Leo Mkanyia: King of Swahili Blues

Saturday August 17 2019

Leo Mkanyia at the Big Kafunda in Kampala last month

Leo Mkanyia at a past performance. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Leo Mkanyia is a Tanzanian singer-songwriter famous for his unique musical style called Swahili Blues, inspired by traditional Tanzania music and the Blues from the US.

Mkanyia was recently in Uganda and performed with Ugandan saxophonist Caesar Kajura at the Big Kafunda in Kampala on July 12. This was his second appearance having had a show at the same venue on May 18.

According to the musician, Swahili Blues bridges the gap between old and new and can be classified as a throwback to the 70s and 80s with classic Tanzanian Zilizopendwa dance sounds.

He sings on history and culture, politics, migration, inequality and love.

Born in Dar es Salaam in 1981, Mkanyia is a multi-instrumentalist but mainly plays the guitar and sings in Swahili, English and French.

His father Henry Mkanyia, is a well-known jazz guitarist who played with the famous Mlimani Park Orchestra.


Mkanyia learnt how to play the guitar at the age of eight though fiddling with his father’s guitar, the chords his father played by ear.

Back then, music didn’t pay in Tanzania and his father was adamant that he should pursue a career away from music.

But he changed his mind when one day he found Mkanyia playing a classic Tanzanian song and he decided to grant him his wish, and taught him how to play the guitar properly.

Today, father and son play together in Leo's Swahili Blues Band with the senior Mkanyia on the solo guitar.

Mkanyia has performed at the London African Music Festival (2011), Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar (2012 and 2015), and Bayimba International Art Festival in Uganda (2013 and 2019), among others and released three albums: Dunia Hii (2010), Jasho Langu (2011), and Bangili (2017).


How did Swahili Blues come about?

About 15 years ago I visited my grandmother who was a singer with a local troupe in her village. I heard her sing and I thought the music was soulful and I told that she sounded like B.B. King, the American blues singer.

She took offence and said these were traditional songs that they had been singing since their childhood. That is when I decided to take the music and add electronic guitar sounds to create what I called Swahili Blues.

What makes Swahili Blues unique?

It still maintains its blues roots and is pentatonic. Some of today’s modern African music lacks the pentatonic element which is its original beat.

Your father played with the famous Mlimani Park Ochestra. How much has he influenced your music career?

In a big way because without him I would not be where I am today. The first guitar I played was his, which my mother used to 'steal' for me to play.

One day when I was about 12 years old, he caught me playing and I pretended that I did know how to.

But since he had been listening for a while and thought I was good at it, he concluded that I must have been doing it for a while. He then let me play his guitar.

Musicians who play alternative music like yours are not very popular. Why is this so?

There are many reasons. The main one being that most of the music we play is more educative rather than entertaining.

We also try to maintain the traditional rhythms and beats. We are not doing ragga music. We are musical ambassadors who are not competing with pop musicians or fame seekers.

For example, I did not decide to be a musician, it just happened that I grew up in a musical family.

All my relatives played music at home and not for commercial purposes and musical instruments were like toys for me. It is only when I decided to become a professional musician that I started composing my own music.

You have released three albums so far. Do you have a favourite?

My albums are like my children and I love them equally. All of them are the best, but because of growing musically after the first, the third one maybe more technical but not any different from the first two.

Can musicians who play alternative music make a decent living out of their talent?

Absolutely. I earn a decent income. I teach music in three schools in Dar es Salaam and this job pays a decent salary like any other.

I practice and compose after I am done with teaching.

Why is it important for you to collaborate with musicians who play music similar to yours across the region?

Collaboration means expanding our music and it is also good for our audiences to get the musical feel of different musical cultures and taste.

Biyi Adepegba, the art director of Joyful Noise Recordings UK and the London African Music Festival has likened your music to that of the African great Ali Farka Toure. How does that feel?

It felt good because Ali Farka Toure is big in African music. I was shocked to be compared with such a great musician and I took it as an honour.

Do you have weekly gigs with your band in Tanzania?

We have monthly gigs to avoid boredom that comes with regularity. Music has to be entertaining for us as well as the clients.

We perform at two venues in Dar es Salaam. At the Slow Leopard and Paparazzi Night Club. In Zanzibar we play at Gerry’s Bar and Red Monkey.

What would you have been if you were not in music today?

I think I would have been a teacher. I see myself more of a teacher, maybe because I already teach music.

How would you describe the state of the music industry in Tanzania?

Very competitive and growing fast. You need to be well organised to cope. It has its challenges as well which are common everywhere like piracy and unprofessionalism.

How vibrant is the live music scene in Tanzania?

Not as vibrant as in Kampala or Addis Ababa.

What do you do in your free time?

I am either studying or teaching music; organising gigs and studio sessions. I also swimming and play with the children.