Tanzania's Great Rift Valley has yielded evidence of some of the earliestif not the earliesthuman civilizations on the planet. For a very long time, though, peoples seem to have passed through and left the region, especially its densely vegetated interior, or else settled in small, autonomous enclaves. Prior to the 18th century, there was no centralized political authority. The strongest power center was the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, where an Arab-Swahili sultanate was well established by 1800. Zanzibar served as a starting point for both Arab and European incursions into the East African interior. During the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, the Germans got the upper hand in this region. Local German authorities resorted to mass slaughter in brutal but failed attempts to pacify the Africans.
In the wake of World War I, the territory fell into British hands as the new colony of Tanganyika, a political entity in name but not in fact. The British-mandated plantation system produced crops for export, while many locals went without. The plantations did lay the groundwork for grassroots organization, the beginnings of what would evolve into a sense of nationhood.
The first East African country to achieve independence, Tanzania has made the most of a difficult predicament. It has few exploitable resources, and it has been surrounded by some of the most unstable nations of the postcolonial period. Though it has not thrived, Tanzania has held its own, and maintained credible democratic institutions through it all.
Julius Kambarage Nyerere emerged as a leader in the 1950s and became the first prime minister of an independent nation, still called Tanganyika, in 1961. Nyerere did a remarkable job of unifying the country's 120 ethnic groups, and he emphasized education and health care in an administration relatively free from corruption. However, his attempt to implement a self-sufficient, African socialist society undermined the country economically. In 1985, Ali Hassan Mwinyi was elected president and he delivered a decade of economic austerity. Although painful, Mwinyi's approach did shore up the Tanzanian economy, and his successor, Benjamin Mkapa, continued the approach, even as he confronted difficult problems, AIDS, endemic poverty and the instability of neighboring states. Mkapa stepped down in 2005 after his second five-year term and Jakaya Kikwete was elected to replace him.
Tanzania's wealth of traditional music cultures began to find expression as urban dance music by the 1930s. At the time, Cuban rumba held sway, and the first Dar Es Salaam pop bandsincluding the Dar Es Salaam Jazz Band, Morogoro Jazz and Salum Abdallah and Cuban Marimbacertainly reflected that. At the same time, the music contained echoes of the old ngoma local village events involving drumming, singing and dancing.
After independence, a culturally enlightened Nyerere government invested in bands and used state radio to disseminate their music. Nuta Jazz Band (presently Uttu Jazz Band) was the first of many state-sponsored outfits, and some of its veterans went on to form important commercial bands, such as Dar International and DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra.
By the 1960s, Congo music had replaced Cuban pop as the major foreign influence on Tanzanian bands. Groups like Orchestre Maquis Original and Orchestre Safari Sound used horn sections like their predecessors, but the weave of guitars perfected in Congo music became prominent. Congolese musicians blended into the Tanzania scene, singing in the local Swahili and creating local variations on Congo music conventions. The most significant of these musicians is Remmy Ongala who has been a major entertainer and also voice of social conscience on the scene since 1978.
These days, rap and reggae hold sway with young listeners, and there are many new acts emerging, dominating the clubs and the airwaves that once favored guitar bands. In addition, a new techno-roots sound called mchirikua modern style with roots in the village ngoma traditionhas become popular in Dar's poorest neighborhoods. Tanzania's music scene is suffering at the moment. Recent governments have shown none of Nyerere's dedication to developing it, not even to the extent of trying to control rampant cassette piracy. Without this means of making money, musicians are hard pressed to afford equipment, and fewer bands are performing in the clubs. In addition to these dance pop forms, Tanzania is a major center for taarab music, a mellifluous blend of African, Indian and Arab elements. Despite its commercialization taarab remains especially strong in Zanzibar.
As for Tanzania's wealth of traditional music, precious little makes it to the recording studio, let alone the outside world. One qualified exception is Hukwe Zawose, whose small ensemble combines traditions in the spirit of the early Nyerere days, with a nationalist slant in the lyrics. Though not really representative of ancient roots, Zawose's sound is beautiful and seductive, especially his use of big, deep-toned hand pianos not unlike the famed mbira of Zimbabwe.
Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org