by Geoffrey Clarfield (January 2011)
It started with a Cuban song, Sofrito, recorded by Mongo Santamaria Y Amigas on the Fantasy record label in early 1960s, just after the Cuban revolution. In Spanish Sofrito means “lightly fried” as in an open air restaurant and I suspect the word has something to do with the Cuban male fascination for brown skinned women, not quite black and not quite white.
Although Sofrito is an instrumental piece I can imagine the late Santamaria, king of the Afro Cuban style, playing it while remembering his carefree youth on the streets and in the clubs of pre revolutionary Havana, before his move to the States.
In Dar es Salaam Tanzania, in the year 1999, I met two recording engineers who had come to Tanzania to digitally capture the remarkably diverse traditional and popular music of this nation of more than one hundred tribes. Although they had come in good faith, the ministerial bureaucracy to whom they were attached created constant Kafkaesque like scenarios for these two young idealists.
In despair they came to me and a Tanzanian friend and colleague in the hope that we could help successfully advise them how to negotiate the non linear nature of an African government bureaucracy that was acting towards them in the usual predatory manner.
The young engineers were good students and before long the bureaucrats backed off and more or less let them do what they had actually come to do, to work with Tanzanian musicians of all kinds, to help them understand how a modern multi track digital studio worked, to provide them with the understanding of how the world of the music business worked and, to provide them with legal protection so that one day, when their disks were on sale on the Internet, they could earn small amounts of foreign currency to help them and their extended families survive the ups and downs of third world economies.
As a token of their appreciation they let me use their studio free of charge for an evening. I had always wanted to lay down a guitar track and then play over it three or four times, a one man Gypsy king, and my friends helped me lay down and mix the tracks. I played my own version of Sofrito, for three guitars, and asked Michel, one of the engineers, to lay down a version with a drum set and another with congas as he was (and is) a fine percussionist. He did so and sent me back to the bush with a CD copy in my bag.
My version of Sofrito is not the most virtuosic performance I have ever given but, it was done with joy, in an effortless and playful manner, without desire for gain and for the love of the art as I was to discover to my surprise about eighteen months later.
I was sitting in my office in the middle of Tanzania, watching the spear toting Barabaig tribesmen drive their cattle past my window when the phone rang.
We had had no phone on the project site for the first year and half and then presto, the World Bank had financed a microwave relay station throughout the rift valley of Tanzania and one day, a technician came to install my phone and internet connection. I was miles from nowhere but suddenly, I was wired.
One of my first callers was Rosa, the other half of the Michel and Rosa equation, a personable, talkative worldly engineer and all purpose musical manager and impresario. After marveling how the telephone connection between her office in Dar and my office was better than the Dar city phone exchange (based on deteriorating copper wires), she told me that there were some musicians in Dar who wanted to meet me and wanted me to play on one or two of their new albums.
She had played for them my version of Sofrito. She told me that they were largely middle aged Tanzanian and Congolese immigrant musicians who were still playing the old Afro Cubanic style in the night clubs of Dar es Salaam. She imitated their Franco African accents, “Thees man” she quoted one of them “We want heem to play on our next album!”
Rosa explained that because of the ravages of the socialist economy and the one party state control of everything until the 90s (including music and musicians) these remarkable talents were scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month playing the clubs in Dar, with the occasional well paid but command performance done for the ruling party, the CCM, or “party of the revolution” a revolution that no one believed in anymore and had become a multi ethnic club of bureaucrats who lived off development assistance and who always craved for more.
It all sounded like a Tanzanian version of the Buena Vista Social Club and I wasn’t quite up to taking on the role of Ry Cooder. I had a major rural development project to run, one hundred small projects to manage, high level political conflicts that were in constant need of resolution and paper work that was endless. I told Rosa that although I sometimes regretted my move from music, to ethnomusicology, to ethnology, museology and then to development anthropology still, someone had to pay the bills and send the kids to college. I was unenthusiastic about taking on any new projects and said as much.
Rosa put Michel on the line. He said, “Listen, these old guys are extremely cool. You have no idea. They walk, talk and breathe music. They have heard something familiar in what you play and something different. I think they want to merge with that familiarity and difference that you showed us on Sofrito.”
I said, “Michel I am honored by the offer, but, most of the Congolese music that I have heard so far sounds like those 19th century wax recordings, tinny and without timbre. The only stuff I have heard that strikes me as beautiful are those old Hugh Tracey recordings of acoustic Congolese guitar from the fifties and sixties. I don’t suppose they are doing that?”
Michel countered, “Look Geoffrey, next time you are in Dar drop by, you can listen to the tracks, you don’t even have to meet these guys if you are not up to it and, you can lay down some tracks if you want to. If you like them fine, if they like them fine, if you don’t, fine, if they don’t, also fine.”
