Any country with as rich and diverse a mix of cultures as Tanzania’s is bound to have some unique styles of music. But recently, this blended cultural landscape has produced a style of music the whole country can claim as its own: bongo flava.
Bongo flava started as a Tanzanian take on American hip-hop and R&B; one of the earliest hits in the genre came in 1991 from Saleh Jaber (a.k.a. Saleh J), who rapped in Swahili over the instrumental track from Vanilla Ice’s hit “Ice Ice Baby” (which borrowed its instrumental from Queen’s hit “Under Pressure,” meaning the rapper couldn’t have chosen a more apt track: the real roots of the song are Zanzibari). Though previous Tanzanian artists had rapped, Jabir was the first to do so in Swahili, and his innovation started a movement. At the time (in the mid-90s), Jabir’s song was so popular it was even played on the conservative National Radio Tanzania, a notable feat for a rap song at the time.
While the style’s American roots are still evident, artists began to draw from traditional Tanzanian musical styles (like dansi and taarab) as well as from afrobeat, reggae, and dancehall styles, almost immediately.
Today, bongo flava is the most popular style of music among young people in Tanzania, and has spread beyond the country’s borders, gaining similar popularity in Kenya and Uganda.
Many of the songs are more than just catchy; the lyrics explore serious political and social issues, like corruption, poverty, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This explicit focus on education is also reflected in the genre’s name: “bongo” derives from the Swahili word for brain, “ubongo.” Rappers in the style celebrate street smarts and cunning, but rarely glorify excess for its own sake.
While the genre has developed its own set of rules, one of the most exciting elements of bongo flava is its adaptability to Tanzania’s many different cultures. Groups like the Maasai X Plastaz adapt the bongo flava sound with their own traditional musical influences, such as Maasai deep chanting.
Best of all, you don’t have to go to Tanzania to hear the infectious rhythms of bongo flava; not only are there multiple internet radio stations for the genre, one of the biggest is now based out of Chicago!