Although we tend to think of musical genres like hiplife, kwaito and bongo flava as the music of a new generation, many of them have existed for the past decade or so. Tanzanian bongo flava, once heralded as a localized version of hip hop, has ten years to its name. Around 2001 people started using the term 'bongo flava' after the radio show by that name playing local hip hop. The genre's trademark sound was pioneered by artists like Juma Nature, Gangwe Mobb and Dully Sykes. Their hits inspired countless one-day hit wonders, aided by a handful of producers, a limited set of keyboard presets and the urge to receive airplay and commercial recognition. In the five years after 2001, bongo flava developed into a genre with a distinct feel and a popularity beyond just Tanzanian youth - all of East Africa up to DR Congo and Rwanda now knows who Ali Kiba is.
After all these years there's still criticism: many artists are copy cats whose only concern is immediate commercial recognition, their lyrics are shallow and glorify greed, and so on. So, is bongo flava on the brink of extinction or is there still room for innovation? Let's have a look at the new video by Diamond, one of a new breed of bongo flava artists whose popularity has risen fast in the past two years.
Diamond - Moyo wangu
Diamond's video is just out but already got lots of views on TV and the web (28.000 views on Youtube in two weeks' time, that's big for a bongo flava video). Are this song and its video significally different from bongo flava's output over the past decade?
1. Skinny jeans: from the first images it's clear that this video was shot in the now! Tanzanian fashion styles have changed quite a lot recently - a few years ago, tight jeans and a super short sleeve t-shirt would have been frowned upon in the streets. Diamond's video looks like it's promoting sneaker culture. The good news is that purple and green jeans are now on sale in Europe and will show up on the 2nd hand markets of TZ soon, because the rainbow sneaker trend is already over on the other side of the pond.
2. No autotune: because autotune is so 2010! And Diamond's voice does not need it anyway.
3. Mixing bongo flava and kwaito: some others tried it before - in Zanzibar there was an emcee who did a 'swaito' track years ago, and more recently Juma Nature (who started as a hip hop artist back in the 90s) got inspired by the sound of South Africa. Still Diamond's approach sounds fresh for 2011.
4. It's not hip hop: this song can impossibly be tagged 'Tanzanian hip hop', no need to either, because that genre is still very much alive in Arusha, Dar and other cities. In fact, recently local hip hop has made a kind of comeback - even Gangwe Mobb, Tanzanian hip hop pioneers who crossed over into bongo flava, reunited last month after they disbanded in 2003. Same thing for Wachuja Nafaka, a group from the early 2000's uniting Juma Nature, KR (from pioneers of Tanzanian hip hop GWM) and Dollo. Their new single 'Jimwage' does sound like the blueprint of bongo flava.
5. Producer tag: if you listened to more Tanzanian tunes lately you may have noticed many of them start with a kind of jingle - 'talk of the town, Lamar, it's a fish crab presentation'. It's the signature of Lamar, currently the most popular producer in Tanzanian pop music. Not sure what a fish crab is but once you heard this intro you will remember Lamar. And in today's music industry, promotion is key.
6. Shot with a dolly: certainly the quality of locally produced videos in Tanzania has gone up more than a notch lately. At last the international video channels will play Tanzanian videos which are now up to par with what's coming out of Nigeria and South Africa. Visual Lab's Adam Juma directed the video and as you can see he invested heavily in equipment - the film set is even portrayed in the video itself. Gone are the eternal tripod shots; the swift movements of the dolly and crane are the way to go! Just don't trip over the rail.
7. Post production: again, Visual Lab's videos stand out in the crowd, and much of it has to do with post production, from colorization to the minor special effects applied - look at the 'Moyo wangu' sign on top of the petrol station. Tanzania still has a long way to go when it comes to visual effects and animated graphics but it's a matter of time before we'll see more directors getting creative.
Let's look at another new video for some more observations:
G-Scent Ft. Majani, Stopa, Juma Nature - Nakupenda
8. Crossing borders: bongo flava may have had some international appeal but international collabos have been few. Professor Jay did a couple - Kwaw Kese from Ghana, Chameleone from Uganda; then there's Loon from Bad Boy records who recorded a song with Ibra da Husla and D Greedy. This song came out last week and it bridges the scenes in Nigeria and Tanzania. We didn't know G-Scent (Googling for his name you will find ads for an odor eliminator and a fish attractant!) but his Tanzanian counterparts are well known; all of them emerged from the Tanzanian hip hop scene. The production of this song crosses over to Nigerian music, too. Mild autotune alert!
9. Majani a.k.a. P-Funk was one of the originators who created the Tanzanian hip hop sound and he was instrumental in the creation of Bongo flava, too. In recent years his studio and label Bongo Records has seen heavy competition from younger cats like Lamar and the dozens of home studios that popped up in Dar. He's planned a comeback though and Wachuja Nafaka is one of the names on his roster. You can't deny his musical talent, P-Funk's productions always sound a little different from the mainstream and he has never denied his roots in hip hop. In the G-scent song he can be heard rapping, too.
10. Love: what's new really? Bongo flava is not the first musical genre to favour romance as a subject, in fact the poetic lyrics in taarab music from East Africa's coastal region can't be beaten in the way they talk about love, and - using metaphors - sex. Bongo flava tends to be a bit more direct although both Diamond's and G-Scent's tracks would be rated 'G' (all ages).