“Ok,” I answered, almost realizing, that I had almost turned down an invitation to play with the best musicians in Tanzania still playing the Congolese Afro Cubanic style. But that realization was to take some time until it finally sunk in.
Michel was satisfied. “Excellent!” he said, his trade mark expletive when things were going his way.
To get to the capital of Tanzania from my site in Central Tanzania, to the city of Dar es Salaam (the official capital is Dodoma in the center of the country, but none of the Embassies or Ministries are really based there) I had to drive on an unpaved road for six hours to Arusha town.
The drive is beautiful. It follows the rift valley up towards the Kenyan border. You pass Lake Manyara on the west, Tarangire game park on the east and on good days, you can see snow capped Kilimanjaro to the north east. Every forty or fifty miles there is a small trading post or missionary centre. You can tell if the settlements are old or not by the mango trees. The 19th century Swahili and Arab slave traders established villages on the slave route to and from the Congo and wherever they settled they planted mangos. Some villages are surrounded by concentric circles of mango trees as far as the eye can see.
As you approach Arusha town Mount Meru faces you with its snow capped peak and on the plains nearby you see tall Masai and Barabaig herdsmen, dressed in red wrap arounds, carrying spears and clubs and wearing elaborate beads and ivory ear plugs, oblivious to the modern world around them.
Off the main highway (which is a wide dirt road) Masai and Barabaig women would sometimes herd their flocks, bare breasted, away from the puritanism of local government officials who have adopted the externals of the sexual puritanism of local missionaries. Many times on my drives north I would stop and watch Masai warriors jumping in unison, singing their tribal songs in a long low roar that sounded like Gregorian chant played through distorted speakers.
During the first year of my project the road to my site was flooded by the El Nino. The drive to and from Arusha often took 12 hours and when the road disappeared into flooded swamp lands, bands of ten to twenty peasants would build acacia tree paths and tracks through the water, and push and pull our jeep to the other side.
On one trip these local engineers miscalculated, as the water climbed up to the doors of our land cruiser and into our jeep. I ordered all of my staff out. We walked across the river from the jeep with our files and equipment on our heads.
When I reached the shore I looked behind me to see our dandy driver walking in a river of flowing brown mud and debris with his red tie, diamond pin and starched white shirt providing an urban contrast with that most African river.
From Arusha, the flight to Dar takes two hours. If you drive, it takes another eight hours, so it was many months before I could take up Rosa and Michel’s offer.
Dar is a run down third world, port city. It attracts thousands of unemployed peasants from the country side who come to the city looking for opportunity and a better life for themselves and their children. They therefore end up living in slums, like the favelas of Brazil, where they eke out a living as hawkers and day laborers.
Women who have the looks for it, very often enter the world of prostitution, but it is different from that of the West. There are no pimps and the line between outright prostitution and being shown a good time and having your man of the day lend you or give you some money to get you through the week, is blurred at best. But, there is an AIDs epidemic that no one seems to care about.
Despite the poverty of Dar, it has its charm. It hugs the coast of the Indian Ocean. Tanzanians swim on those beaches where they have less fear of sharks. Tanzanians of all walks of life love the beach and spend time there when they can. And Dar is not as violent as other large African cities. The streets and bars are filled with people at night. The private transport is continuous and foreigners are not at terrible risk at least if, they keep to the main roads after dark.
In Dar there are city based fisherman who use carved out logs to fish the Indian Ocean and sell their produce in local markets and street corners. Outside of one of the most luxurious of Scandinavian embassy compounds stands an enormous Baobab tree where a traditional healer, a “mganga”, treats the sick and the unhappy. Somehow, wildlife survives in deserted parts of the city as one day we drove into our driveway and a full grown male baboon hopped the fence, startled at our sudden return home.
Even in the middle class suburbs men walk the streets hawking everything from fried food and cassava chips to knock offs of leather Gucci belts that sell for two or three dollars. Cows walk through the streets and are tended by young boys. Small herds of goats and sheep can be seen grazing in any vacant lot. Around every corner there are outdoor fruit venders with racks of mangos, avocados and every other tropical fruit imaginable up for sale.
At stop lights beggars politely ask for money while displaying their infirmities while other men run up to your car window, selling cashew nuts and the latest Time or Newsweek. Dar is really a series of improvised villages with a semi modern city with its international hotels, its Hiltons, Holiday Inns and South African banks, transplanted from overseas.
As you sit in a hotel and look out at the pounding surf of the Indian Ocean, large container ships float by, dhows skit across the ocean surface with their curved lateen sails and pontoons that prevent them from tipping. On calm days, young men balance themselves on the pontoons and hold the rigging of their sails. The clouds pile up like a 1950s woman’s hairdo, the air is always humid and the climate slows your thinking and movement. The flavor of spices and food cooked outdoors fill the air. It is hard to rush anything or anyone in Dar.
