Wednesday, March 10, 2010

audio archaeology

UPDATE: There are a number audio files embedded in this post. You need Flash installed and turned on to see 'em.

Afro 70 Band - Kwa Vile Nakupenda

This song was my introduction to muziki wa dansi. I heard it for the first time nearly 30 years after it was first popular, on a fourth-generation cassette tape that I bought at a swap meet in Rungwe, (an experience described briefly here). The sound quality was terrible of course, but the music was incredible, and, armed with the little information I had about the band, which was scrawled in marker on the inside cover of the cassette case, I decided to go on a search for the masters. Last month, I found them.

That's the headquarters for the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation, the country's state-controlled media organ. It's not much to look at, a forlorn and shabby concrete office complex off the highway next to a cigarette factory. But inside, if you know who to look for, and how to ask politely, you can get access to a forgotten trove of 70's FM gold.

In its heyday, TBC was known as Radio Tanzania, 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, Nyerere banned all private broadcasts, censored all foreign music, and started drafting the best musicians available from the various worker's unions he'd created. This was a top-down enterprise: musicians were assigned positions in bands, tour dates were dictated by bureaucrats, the state owned all the instruments, and the audio masters were considered property of the radio station.

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 flavor."

And the audio masters of the older era? They were just stuffed in a hall closet.

This hall closet, to be specific. This is Radio Tanzania's broadcast archive, which contains over 1300 hours of government-sponsored dance music, moralistic radio dramas, educational songs about malaria, and ethnographic recordings from over 100 of Tanzania's tribes. It'ss a strictly analog affair: everything's recorded on reel-to-reel tape using technology donated from the BBC in the 1960's. And it's just sitting there.

The tapes are labeled and well-organized, but even from this picture you can see their condition is beginning to deteriorate.

Each tape has typewritten track listings and artist information. The earliest recording is from 1958, the latest from last year.

The track information is quite detailed; it even gives the recommended dance step!

Here's my buddy Bruno, the chief archivist. For ten thousand shillings he'll make you a CD mix of any band you like. It takes a while, though; the music has to be transferred from the tapes in real time, so if you want to copy an hour's worth of music, it takes an hour to make it. I've got about 14 hours so far, but I'm going back for more.

I explained to Bruno that the entire archive could be digitized, and compressed to fit on a hard drive the size of a graham cracker. He was skeptical, so I showed him my iPod, and played him a few songs. He'd never seen one before; he didn't even know what it was.

Now he wants me to buy him one (duh.) And maybe I will. This whole thing should be digitized anyways, right? I'm working on it.

So that's the medium, but what about the music itself? Fortunately, Bruno gave me permission to post some audio samples from the CD mixes he made. Unfortunately, he didn't list any of the track titles on the CDs, so I'm a little fuzzy on some of the song names; I'll update this information as I get it (with the recommended dance step, where applicable.) I've arranged these tracks to present a sort of evolution of the dansi sound.

Wagogo Tribal Music

This recording was made in the field by Tanzanian ethnomusicologists using portable mikes. The sound quality kinda sucks (as it does for many of these recordings) but you can get a sense of the polyrhythmic base from which the genre arose. Of course, the Wagogo are just one tribe out of more than a hundred, and a lot of the other tribal music doesn't sound anything like this. But, per Bruno, this is the most influential tribe.

Kiko Kids - Mambo Rumba

Meanwhile, you had the afro-rhumba, imported from West Africa to Cuba and then brought back to East Africa beginning in the 30s. This began a huge rhumba craze throughout the continent, which lasted for several decades. The above recording is from 1963, and is basically indistinguishable from what you might hear in a pre-Castro Havana nightclub, except they're singing in Swahili instead of Spanish. The name of the track is a sort of polyglot pun: "Mambo" is the name of the famous Cuban dance, and the traditional Swahili greeting.

Atomic Jazz - Title Unknown

Kilwa Jazz - Title Unknown

Soon bands were combining the rhumba base with the traditional polyrhythmic sounds, with two or three wandering guitars and complex vocal harmonizing. I'm not exactly sure when the preceding music is from, but guessing by the sound and recording quality I'm guessing the middle sixties.

Atomic Jazz - Horn Break

It wasn't just guitar and drums either. With Nyerere's blessing, top bands began expanding, with horn sections, multiple percussionists and backup vocalists, luxuries which were previously unaffordable. I really like the horn/guitar counterpart on this one, although the beat is still strictly Cuban. The Afro 70 Band selection from the beginning is also from this period.

Western Jazz - Title Unknown

Musicians in search of an "authentic Tanzanian" sound began to experiment beyond the boundaries of the rhumba. They were stealing borrowing a significant amount from their neighboring Congolese rivals, of course, but there was a distinct flavor to the sound. Particularly this song, which changes course like four times and features two polyrhythmic guitars, an independent vocal melody, and an electric bass player who is just all over the place.

Mlimani Park Orchestra - Barua Toka Kwa Mama (intro)

Once Nyerere started nationalizing the bands, their ranks expanded. What might've once been a three-piece trio expanded into a fourteen-piece "orchestra." Qualified musicians were paid a monthly government salary, which meant fierce competition from itinerant tradesman used to gigging. The most famously bloated of these, which was also coincidentally the best, was Mlimani Park Orchestra, founded in the suburbs of Dar in 1978. Muhiddin Maalin, who had previously headed NUTA, was the George Clinton to this Parliament. The above track is their very finest, with a sunny upbeat melody and a great electric organ theme over a swing-influenced guitar line.

Mlimani Park Orchestra - Barua Toka Kwa Mama (instrumental break)

The song is over seven minutes long, and it doesn't really get going 'til about the three-minute mark when the horns kick in. Then at the four-minute mark comes the instrumental break, which is presented above. It's maybe the highlight of the entire command-economy musical experiment. No lie, it's the jam: if you only bother to press play on one of these tracks, make it this one.

By the early 80s it became clear the whole Tanzanian socialist thing wasn't working. The collectivized villagers were hungry, the nationalized industries weren't producing, the government ranks were stuffed with sinecured 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 maybe 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 maybe even me, to keep it alive. I'll be back at the archives later this week with a proposal for digitization; I'll post some more music then.

All photos shot by my friend XL. Thanks, girl!


  1. ps my blog is one years old today (the 2008 post was from a different blog.) happy birthday blog!

  2. Happy Birthday to Sketches of Africa! And to Dickie as well. -Auntie

  3. but there are no audio samples. did u not put it up or am i not seeing some clickable link?

  4. oh they should be up there? you need shockwave/flash to see them I think...

  5. OK Ji I just tested it with both a mac using firefox and a PC laptop running explorer and they both worked. I think maybe it takes a little while for the files to load, so press refresh and just be patient...

    and make sure you have Adobe Flash installed!

  6. alright, yeah, it's a good blog. i'm commenting so you have my email address. use it.

  7. it's working out now. how do you think i can get funding to digitize this? i am a librarian after all. I want to drive around biofuel bus and record kids being cute and give out free ice/soy cream

  8. oh wow i want all of this. so good. and awesome photos. and how are you?? i miss you.

  9. Love this! how do i get copies of the music or help with the project?