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Art speaks louder

Bongo Flava

Whether it’s a daladala ride in the morning sun or while having a beer at Rose Garden, the experience is not complete without it. That strangely addictive mellow mix of tropical beats and Swahili lyrics – bongo flava.

The Tanzanian style of hip hop music, with influences from dancehall, r&b, reggae et al, was born in the 1990s. It’s said to be inspired by American hiphop with a touch of social commentary and critique, and that also gives the origins for its name. Bongo is derived from the Swahili word meaning brains, and is a common nickname for the city of Dar es Salaam or more widely the country of Tanzania as a whole. Whenever I comment on some random or simply different way of doing things over here, for example of driving on a ‘sidewalk’ with just one centimetre of asphalt between the car’s tyres and the ditch in order to get five metres ahead of that red car in the foleni, my Tanzanian friends smile and say “you need bongo here to survive”. Flava on the other hand is simply slang for the word flavour, to give the name that street smart sound.

As with any music genre, bongo flava has evolved over the 20 years of its existence and some have complained it’s lost some of its edge on rapping about political issues, moving into a mellower r&b-type of lovey-dovey singing. Since I don’t understand everything in Swahili yet, I can only say that the tunes are very catchy. This combination is a bit tricky though, because when I stand in a full daladala or sit in a busy bar, it can be kind of tough to hear all the lyrics and make out the words, which makes it even more difficult for me to hum and sing these songs for my friends to recognise and name.

What you find below is a selection of my favourite bongo flava tracks, found through hard listening and humming work.

Sam wa Ukweli – Sina raha
Sina raha is playing almost from every single stereo in Dar at some point or another. It means I don’t have happiness/comfort, and is a typical new bongo flava song in its theme of heartbreak.

Diamond – Mbagala
Mbagala is an area on the southern outskirts of Dar, and the music video is partly filmed there. The song is about the singer, a poor man from Mbagala, who has been dumped by the woman he loves because she marries a rich man.

Alpha Rwirangira feat. AY – Songa mbele
Even though the main singer, Alpha, is Rwandan, the song fits the bongo flava category nicely. He won the East African version of Idols, and on this first single of his he sings about songa mbele, moving forward. Moving forward from what I haven’t figure out yet, and the random music video isn’t very helpful in enlightening me, but it sounds nice nevertheless.

Professor Jay feat. Juma Nature and Muny – Zali la mentali
Zali la mentali means something coming out of the blue, changing your whole life for the better (not a literal translation). This is what happens to the poor guy in the song when he meets a rich girl who takes him off the streets and they fall in love. Like the antithesis for Mbagala, good things can happen in life too.

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