In the evenings the city centre empties. The thousands of secretaries, sweepers, hawkers and employees of the city’s nascent private sector take informal transport, overstuffed buses and vans called “dalla dallas” and make their way home (because these vans once cost one Tanzanian dollar to ride when they started service many years ago). These vehicles take their passengers out to settlements with names like Kinondoni. That is where urban Tanzanians live and that is where they dance the night away.
In each suburb or slum at the edges of Dar es Salaam, there are pubs and clubs. These are usually open courtyards where you can buy beer and barbequed goat or beef called “nyama choma” in Swahili, roasted meet. Here in the evenings you can meet your friends in a friendly, open and spacious place, the antithesis of the cramped and dismal quarters which characterize these slums, many of them without electricity, proper plumbing or modern sewage disposal.
I have spent a number of evenings in these slums with Tanzanian musician friends. Although I was the only “mazungu” (white person) to have ever strayed in there (so said one bartender) I found the people friendly and respectful. The fact that I spoke Swahili helped, as Tanzanians are very proud of their national lingua franca. They give much credit to any foreigner who makes the effort to speak it.
It is in these slums where the many popular ensembles live and play for their local consumers. Sometimes they get money from a payment at the door and sometimes they get a cut of the drinks. Sometimes they play for a flat fee. Either way it is in these clubs where the real popular music lives, where bands compete for attention and where one band can dissolve and another reform. There is a constant circulation of musicians from one band to another and younger musicians are breaking in all the time.
Across sub Saharan Africa, sometime after WWII, African peasants started what has become a growing and mass migration to the cities. “City air makes free” as the old medieval German saying goes. Many of the migrants had fought for the allies in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. They had seen the world. They had tasted the fruits of modernity and the money economy. Returning to the village and its tribal ways did not appeal to them.
They brought their tribal musical traditions with them to the city and there they also heard international music: European popular music, Jazz and the African influenced music of the Caribbean and Latin America. Young men bought cheap guitars and taught themselves how to play. They learnt the sax and horns in marching bands, both military and religious.
Like the blues men of old they combined European and African melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and created varieties of popular music which spoke to and reflected the joys, passions and suffering of these new urban immigrants. Much of the music was club and dance music. It was youth based and rebelled against tribal ways. It was youth music decades ahead of the youth music, rebellion that was to characterize the music of the 50s and 60s, in America and Europe.
In parts of West Africa the music was called High Life, in other parts Ju Ju and in Central Africa it was called Congolese. In East Africa the Congolese music was called Afro Cubanic. After the unrest in the Belgian Congo, the relative peace of Tanzania under the Pan African socialism and nationalism of Tanzania’s first Prime Minister Julius Nyerere, this country provided an incentive for musicians from the Congo to set up shop in Dar es Salaam, with its burgeoning club life, peaceful relations among its many tribes and its newly urbanized African ruling elites.
Despite the kleptocracy and poverty that characterizes Tanzania today, Tanzanian friends and colleagues have often reminded me, nostalgically, that during the first ten years of independence, there was little visible corruption, the shilling was stable, salaries were reasonable, there was work for the growing number of educated Africans, the population had yet to explode and the future of Africa looked bright indeed.
I got off work at a reasonable hour. All my project accounts had balanced. All my meetings had gone well. My reports had been accepted. I had that temporary feeling of any rural development project manager, that I had made some dent in the local decline into poverty, some cessation of grief and hopelessness for a number of clients in one part of the country.
In doing so, I and my Tanzanian colleagues had shown that a project could function like a fair and rational bureaucracy in any Western democracy, thus providing some direct experience for peasants that things did not have to be the way they are and that maybe, just maybe, one day they would start demanding from their own governments what they and everyone else in East Africa seemed to demand and expect from the donor organizations of the OECD countries-transparency and fairness. But as I said, it was a good day and my mind was free from the daily concerns of a rural development project manager.
I had to drive for over an hour, from my hotel in the centre of town that served largely expatriate development workers, diplomats and the African elites through long streets to the slums of Dar, down roads where I was the only white man to be seen. I turned down an unpaved road and then negotiated five or six speed bumps, mounds of dirt and stone that rose and fell from the unpaved road like waves in the ocean. Eventually I saw a small sign that said “ Makuti Studio” and the guard opened the gate to allow my jeep entry.
I parked the jeep, dusted myself off and walked into the building. Rosa and Michel met me at the entrance and took me into their sound room. It was filled with mixers, and tape recorders, all digital, and looked onto a large recording room through a large glass window. “Compppppletely up to dddate” stuttered their assistant engineer, a warm and friendly young man who Rosa and Michel called “the Wizard” because he could fix anything with wires or cables and if he couldn’t, he could find the person who could.
