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Afropunk from the Streets of Dar es Salaam

Jagwa Music: A bricolage of old-style Zaramo drums; a battered stool beaten with sticks; a small Casio hand organ; and singers belting out songs on how to survive in the urban maze of Dar es Salaam.

Jagwa Music [1]/ Mchiriku: Urban ghetto sounds from the suburbs of Dar es Salaam. A bricolage of old-style Zaramo drums; a battered stool beaten with sticks; a small Casio hand organ hooked to megaphone used years back to make public announcements; singers belting out songs on how to survive in the urban maze faced with unemployment, drugs & alcohol, Aids, unfaithful girlfriends, oppressive relatives; a stage/dance choreography that veers between a non-stop gymnastics workout, concert-party like theatrics & humour, acrobatics, erotic self expression; a performance energy that hits you like so much TNT, or better, like the Jaguar fighter plane that the group took up for its name.

What to do with labels? Call it Afro punk for sheer noise, for distortion as a creative element, for attitude; there are elements of trance and minimal musics harking back to local precedents in nzumari (a double reed horn) playing and the hypnotic melodies of the rimba (called mbira elsewhere in Africa); there is the sexual energy of kuduro and mapouka; the highly charged lyrics compare well to any socially conscious tradition be it rock or rap.

Jagwa Music

Jagwa Music emerged in 1992 as a spin-off from an earlier group playing chakacha (locally a mixture of the bite&tunes of Mombasa taarab songs with Zaramo rhythmic and kinetic ideas) at wedding celebrations. Their name Jagwa (from the French fighter plane) came up in opposition to their rivals which had named themselves Scud, all terminology coming down right from the first Gulf War. Initially Mchiriku was closer to chakacha, Jagwa developed their edge with the current members joining within the past ten years: Above all, these are the two kinanda (Casio) players Daliki and Diploma, intensifying the style with their minimalist end-of-day feedback and distortion deluges, Mazinge’s and TP’s powerful and always shifting drumming patterns; and, more recently with current frontman and main attraction Jackie joining. The latter is an energetic singer and performer, belting out songs and commentaries on day-to-day street life with never-ending vigour.

Jagwa’s members are all living the street life themselves, mostly working in the cut-throat Dar es Salaam dala-dala (private bus-taxi) business as dei-waka (unlicensed drivers who jump in when another driver is caught by police or does not make it to work otherwise), others are manamba, touts who hustle customers into the buses for a few shillings in return. By mid-day they will have made enough money to keep them going until the next morning, paying for food and some of the other enjoyments they may like. In the afternoon they all meet at their maskani «hangout» under a tree in Mwananyamala close to Jolijo’s, their patron’s little house and restaurant. With upcoming gigs, or when new songs need to be rehearsed, they convene in Jolijo’s backyard to get it all down. Their performing weekend usually starts on Friday when they suspend the week’s hustle, relax during daytime to play the all-night mchiriku gigs at family celebration like weddings around Dar’s suburbs or smaller towns in the vicinity like Bagamoyo, Chalinze or up to Morogoro.

Mchiriku Style

Mchiriku’s and Jagwa’s defining sound emanates from a small vintage Casio keyboard that also gives the style its alternative name mnanda (from kinanda, a «small musical instrument/box»). Actually Mchiriku originated when these keyboards first became available in the early 1990s: The Casio’s cheap lo-fi PCM sounds acquire more of the desired grit and distortion necessary for Mchiriku when they are hooked to even more vintage amp and megaphone combinations, with additional flavor added by the effect of a natural «voltage drop» on the electronics when the internal batteries are running low in the course of their usually all-night performances around Dar es Salaam. A search around the internet confirms that some of the «natural» sound effects of Mchiriku are actually well en vogue with so-called «circuit-bending» technician/artists around the globe; judging from the prizes paid on ebay for some particular models of these vintage Casios they are in high demand with many contemporary musicians. Now for those wanting to go out to set up their own Mchiriku band: only two of the vintage models are suitable as Casio changed the sound on subsequent editions. As further bricolage items you need to be in touch with local plumber for the plastic pipes to manufacture some of the bigger drums; also have some goats on standby for skins. Otherwise you need a solid olden stool and some good sounding sticks (claves) to beat, a rusty bicycle bell. Don’t forget the old Japanese Toya amp and a megaphone.

