The just concluded Ongala Festival held in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, featured one of the country's most inspiring musicians, Vitali Maembe.
Maembe has been speaking truth to power through his music, commenting on social and political subjects.
“I am not a soldier, I am not a rebel just a fighter, I fight alone with my music to save my people,” goes his song Nchi Yangu (Kinoo).
Through his lyrics, he calls out corrupt leaders to account for socio-political ills in society. This has set him on a collision course with the government and he has been arrested several times, although he has never been charged.
In 2012, as he was performing in the Kagera region, he was kicked off stage by the police and ordered to leave the region in 12 hours.
Maembe says this is a common occurrence. “As I advertise my shows in advance, the police know where and when to come. I’ll be accosted after the show. Recently, in Kiteto in Manyara, I got pulled off the stage during the show.”
So what keeps him going? “First, you cannot run away from politics...when I sing about youths businesses failing or the dispensary having no medicine or that road being horrible, I am not talking politics, and please bear in mind that our national anthem says ‘Wabariki viongozi wetu’. How can we bless our leaders if we don’t tell them the truth?”
In the course of our interview, Maembe picks up his guitar and starts to sing. “Kaisari tumempa yake na yetu anaipora” (We’ve given the Kaizer his, he steals ours too.)
Membe, 43, is a native of the Pwani region and was trained at TaSuBa (Bagamoyo College of Arts) in fine art and traditional dance.
He is a skilled guitarist, and his relatable tongue-in-cheek lyrics set him apart from other composers. His music, while holding the possibility of African rhythmic beats, maintains a lulling melody reminiscent of country music, an “afro country” genre.
He has six albums under his belt; Bagamoyo (2004), Imbila (2007), Chanjo (2010), Liberation (2013), Vuma (2016), and his latest Kichaa Amerudi (2018).
Although Maembe is an independent artist, he gets support from donors. He says he appreciates the support since music stakeholders don’t want to attract hostility from authorities if they associated with him.
He runs a community programme under a football club, which he started in Dar es Salaam, and when he moved to Bagamoyo it grew into the Jua Art Foundation.
Jua has taught tens of artistes, providing them with employable skills, including his own son currently in secondary school who plays the guitar like his father.
Among the artists who have benefitted from this programme are the Ze Spirits Band, who have toured extensively in the region after being launched with the support of the British Council, and Amiri Matiga who works for Disney in the US.
Maembe performs internationally, but prefers to be at home despite mainstream media censorship of his music as authorities discourage radio stations from playing it.
Last year, Basata-Tanzania Art refused it renew his licence citing orders from the Ministry of Internal Affairs alleging that he was mentally disturbed.
He asked to have the refusal in writing, but has neither received it nor his licence. The incident inspired the title of his latest album Kichaa Amerudi (the crazy one is back).
In March, Maembe held a concert called Sikia Raisi (Listen President). TaSuBa in Bagamoyo was packed for his show.
Before that, he had written a letter to the president congratulating him for the good he has done and requesting for his safety.
Maembe wrote that he had been beaten by police and denied medical help, and was finding his patriotism put to the ultimate test.
Maembe had been called by a representative of the government and asked not to sing certain songs in his show, like Walete. Since March, he hasn’t been harassed by the authorities.
Music professionals from Norway have invited Maembe to the country to teach for a year.
“I met these music researchers from the University of Adger in Norway. They marvelled at my music. Sometimes I play a few chords, but where I start to sing isn’t where many musicians choose to start,” he said.
Maembe has performed in several countries including Germany, Switzerland, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Norway, Sweden and Hungary.
Last October, he was invited by the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara to perform in their efforts to get the UN’s assistance to help secure their independence.