The equipment in the recording room was guarded by a mounted security camera, which moved back and forth every few minutes. It drew a lot of enthusiastic comments from the musicians and recording trainees. Everyone boasted that Makuti had the best security of any project in the country. That was why nothing ever went missing.
Only Rosa, Michel and I knew that the machine had no film, was made out of plastic, had been bought at a five and dime store in the States for a few dollars and was not plugged into anything. There must be a quote from Sun Tzu to support this kind of defense. I will find it.
They opened the door to the studio and we walked in. Ten men were standing and sitting around the studio doing various things. One was propped upright in a corner. He was holding ice against his cheek and he complained that he had just returned from the dentist. Another was peeling some bananas and handing them to various people. Another was sitting and tuning a guitar. Another was sipping a cup of tea.
The rest were standing around, chatting, laughing and speaking to each other in Swahili, bits of French and Lingala, one of the major languages of Zaire or what was now once more called the Congo. One of the singers was in the midst of a sad tale about how the boys at his son’s school had thrown a rock at him because he was a foreigner, a refugee and although he had come to Tanzania as an infant and spoke fluent Swahili, he was taunted for not really being Tanzanian.
Rosa and Michel introduced me to each person in the studio. It was informal but as customary in Africa I shook hands with each musician in turn and chatted with each one as I did. The obvious leader of them all, a tall, and constantly smiling man named Ndala Kasheba kept slapping me on the back saying,
“Ah yes Geoffrey, yes, yes, Geoffrois, the friend of Michel and Rosa, the guitarist, the one with the Cuban song…ah yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! I am Ndala Kasheba. Some call me…The Maestro. Bienvenue, bienvenue…you are very welcome…Karibu. “
I had not expected this. The feeling I got in the studio was like that of walking in to an African village. They worked and moved like an extended family, talking to each other, breaking off to do something else, sitting in silence for a while, singing a melody, eating, drinking tea, resting if necessary, answering a cell phone in the midst of everyone’s activity and not feeling obliged to leave the room and continue the conversation in “private.” I felt very much at home.
I had expected something very different; attitude, machismo, hierarchy, suspicion. It wasn’t everyday that a middle aged North American guitarist walked into a session of nationally celebrated Congolese and Tanzanian musicians and was treated like a long lost member of the family. Was it all because of my love for Sofrito?
Blown away by the kindness and warmth that permeated the studio I felt completely at ease. No stage fright. No worries about what I would do or how I would sound. It was one of those classic situations where you are poised and in the flow.
Within a few minutes I had plugged in my guitar, the head phones were adjusted, they played the first track and I just plucked away. Everyone was watching me, some from the recording room and some from within the studio. I was oblivious to it all and entered the flow of this music. It was familiar. It had the lyricism and melody of Latin music and the rhythm of Africa. I played and played and played.
At the end of the first piece we all sat back and listened. Kasheba smiled and clicked his tongue. Rosa and Michel looked on in relaxed satisfaction. This had been their idea and it could have gone wrong, but it hadn’t. I hadn’t let them down.
That evening and the following evening I laid down tracks for four or five pieces for their upcoming albums. One of them was a song written in French that Kasheba had written and which sounded more like a Leonard Cohen or George Moustakis ballad. He was pushing the boundaries of the genre and I wondered what other ideas he had in mind but that would have to wait for another day. I accompanied Kasheba on this piece with a Travis pick typical of Anglo American folk music. “Geoffroi..one day you will teach me how you do this ?” Bien sur…Of course” I answered, “Bila shaka...without doubt!” I said in Swahili. I added a melody to the piece and mentioned to Michel and Rosa that it would be nice if a children’s choir could take up the melody with the theme “liberte” from the French lyrics. Kasheba agreed.
At the end of it all I took Kasheba aside for a huddle with Rosa and Michel. I told him that I had drawn on many different kinds of music for the parts that I had added to his repertoire. The licks were coming from I don’t know where. I reiterated that it was his band, his disk and his repertoire. I was just a guest artist and if he did not like what I had done he could feel free not to use it. “No, no, my friend” he answered. “Everything you have done is a plus” speaking English but thinking in French. “Do not worry, Rosa and Michel are, are…’les grand artistes’…they know how to mix well.” The next morning I flew back to my project site.
I did not return to Dar for many months. I did manage to host Rosa and Michel a few times onsite when they worked as the sound crew for a documentary on the project that I was working on. In the process they managed to make some digital recordings of the tribal music of the peoples of Mount Hanang where our project was located. It is beautiful stuff and one day deserves an audience; Barabaig women’s ritual songs that sound like chants from highland Tibet; remarkable.
On subsequent trips to Dar I spent much of my spare time with Rosa and Michel. They were about the age of my eldest son. But somehow we met half way in the ageless and timeless world of musicians. We would spend hours, listening to their growing number of digital recordings, hearing about their nearly constant but successful battles with the government bureaucracy and listening sympathetically to their plans to return to the United States so they could raise some more money to continue their work in Tanzania. After almost three years they had run out of funds and finally had to fly home.
