One late evening in 1994, Jeji B, a Frenchman and resident of Tanzania was walking on the street in Dar es Salaam and he saw an old traditional music drum on the side of the road.
He took it home and told his wife that this could be a sign telling him to make traditional music instruments and form his own band.
Living in Segelea area of Dar es Salaam with his wife, Jeji B only had a mattress, a mosquito net, drums and wood pieces in his one-roomed house.
His neighbours regarded him with contempt as he chopped wood outside his house everyday to carve music instruments.
Jeji B has lived in Tanzania for 25 years. He came to here in 1994 as young man and never left. He says he had always had a desire to make music with his own band since his youth.
Actually his musical journey started when he first arrived and decided to fuse traditional and modern instruments with Makonde music instruments.
In his quest for a perfect fusion, he realised there were few artisans making traditional music instruments in the country.
“I was not satisfied with the static atmosphere surrounding the music industry, because those who were making traditional music instruments lacked seriousness and creativity,” says Jeji B.
He believes that the making of traditional music instruments reflects the dynamic creative impulses of a society. So he decided to make his own instruments.
To get raw material, Jeji B travelled to rural Tanzania to source for wood in forests. He says the local people were hesitant to help him because they assumed he was only there to make instruments for sale abroad. His first project was one big Marimba made out of two old ones.
He says he decided to recycle because he was uneasy with cutting down trees, but in 1996, he went to the forest and was able to collect wood pieces already cut and discarded by other people. He also bought some pieces form piles collected for sale as firewood.
“My aim was to create good instruments so I decided to blend my carpentry experience with various cultures to create them,” says Jeji B.
“I used traditional designs, local materials and experience and picked up wood pieces rather than cutting down trees but most importantly because I wanted to do it like the local artists would and create traditional music blend that sounds professional.
Jeji B has so far made more than 200 wooden music instruments including drums, flutes, African xylophones and marimba that can also be used to play Western tunes.
He says he found the carving process interesting, especially the final stages of making the marimba in order for it to play both African traditional tunes and Western music arrangement at the same time.
“I then joined a Makonde music band called Wale Wale and we play a mixture of traditional instruments and modern ones to make original tunes. I also learnt the art of woodwork and carving from the Makonde people and was the only white person involved in the production of African music instruments.’’
He says it is very satisfying to have instruments that are handmade and locally produced by artisans using local knowledge.
“Sometimes wood in the forest is scarce and because of this, the finishing production process of some drums is interesting. I place aluminium iron sheeting on the inside to keep the drum light and prevent it from rusting, then I cover it with animal skin on the outside to maintain its traditional appearance,” he says.
Jeji B’s work has earned him praise and admiration from many quarters. He started showing his work in 2001 at various exhibitions and his drums and marimba have been on exhibition at the Alliance Francaise, at the Nafasi Art Space and the Tanzan Exhibition, all in Dar es Salaam.
Surprisingly, Jeji B’s musical instruments are not for sale, because he says he treasures them like they were his children.
He says he finds it hard to let them go because he believes they are an inheritance for his children. His greatest happiness is for many people to see his handiwork.
He also has plans to promote his instruments worldwide in museums in other countries, pointing out the challenge of not enough interest by most local people in appreciating traditional instruments.
Jeji B says he has spent more than $42,600 in the past 20 years in buying material like strings, glue, animal skin and others used in making the instruments.
Celebrating 20 years
In the beginning, Jeji B had no plans of exhibiting his work; instead he would make the instruments and keep them in his house. It was not until 2011, after being encouraged by tourists and foreign visitors who visited his home, that he agreed to show them.
“I wanted to inspire other young artists to follow my approach, that even discarded wood can be made into something creative. It does not matter whether you are a foreigner or citizen.”
He believes that local artisans have the ability, which they adopt from their culture and heritage, but still lack creativity and ambition to learn from books, and other world cultures to better themselves and simply settle for what they have.
“No one is prevented from expanding their knowledge. If an artist wants to develop his traditional works and knowledge he has the ability to read books, use social media then source material everywhere and use local traditional knowledge,” he added.
Jeji B is interested in the traditional woodwork and practices of the Makonde people, which he now knows very well after working closely with them. He has made more than 250 wooden drums, creating genuine pieces with historical value.
He says that keeping traditional artistry and artisanship is one way of fighting globalisation which is eroding cultures and heritage around the world, robbing countries of their wealth and killing the souls of communities. He says it is no different in Tanzania.
A carpenter by profession, Jeji B says he studied at a carpentry university in the United States and later pursued a course in carpentry where he also gained experience.
He has travelled across Asia, Africa and Europe and says he has learnt to fuse his knowledge and creativity to make the wooden instruments.