The Story of Frolicking at the University of Dar es Salaam

Prof. Meki Nzewi from the University of Pretoria  Delivers Keynote Lecture on African Music at the University of Dar es Salaam

PHOTO CORRECTION: Prof. Meki Nzewi from the University of Pretoria Delivers Keynote Lecture on African Music at the University of Dar es Salaam (Photo Credit:  Goethe-Institut Tanzania)


By Jaston Binala


The month of July, 2014, may have been different things to different people, but  I can assure you with all certainty it was  a month of frolicking at the University of Dar es Salaam here in Tanzania!  A month of laughter, cheers and frolic.

Unfortunately, however, the bliss lasted for only two days as one wished it went on for ever. The Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Dar es Salaam held their annual International Ethnomusicology Symposium July 17th to July 18th. This is an annual event started eight years ago, where music professors from across the globe came to discuss their research findings on African music and sometimes music from elsewhere.

They do get technical at these events, some times, as they discuss music ‘rests, measures and clefs, accidentals, and African blue notes’. The good side being that we don’t all go there for the jargons. They occasionally stray into actual music and the conference hall turns into one hot dance theatre.

This year a Tanzanian Choral Group performed Zulu Music from South Africa without one linguistic mistake. A music band from Malawi performed Kwela music popular in the southern Africa region in the 1950s and 1960s–the music especially made popular by the South African flute player Spokes Mashiane. The Fine and Performing Arts conference hall exploded with claps, cheer and laughter as the guitarist and flute player took the stage.

For the past seven years the Symposium has created space for both well-known and emerging scholars in the fields of Ethnomusicology, Music of Africa and the Diaspora and Music Education to come together and share and exchange their scholarly work and often their music traditions.

Through keynote addresses, paper presentations and music performances, the Symposium has cultivated the culture of an intellectual and artistic dialogue, organizers say. The July 2014 Symposium included research papers and music performances by Tanzania scholars and musicians, as well as scholars and musicians from other parts of Africa and the world. Countries represented included the host Tanzania, and our sister nations of Kenya and Malawi.Others included South Africa, Nigeria, Germany, the United States, Norway, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and Spain.

There was a lot to learn from each other. Prof. Meki Nzewi from the University of Pretoria presented the Keynote Lecture after the official opening by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam. Other prominent presenters included Prof. Gerhard Kubik and the Donald Kachamba Kwela Heritage Band from Malawi, and Prof. Polo Vallejo from Spain.

A young man from The Gambia, Ebrima Mbye, an expert player of the Kora, a west African xylophone, shared a little story about the history of this west African instrument and played the haunting sound to everybody’s delight. The young man later told this reporter he is currently stationed in Zanzibar to teach others how to play the west African xylophone. Another interesting presentation came from a white music researcher studying the African xylophone music in Zimbabwe which she described as ‘Matepe Music’.

The Kiswahili name for the African xylophone used in the eastern, central and southern Africa is ‘Malimba’ or ‘Ilimba’. The Zimbabwean Researcher, Jocelyn Moon, shared with the symposium an agony cited many times that some of the best African music from this instrument will never be known because no music notes for the songs exist.

Fortunately, however, somebody wrote the music notes for some ‘matepe music’ in 1970. She and Zack Moon, a colleague who came with her, played the recorded ‘malimba’ music from Zimbabwe to partly explain that it is possible to write music notations for African ‘malimba’ music.

And yes, African ‘malimba’ music is now being written and taught, a symposium attendant from Kenya, Saidi Mwahui Mmasai affirmed. The Japanese have especially shown a lot of interest in African music. They have come to Kenya and Tanzania to learn how to play traditional African instruments then they return back to Japan to perform there as there is great interest in traditional African music, Mmasai said.

A Japanese who has nick-named himself Mango Mbira spent months in Dodoma, Tanzania to learn how to play the Malimba. After getting the gist he left for Japan where he is now a star playing ‘malimba’. And he is not alone. A young woman from Japan who has nicknamed herself Anyango Nyarsia went to Kisumu, Kenya, to learn how to play drums and the xylophone there. She has returned to Japan to perform and she is making good money.

Another Japanese named Katsutosh Mavimanji also came to Kenya to study drums. He is also performing in Japan. “The funny side to this story is that our young men here in East Africa do not see the opportunity in African music,” Mmasai lamented. “They don’t want to learn to play traditional instruments. They want the keyboard, and the guitar, and the saxophone. They say ‘kupiga ngoma ni ushamba’!(playing drums is backwardness), but a good number of foreigners are coming to take the skills they say there is a market for it.”

Mmasai said it is now possible to write music notations for both African drums as well as the bamboo flute–which will make it possible to preserve the music styles; but young people must now take the initiative to start learning how to play the instruments. “If you look at me you will find out I am growing older each passing day. When I die, I will die with these skills on our traditional instruments. Young people should now start learning how to play our traditional instruments,” he said.

Mmasai is based in the coast region of Kenya, where he teaches music students how to play the malimba, the African bamboo flute and drums.

In the past the workshops were organized by Prof. Mitchel Strumpf, the American music professor who has worked at the University of Dar es Salaam for years. The workshop this year was organized jointly with Dr. Kedmon Mapana who takes over the duty to organize the workshops from this year onwards. Professor Strumpf is preparing to return back to his homeland after a distinguished service to Tanzania, and to music lovers here in East Africa.

The music Professor Meki Nzewi from South Africa  discussed  African creativity through music during his key-note lecture July 17: “Africa, as a continental human integrity was creating, advancing and sharing sedate humanity framed mental and material civilization. At the sub-structural level, all Africa shared common systematic knowledge frameworks while ecological and language factors informed peculiarities of super structural cultural manifestations. Hence we discuss African musical arts and science,” he said.

Prof. Nzewi added: “Linear cycle/circle theory marks African sober creative worldview and developmental ideology of life, which in the musical arts and science logic generates mind wellness, thereby basic psycho-physiological health. “Historically, the musical arts was designed as a scientific divine force that monitored, critiqued and managed balanced societal systems”, he said.

Ethiopian Music Professor, Ezra Abate

A presenter from Ethiopia, Prof. Ezra Abate, played a video from Ethiopia in which the musician Teddy Afro tells the story of a Christian young man who has fallen in love with a Muslim girl. The young man sings his way into the girl’s heart with the promise she would be given freedom to worship at the mosque if she’d say yes to his proposal. The girl accepts the Christian young man. I give you two bonus songs along with Teddy Afro’s inter-religion love song which is followed by a song of elation when he gets the girl of his dreams. One of the bonus songs is a taarab song from Zanzibar I really like. It is preceded by a captivating jazz beat from South Africa’s jazz music maestro Hugh Masekela. Please enjoy Teddy Afro’s song Shem-endefer and the artist’s second song written for his girlfriend. The symposium is held every year sometime after June. Entry has been free in the past.

( APOLOGY AND CORRECTION:  For ten days beginning August 10,2014, this  website mistakenly used  Professor Meki Nzewi’s name on another music professor’s photograph . The correct photograph has been published. The website regrets this error )