In the States they approached a number of donor organizations but could not persuade them that man does not live by bread alone and that cultural preservation in Africa was and should be a serious part and parcel of social development.
It is an interesting phenomena this, this donor disinterest in African music. By all criteria laid out by sociologists, economists and development organizations such as the World Bank, sub Saharan Africa is a mess! It is a continent that is now plagued by “shortgevity.” That is the shorthand word used for the fact that the AIDs pandemic is shortening the life span of the average African. The life span of Africans in the sub Saharan region is going down, whereas in the industrialized world and in industrializing Asia it is going up.
Although the fall of the Berlin wall put an end to the ideological proxy wars that had been fought between East and West in Africa, African countries’ fragile national boundaries were always an invitation to civil war and tribal blood baths as the ongoing civil war in central Africa shows us. With more than three million dead or missing this conflict has yet to go away.
Zimbabwe has been turned into an economic basket case by the dictator Robert Mugabe and the new regime in South Africa has lost much of the credit that Mandela had earned for it, by its studious non intervention there, and by not publicizing the fact that more than two million Zimbabweans have voted with their feet and are illegal refugees in South Africa. Former Prime Minister Mbeki’s public statements that HIV and AIDs had nothing to do with each other has further eroded the good will that the new democratic South African regime had been given at the start of its tenure.
On a recent trip to Johannesburg I found out that just about everybody I met had hired a Zimbabwean maid. They were honest, hard working and if they did not like you they would not call upon some friend or relative to car jack you at your garage or shoot you on the street.
The objective suffering of people in Africa causes many right minded people to wonder how on earth their lot can be improved and, what is it precisely that has made Africa the social and economic basket case of the world and once more, the burden of the Western donors.
Pop stars like Bono argue successfully for more aid. But he misses the point. So much of that Aid is stolen, perhaps more than 50%. It would be better if he campaigned for good government. If you ask Africans whether they prefer freedom and transparency to growing dependency on a Western aid machine that gets siphoned off by powerful politicians, they will tell you they prefer freedom and honest government to the dependency of development assistance.
But there is another perspective to be had on Africa. Drop into any private music school, or jazz workshop or musicology department at a college or university and here you will discover a “world turned upside down.” Ethnomusicologists have convincingly shown us that the roots of Jazz are African, that the roots of Latin and Cuban music are largely and still African, that Calypso is and was African, largely, and that Rock and Roll would never be anything if it was not for African music.
So that the skeptical reader may wonder what I am talking about, despite the near infinite variations of melody and rhythm that are found across the African continent, there are a number of distinctive features that characterize the Pan African tradition. As the French historian Fernand Braudel has argued, sub Saharan Africa is a distinct civilization. It therefore has its distinctive musical world just like Asia or Europe.
The African soundscape is different from the soundscape of European folk, popular and classical music. Yet it is this configuration of sound, the sound of slaves and former slaves, of the poor and the dispossessed that has time and time again “overwritten” the Anglo American folk tradition or bypassed and then surpassed the traditional of “serious” music that was imported from Europe.
As most journalistic writings about music avoid musicological talk, assuming that most readers will not know what they are talking about, let me take a chance and move against the grain. Allow me to briefly describe to you the outlines of the “Pan African musical style.” Once you understand it you will never listen to music in the same way again.
Let me number the traits:
- Instruments are varied and numerous and are used individually and in ensembles
- There is a tendency to have at least two or more things going on at once and thus there is widespread rhythmic and melodic polyphony
- The percussive sound is an ideal and can be best explained as an overall aesthetic tendency towards a “buzzing” musical background or more aptly “a percussive surround”
- Plucked instruments far outnumber bowed ones
- They often have jangles of some sort attached to them so that there is a buzzing sound that is almost always present
- Variation and improvisation upon short melodic motifs dominate melodic structure
- There is a close relationship between language and melody
- Melodies are often built upon major seconds and thirds
- Antiponal and responsorial techniques pre dominate
- There always appear to be many things going on at once. The most dramatic example of this is rhythmic polyphony; the superimposition of two or more different rhythmic structures one upon each other. Each rhythm is strongly accented and the various parts enter one after another from simple to complex
- Music is almost always associated with dance.
There you have it. Now, when you listen to African or African influenced music you will be conscious of what makes it African. It is a nice and easy grid to bear in mind.
As Wynton Marsalis describes it in the Ken Burns PBS series on Jazz, early in the 20th century the Music Department at Harvard University held a conference on what the nature of a new American classical music would be. Marsalis smiles as he points out that the question was valid, but the answer was just down the street in the ghettos and speakeasies where African Americans were inventing Jazz, outside of the conservatory by using their instruments, melodies and harmonies in ways that Conservatory trained musicians could not and did not imagine.
