Beyond Bongo Flava: Tanzania's Neo-soul divas

Saturday June 15 2019

Grace Matata.

Grace Matata, a celebrated afro-soul musician with 75,000 followers on Instagram. She has been producing the Coffee House Sessions show in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for four years. PHOTO | COURTESY 

CAROLINE ULIWA
By CAROLINE ULIWA
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Listening to the radio in Tanzania, one would be forgiven for thinking the only music available for public consumption is  Bongo Flava, as one track after another plays on loop on almost every frequency.

But of course, alternative music exists. 

Recently, I interviewed Grace Matata 30, Seghito, 29, and Chi, 28, Tanzanian female singers and songwriters who write, produce and sing alternative music. They are solo artists who are passionate about live afro-jazz, afro-soul and neo-soul music.

Worldwide, the music industry is still heavily male, meaning audiences are consuming music mostly made by men.

“A woman singer is readily accepted when she uses body and beauty in the process of making music, and this is assumed to be an extension of her femininity. Put an instrument in her hands and it interrupts the impression that she is ‘sexually available’…’’ says a study by the University of Sacramento in California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published this year.

The article Playing like a Girl by Carrie Leigh Page and Dana Reason, published in July 2018, says that women make up only 22.4 per cent of artistes, 12.3 per cent of songwriters, and 2 per cent of producers.

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ALTERNATIVE SOUND

Breaking down the scenario in Tanzania, Matata, Seghito and Chi agreed that the odds are stacked against them.

“Our industry is one-dimensional, but it’s changing slowly… still you cannot find producers who are making alternative music. If you’re not doing what’s popular right now, for example Nigerian pop, it means you have to work really hard to find a producer who can put out your music,” said Grace Matata.

She also cited a lack of distributors — only gospel music is distributed widely by distributors; and the fact that contemporary music rarely gets featured in traditional media. She said that, with media penetration, contemporary musicians should be able to make sure their music reaches a wider audience.

“I started with mainstream and I worked my way towards more of the alternative sound. Still, the truth is that my music hasn’t changed much; it’s just that it was marketed as mainstream music from the beginning and I think this is where a lot of contemporary musicians go wrong...”

Grace Matata has been encouraging alternative sound musicians; through a group called Temeyai on social media, to take bold steps to advertise their music.

“You have to work on the way society sees you, to the way your own family views what you do. There is so much about being a female musician that is challenging. We need to be more focused. I’ve attended several music workshops offered by Culture and Development East Africa, and the attendance by female musicians was very low. I’ve had up-and-coming female musicians tell me, ‘Oh but you come from privilege,’ and I ask them, ‘Do you think my parents wanted me to do music? Until last year they were calling this a hobby,’” said Chi.

She was raising the all-important topic of family support, the lack of morale among female musicians and the attitude of friends and immediate family.

Aichieli Temu aka Chi.

Chi, real name Aichieli Temu, is a neo-soul singer who began her music journey on the streets of Liverpool. PHOTO | COURTESY

AGAINST ALL ODDS

But against all odds, these three female musicians are forging ahead and making significant strides in their careers in alternative music. Even though they play instruments, are their own bosses and are making music that isn’t playing up their sensuality as a selling point, they are thriving. 

Grace Matata is an afro-soul musician with an album titled Nyakati produced in 2013. Since then, she has released seven singles and was nominated for the 2015 Kilimanjaro Music Awards.

Her latest single, Baby, was sponsored by Unicef and released last year on World Children’s Day. She has a loyal fan base on social media, with 75,000 Instagram followers and has performed at the Sauti za Busara Festival (Zanzibar) in 2017, the DoaDoa festival in 2016 (Uganda), the Zanzibar Beach & Watersports Festival in 2015 and the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2014.

As a live performer, she says she cannot describe the feeling she gets when she’s on stage. “It’s like when you have a crush on this guy and you finally have a chance to be around him. It’s that kind of feeling.”

For six months in a year, Grace Matata produces a show, Coffee House Sessions, that features her and other international and local artistes she supports. The show is now in its fourth year and takes place in Dar es Salaam.

Chi, real name Aichieli Temu, is a neo-soul revolutionary, who began her music journey busking on the streets of Liverpool.

Working her way up to playing at festivals such as the Brouhaha International Street Festival, the Oxjam Music Festival and the Sound City Festival, she has also been featured several times on BBC Radio.

When I asked her to describe her passion, she said: “I started to write because it’s all well and good singing to Destiny Child or whatever musician, but sometimes you just want to sing your own creation. So you sit on the piano and with the limited know- how you have because you were a twat and gave up piano lessons [she laughs], you go with what you’ve got, and create something. You start writing and you feel the excitement and get that feeling that you just want more,” she explained.

Annette Ngongi aka Seghito

Annette Ngongi aka Seghito, a self-managed afro-jazz musician. PHOTO | COURTESY

DEDICATED

Chi, who grew up and lived in Liverpool, moved back to Tanzania permanently in 2013. She has performed live gigs in Dar es Salaam playing for Moët and Hennessy events, opening for South African musicians Bucie and Black Motion, being featured regularly in local platforms like the Lyricist Lounge and Slow Leopard music sessions.

For a year now, she has been hosting her own monthly event called Chi and Friends. It features herself with other up-and-coming artistes in Dar es Salaam that she supports.

Annette Ngongi aka Seghito as she’s popularly known — her nickname means girl in her Hehe language — is a go getter musician who sings afro- jazz and is self-managed. She released her extended play album last year, titled Swahili Vintage.

Her journey began while she was still in high school, where she won a Tanzania House of Talent music residency.

This saw her performing backstage vocals to acts like Ray C and Mwasiti while touring around the country.

She attended university in Iringa and while there, joined a local band and stepped into the role of lead singer for the first time.

After graduating she moved back to Dar es Salaam and together with her closest friend, Florence Kibopile, she started a band called the Jazz Tribe. The band has played gigs at the Hyatt Hotel, Cape Town Fish Market Bar & Restaurant, Akemi Restaurant and recently Samaki Samaki Bar & Restaurant, all in Dar es Salaam.

She is currently promoting her album Swahili Vintage by appearing in shows on radio stations.

Said Seghito: “Performing live is almost like a prayer. When I am singing, that’s when I am most myself. That’s when I can just express myself …it’s a powerful experience.”

She has performed at the Jahazi Jazz Festival and Marahaba Festival in Tanzania and alongside Malian afro jazz royalty Moussa Diallo. 

These three female artistes are proof that one can make alternative music and thrive in the middle of Tanzania’s Bongo Flava mania and Africa’s Nigerian pop obsession.