As a pup coming up in North Jersey, our local music scene was pretty damn stale. I used to go to Oi shows at the Moose Lodge on Saturday afternoons, but the Oi Scouts never really managed to touch my soul. We did see our share of great bands (RIP Folly), but there wasn’t enough culture in the area to actually spawn a style of music. So in an effort to write something besides mean-spirited entertainment news, I’m beginning a series of articles on music scenes around the world that have given birth to a distinctive style all their own. Stewardess, may I have another gin and tonic? It’s a long flight to Tanzania, home of Bongo Flava.
The East African country of Tanzania is a mix of plateaus, mountains (Kilimanjaro!), and congested cities like Dar es Salaam (above), the birthplace of Bongo Flava. The name Bongo Flava (BF) comes from the youth’s nickname for Dar es Salaam, Bongo. Doy hickey. Hip-hop first came into Tanzania in the country in the late 1980s, when the government opened up its economy to outside markets and liberated the media, long under the iron claw of supervillain-socialist-President Nyerere. BF borrows heavily from American hip-hop and R&B and like its American counterparts, BF is used as a cultural escape for the youth; an outlet for expressing frustrations over poverty, class barriers, the AIDS epidemic, with some classic hip-hop boasting thrown in. Still has to be fun to listen to, right?
Several artists on Akhenaton Records including Offside Trick, Juma20, and DotCom (not to be confused with Tracy Jordan’s bodyguard on 30 Rock)
The signature BF sound is credited to the producer and CEO of Bongo Records, P-Funk, who decided years ago that the instrumentals alone should be able to “sing on their own.” He laced the beats with heavy keyboards, synth, and traditional Swahili singing with some English phrases thrown in. P-Funk has won several awards and produced more BF artists than anyone else, including the wicked popular Juma Nature. Below is an interview with P-Funk, explaining his approach to BF.
BF has been spreading outside of Tanzania into bordering Kenya and Zambia and beyond the African continent. I’ve been listening to Bongo Radio on iTunes this whole time, which is based out of Chicago (the DJ keeps getting hyphy because next Sunday they’re going to have girls in the studio!). Even though I don’t understand anything being said (except when the DJ reminds me about next Sunday), I still want to shake that. That, riiiight there.