Such is the unstoppable creativity of the African musical tradition. It never lets up and when Western pop music falters, the great continent draws on another tradition to reinvigorate the cultural life of the descendants of European migrants to the New World.
If you are a development professional it is easier to deal with a continent if you assume it is a total basket case. If each development worker or donor organization would come to Africa with the artistic humility that musicians do when they go there, or receive African musicians in their home countries, then, the development process might benefit from such an approach. For a variety of reasons that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Rosa and Michel went home to America and the Makuti studio was no more. They said they could master the tapes better in the States. They said they would do it for free while they kept down day jobs in the music industry and, they said they would open a small Internet based label to try and stimulate interest for the materials that they had recorded. They were as good as their word.
I found myself in Dar, many months later with little to do. Maestro Kasheba had told me that every Friday he and a floating roster of Congolese and Tanzanian musicians played at the Police Officer’s Mess, in Msasani, off Sekou Toure road in the middle of the diplomatic suburb on the peninsula a five minute drive from our house.
Here I was told Tanzania’s upper classes and middle classes went out for the night. There they would wine and dine with their wives or mistresses “mama ndogo” in polite Swahili (“little” or “secondary” mothers). The music was Afro Cubanic; it was a dance, eat and drink situation. No tourists frequented the place and if you were white, not only were you welcome but you were invisible. Race was not an issue. These were worldly and sophisticated people and if you wanted to hang out at their club all the better. “Karibu,” or welcome as they would say in Swahili.
I drive up to the Police Officers mess. I had arrived with some Tanzanian colleagues, largely middle aged technical experts who worked for my project and who over the last two years have become my friends. I suspect that rural development project work is akin to being in the army. You are thrown in with other people. You have goals to fulfill and tasks to do and you do everything in your power to do them well. You spend days, weeks and months together, often to the exclusion of your family and friends and you make sure that you work on the principle of all for one and one for all. Any other approach spells failure.
The Police Officers Mess is an L shaped building where on the open side lies an empty swimming pool. You enter into the building where there is a large bar on one side and then across to a large patio. There, there are hundreds of white plastic chairs and many tables. There you will see well dressed Tanzanian men and women, usually in large groups, drinking, eating, smoking, talking and laughing. There is a fair amount of flirtatiousness in the air but it is very modest and very low key. Beyond the patio there is an open stage. It is large and wide and at least ten to fifteen musicians are spread across it.
There are trap sets and bongo drums in various places; conga drums and microphones with stands, stands for guitars, numerous amplifiers, sound system speakers, keyboards, mixing boards and plastic chairs at the side where the musicians who are not on stage sit, smoke and drink.
Behind the musicians, a few yards away are the coral cliffs and the sea, where you can hear the waves crash. Sometimes you can feel the spray near the stage. You can see the lights of the large container and oil ships at anchor glittering in the harbor. On moonlit nights you can see to the far horizon and the waves and water are aglitter as if they were sprinkled with moon dust. The air is humid but the wind makes it comfortable and at times pleasant. In January it is hot as hell but in July and August it is chilly and you may need to wear a sweater.
In Dar I discovered that onstage in the world of Congolese pop music there is hierarchy and gerontocracy. It is the senior musicians and singers who “rule.” Younger musicians take on the role of apprentices and often play the earlier sets warming up the crowds for the famous old timers. The old timers do not really start in until 10:30 or 11:00 in the evening and they will often go till two, three or even four in the morning.
Shortly after my first visit to the Mess my wife and our teenage son moved to Dar es Salaam. Our house was within walking distance of the Mess and there were nights where we could hear the music wafting across the air until four in the morning. Many a night I fell asleep to the bass line of Yellow Card or the choruses of Marinella, songs I had played in the studio many months before.
I am sitting at a table at the Police Officers mess. The seniors, Kasheba, King Kiki, and the late Basiano are all on stage. They sing a song and the dance floor fills up. Even the most overweight of women are light on their feet and many couples dance as if they have known each other for years. There is a lot of tenderness in the air.
At the end of each song all dancers walk off the stage and back to their tables as if they had been sent back to their seats by their teachers. With each new song they reenter the dance floor and at the song’s end they retire to their tables. Very soon I hear an announcement. It is Kasheba. He has his acoustic guitar strapped on. He is wearing a red shirt with white guitars all over it and green floral motives. With his large straw hat on (his signature) he stands out like a colorful peacock against the subdued color of the white shirted, black pant wearing, junior back up musicians.
He starts his announcement in Swahili and it goes something like this:
“Ladies and Gentlemen..I am Ndala Kasheba… some of you know me as…the Maestro… tonight we have in the audience a dear and close friend. His name is Geoffrois. He is a guitarist and he loves the African music. He is going to come on stage and play with us the famous Congolese song, Kokolai.”
