as Daz Nundaz does, are famous for their party on stage. Sista P. is the most popular of the very few female rappers. GK, influenced by the early Tanzanian crew, Kwanza Unit, does old-school rap. His friend, Mwanafalsafa, is still on the charts with his love-controversy songs.

What does the combination of these musical genres say? It is clear that, music has a major role in expressing the beauty of Tanzania. The evolution from ngoma to muziki wa dansi to bonga flava, illustrates the role that young people, especially the upcoming musicians, have played to maintain the musical landscape and satisfy the audiences’ thirst for entertainment both in Tanzania and beyond its borders.


Kedmon Mapana


About mapanakedmon2010

Kedmon Mapana is an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Currently, he is a doctoral student at Seattle Pacific University in curriculum and instruction with emphasis on music education and ethnomusicology.
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