Mchiriku is collective improvisation—kind of upside-down—yet perfectly situated in local aesthetics: While the Casio/Kinanda is the only melodic/harmonic instrument, it usually holds down fixed patterns for the song and the faster dance sections called mtapa, its excitement being created by the shifting patterns generated in relation to the percussion instruments and the distortion/feedback patterns emanating from the combination of playing technique/ amplification system. As such the Casio is akin to the nzumari (a double-reed oboe-type instrument) used in old-time ngoma and with similar functions of leading segues from one song to the other or signalling a change of pace.

As already brought to the fore by the number of players (four), the percussion is a most important element of Mchiriku: The master drummer plays misondo (two mid-sized hand drums and the deep bass drum all made from various sizes of plastic pipes), filling in is the dumbak player (two small carved hand drums and an array of differently pitched drums played with sticks); vijiti two small sticks beaten on a wooden stool and rika (tambourine) complement the drums. Master drummer Mazinge (also nicknamed «Kompyuta» for his ability) holds down the quick rhythm on the smaller misondo, all the while commenting on and supporting the vocal message with the bass msondo; this bass sound also guides and incites the dancers in the faster second part of songs. TP’s dumbaki lock into the basic rhythm with higher pitched sounds, when all is ready to burst in the mtapa section he adds further layers of sound and excitement with the tuned stick-beaten drums. Together with the stool-and-stick combination and the tambourine/bicycle bell combination the whole percussion section does not just create rhythm and time (horizontal organization) but also shifting patterns of sound and a layering of pitch levels that is so typical of much African music-making.

The Message

Jagwa’s songs typically comment on day-to-day issues of life in the city and many have become proverbial with time, titles or phrases being painted on the sides or backs of the dala dala bus taxis plying the streets of Dar es Salaam. Hardly dealing with unrequited love, the songs advise on how to survive in the urban maze faced with unemployment, oppressive relatives, Aids and unfaithful girlfriends (or husbands for that matter), drugs and alcohol. One their best-loved songs is Maisha Po Pote («One Can Live Anywhere in this World»):

Life in town has not yet overpowered me,
I am telling you, brothers, back in the village.
And I continue to suffer, but know that:
your arguments really sound fishy my brothers.
Why do you want to take me away from town,
while I manage to handle my life.
And why take me away from town
while I get along well with my fellow townspeople.

Life, in this world you can live and make a living anywhere!
If you are born a man you can live anywhere,
You can survive in Mererani [mines], you can live in Arusha or Zanzibar, or Europe!
You can even live an al-Kaida [underground] life ….
Anywhere in this world!

In a more recent song Mauaji ya Maalbino («The Killing of Albinos») they have taken a stand against the wide-spread killing and slaughtering of albino people for selfish and pecuniary reasons:

Let us not close our eyes to what is happening
All citizens and the state let us work together
In this country albinos are slaughtered like animals!

It really hurts my heart and soul,
That my fellow human is caught in broad daylight,
Has his arms, even the head cut off, it really hurts.
Just because of money problems, and corruption everywhere.
It is you practitioners of black magic who are at fault:
Why don’t you cut your own limbs?

The Wider Picture

In terms of Tanzanian media Mchiriku & Jagwa do not exist. You can’t hear their songs on the radio; their kind of entertainment is associated with uhuni (thuggery) and the city’s low life. In the 1990s Mchiriku performances were even banned by the authorities several times. Yet they have a large following around Dar: you can see quotes from their songs painted as slogans to the sides or backs of the local dala dala bus taxis, they have released more than a dozen cassettes. In Dar es Salaam they generally perform in street-type surroundings for local celebrations, rarely hired by a bar owner, yet Jagwa have successfully transformed their act to the grand stand: In 2005 they played Womex in Newcastle and they have become one of the prime hits & audience favourites at Zanzibar’s annual Sauti ya Busara Festival [2] where they performed to high critical acclaim in 2005, 2006 & 2009. Just recently, in September 2010, Jagwa played in Denmark as part of the Global Images Festival and they made clear that they are ready now to hit the world’s stages or as they sing, «if you are man enough, you can make it anywhere!»

All pictures by Werner Graebner

Jagwa Music [1]/ is: Jackson Aluta Kazimoto «Jackie» vocals; Shukuru Ponza «Daliki» kinanda, mkwasa, chorus; Saleh Hija «Diploma» kinanda, mkwasa; Abdalla Said «Mazinge» msondo; Abdalla Mohamed «TP» dumbaki, percussion; Mzee Rashid «Show» rika, assorted percussion; Mussa Ngalula dance; Halima Hassan dance; Abdallah Saleh Gora bandmaster, composer.