I walk away from my table, I get up on stage and one of the young apprentices fusses over me and makes sure that my guitar is tuned, properly balanced and plugged in.
“Un, deux, un, deux, trois quatre” We are off. The chorus comes in. The horns do their thing. Kasheba is wailing out the melody and the back up singers do their part. I can feel the drum beats and conga rhythms enter me physically. I supposed this is what is it like to start off an evening in one of those Afro Cubanic cults of the Candomble of Brazil. I am not in trance, but I am entranced. I feel like I am floating on numerous melodic and rhythmic motives buoying me up and giving me the feeling that it is time to water ski.
I quickly catch the chords and start doing some variations. I throw in some rock rhythms. I lay on some Flamenco rasguedos, those multi finger, and multi flaying infinity kind of chords that just keep on going. Kasheba takes one of his marvelous and classically Congolese solos and then signals to me.
I take off for a solo and I go to places on my guitar where I have not been in many years. Bits of half remembered Carlos Santana appear on my fret board, echoes of Clapton and lots of Latin like scales. Occasionally, I bend and scream a few notes and then just as quickly, I decide that I have pushed the envelope just enough to get the esteem of the guys on stage and the satisfaction of the audience. We eventually wind down and exchange some dramatic chords as an ending. I realize that I have been playing with my legs spread wide apart, swaying to the rhythms, smiling and laughing with the other musicians on the stage.
They look at each other and me as if to say, “different…but you are okay and one of us.” As I take off my guitar many of the off stage musicians come over to shake my hand. The elderly musicians do the same, laughing and slapping me on the back. Then as I return to my table, I shake the hands of many of the admiring dancers. “Tafauti, lakini maridadi sana...different but very pretty they say in Swahili.” I had been famous for fifteen minutes.
I would drop into the Mess now and then to greet Kasheba and the other musicians and give them my version of the news from Rosa and Michel. They were still trying to get money from foundations to return and continue their work but no luck yet. They started a home based label and were mixing albums. They were working on other people’s projects to pay the rent but slowly organizing and mixing the material that they had brought back so that it could get some attention in America.
They had finally mixed the album we had all played on. It was called Yellow Card (available on the internet at www.limitlesssky.com). Bravely, they sent a copy to the reviewers at the New York Times and the Village Voice and it got praise from both. Rosa and Michel are many things-artists, impresarios, entrepreneurs. One thing they are is confident that they work with artists that they choose and when in the studio they mix sounds like painters.
Visiting Kasheba at the Police Officer’s mess I would often sit in for a song or two. There was a pattern to it. At first I could feel the anxiety of the Tanzanian audience giving me the feeling “Oh God who is this guy and is he going to blow my next dance?” Then moving to “ah ah, this is musical and fun.” Then to, “Ok forget about the fact that he is a foreigner, he is in the groove, let’s dance” to the usually smiles, laughter and then lots of people shaking my hand after I stepped down.
When my wife joined me in Dar we would often go to have a beer near the sea, dance and bring friends along to hear the music. Everyone loved it. Everyone was impressed by the musicians and it gave them a feeling of a normal country with people doing normal things, not starving, stealing, fighting and demanding anything from outsiders-a snapshot of a “developed” society.
Once our household was up and running Kasheba would come over for dinner. He would bring his guitar, and we would play different kinds of music together. I taught him "Norwegian Wood," "Gracias a la Vida" and other tunes that I had picked up over the years. We would mess around with "La Bamba." He showed me a touching elegy that he wrote for the recently deceased President Nyerere.
When I took on a part time job playing folk rock at a local restaurant he dropped by one evening. He played back up to my versions of "Drivin Wheel" and old blues tunes. I backed him up on some of his Congolese tunes and he ended the evening singing Louis Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World" - he was pretty good! The soundman was none other than the “wizard." At the end of the evening he came up to me and said, “That was ggggood!”
What I liked most about the evening was the two acoustic guitars playing together. It reminded me of those recordings made by Hugh Tracey, recordings of the earliest Congolese guitarist such as Dom Bosco. Kasheba said that he had known these musicians when he was growing up in the Congo, before he moved to Dar, and they had motivated him to become a guitarist. I loved that unamplified sound.
One evening while eating dinner at our place, he told us a story about crossing over the Tanzanian border near Zaire, sometime in eighties when the rebels and the government held different parts of the country under their authority. They had just crossed over from government territory on their way to Tanzania. A group of armed rebels stopped them and asked them who they were and what they were doing.
Kasheba told them that they were musicians and they were on their way to a gig in Kigoma town on the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika. The rebels retorted that they must be spies and even if they were musicians they had been playing for Mobutu’s people and deserved to die. The rebel leader said, “Prove to us that you are truly musicians and we will let you go…sing and play for us.” Kasheba answered, “But we have no instruments we are on our way to Kigoma. “The rebel leader said, “Play or die.”
At that moment Kasheba started singing and motioning as if he was playing the guitar. He would sing the guitar part and mimic the hand movements and very soon the rest of the band were imitating sax sounds while they played invisible instruments and banged on invisible drums and congas, an entire ensemble lip sinking Congolese pop songs, without equipment, without instruments and within an inch of life or death. After a few songs the rebel leader asked them to stop. He said, “I think you really are musicians, you can go now.”
One evening at our house Kasheba said to me, “Geoffrois. I love the Congolese music. I am an African. It is African music. But I fear that it is limited. You know different styles, different repertoires. I need to expand my horizons, learn new pieces, experiment. “Au siyo ?” (is that not right, in Swahili). Can you help me?”
I answered, “Let me go through my CD collection and I will make a few CDs of forty or fifty songs that you may want to listen to.” Within a week I had made the CDs. They include everything from Robert Johnson, to Madagascar guitarists, Flamenco artists like Paco de Lucia and Camaron, and sixties folkies like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. I included a fair amount of Irish melodies just for shock value.
Kasheba took the disks and listened to them. He came back the next week. We narrowed down the song list to twenty five distinct pieces and we got to work. We started playing Congolese versions of Yesterday by the Beatles, Congolese versions of the blues. I wrote a Tango for us and we worked on that. Once I convinced our teenage son to sit in with us. He was very excited and Kasheba told him he was good and should practice more. Somehow, I felt this was a historic occasion but I did not know why.
One evening as the sun lay on the horizon, after a I just had returned from swimming in the bay and watching the dhows go by I wrote a Congolese melody and lyric in Swahili and rehearsed it for our next practice. When we next got together I played it for him. He said it was very nice and asked which Tanzanian musician had written it. It told him I had. He was surprised and laughed, ”Not bad, not bad at all!” We played it a few more times and then went on to other material.
Very soon after, work got the better of both of us. I had to spend many weeks in central Tanzania doing a project for the Swiss government and Kasheba was getting gigs in Arusha, Serengetti, Lake Victoria, Zanzibar. He was in demand and I was delighted. He even did a successful gig in England.
On numerous occasions we had been playing and his cell phone would beep. I would listen to him saying to his various women, nieces, nephews, all who needed his help “I am sorry, desolee, no money, no …akuna pesa, kabeesa” (in Swahili no money, really!).
The one evening I got a call from my wife on my cell phone in central Tanzania. “Geoffrey" she said, “Kasheba is sick. He has heart problems. He is in the hospital. They won’t let him out until he pays his bill and he has to fly to Zanzibar to perform tonight.” I asked her to get whatever cash we had in the house and call up some friends and colleagues who liked his music to see if we could get some donations. We managed to raise the money. My wife went to the hospital, we cleared the bills and the man made his gig in Zanzibar.
One evening at the house I told Kasheba that we were leaving Tanzania after having made it our home for more than six years. He was sad yet at the same time excited. He said, “Now you and Michel and Rosa can organize my tour. You will do the Canadian side and they will do the American side.” We discussed the logistics of it a number of times. We saw each other a few times more, played a little, visited him at other clubs. I got up on stage one last time and played an extended version of Kokolai. Then we packed our bags, put all our worldly belongings in a container and flew out of the country.
I was not at all happy to leave Tanzania. By that time it was the music that was keeping me there and the connection that I had made with Kasheba over the last two years. When I got back to Canada I called Michel and Rosa and we had a long chat about just how to arrange the tour for Kasheba and his colleagues.
I had not lived in Canada for over twenty years. I was back in my home town, welcomed by my family and childhood friends. Yet I felt like Rip van Winkle. I had woken up in my home town twenty years later and everything had changed. It sure kept me busy.
One evening I was called to the phone. It was Rosa, from her studio in Seattle.
“Geoffrey, I am afraid I have some bad news, Kasheba passed away.”
I was stunned. He was in his late fifties and although he had a heart condition he did not smoke and rarely drank. He lived a modest life and his mood was steady.
He could have gone to South Africa for better treatment or even Nairobi but there was always the question of money. When you rise in Africa, your extended family rises with you. The higher you rise the wider the set of people who demand your financial support. In the end, those who are most successful often end up as poor as they started, since the pressures and demands of the African extended family are almost impossible to avoid.
Rosa reminded me that the album that I had played on with Kasheba had been positively reviewed in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Some of the other cuts that we had done together would feature on the next CD. She said that with proper promotion she was sure that one day, Kasheba’s music would “breakout” in to the world of North American popular music.
I am sure that that day will arrive. It is a pity that Ndala Kasheba, the Maestro, will not be there to see it.
Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.
To comment on this essay, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and original essays such as this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and would like to read more by Geoffrey Clarfield, please click here.