Tanzanian Group Jagwa Music Set for U.S. Tour This Year

With the force of their fighter-jet namesake, the Tanzanian seven-piece Jagwa Music tears the roof off a genre championed in Dar es Salaam's rougher, poorer neighborhoods. The sound springs from the collision of traditional tuned drums and makeshift percussion with lo-fi Casio keyboards dubbed kinanda, or "musical boxes," wired guerilla-style through megaphones, powered by car batteries. Add raw swagger and topical lyrics delivered at breakneck speed, and you have mchiriku.

"What is special about our music is that it's a mix of the traditional drumming styles and the small keys," explains Jagwa leader singer Jackie Kazimoto. "This creates a blend that makes it unique. And the energy! The lead drummer who plays the bass drums makes the energy. During mchiriku performances people ignore their troubles and have fun. There is lots of energy in the air, and the lead drummer drives it."

This driving energy has taken the group to global venues like Australia's Womad, Lisbon's Music Box, and Malaysia's Rain Forest World Music Festival. It's bringing them to the U.S. for the first time this autumn for a tour as part of Center Stage (www.CenterStageUS.org), the ambitious cultural exchange program initiated by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts. Center Stage will bring five contemporary music and theater ensembles from Algeria and Tanzania to tour in the U.S. between July and November 2016.

Jagwa Music got its start in the early 1990s, when young, down-at-the-heels Dar es Salaam musicians realized they could make cheap little Casio keyboards roar. They became one of the go-to crews for party entertainment in their communities.

The music is about more than sweaty dance floors, however. "Mchiriku has become a major alternative means of expression for young people from less privileged backgrounds," explains cultural anthropologist Werner Graebner, who has spent years writing about Dar es Salaam's music scene and working with Jagwa Music . "It's hand-made techno, with musicians repurposing everything from plastic pipes to harbor buoys to make instruments."

Jagwa's drummers tune their drums over bonfires of cardboard boxes; (they'll use a heat gun on tour). Keyboards are cranked to the highest, most distorted volume setting then blasted through impromptu PAs wired to roofs, rigged from old megaphones. DIY percussion--bicycle bells, rika (tambourine), and chekeche(maracas)--layer patterns and sounds to the high-energy frenzy.

The idioms Jagwa Music plays with are pure Dar es Salaam. The city's mix of cultures is distinct: local ethnic groups with well-developed music and dance traditions have long traded licks with Islamic traders plying the Indian Ocean. The city is coastal-town syncretic, the birthplace of high-voltage mash ups of all kinds. Mchiriku, like other wildly original street styles from around Africa, takes only limited cues from global pop or hip hop, owing more to East Africa's coastal traditions like taarab, which bears the imprint of Arabic music, and chakachadance music, using rhythms from the Zaramo people's traditions, an ethnic group that has long lived in the Dar es Salaam region.

Like their instruments, Jagwa Music's intense performances are improvised. The keys create a wavering, deliciously distorted backdrop for the pounding, interweaving drums. "The Casio plays the role of the nzumari, a traditional double-reed instrument that's used in old-time ngoma," Graebner notes, referring to traditional dance-song-drum musics that are integral to all kinds of gatherings. "It signals the segues from one song to the other or a change of pace and pattern." The drums do the rest: drive the beat, dialog with the lead singer, and laying down the low end, while percussionists beat sticks against an old stool, clang a repurposed bike bell, or shake a tambourine.

Jagwa Music captures the conversations and stories, the beefs, and romances of its Dar es Salaam community. Many of their lines have become proverbial, and you can see quotes from their songs painted as slogans to the sides or backs of the local dala dala bus taxis. "What we sing about is our daily lives," says Kazimoto, whose spit-fire delivery conveys the intensity and unpredictability of the daily hustle and grind. "Things like losing your job or about losing someone you love. We tell stories about what we experience. We boast. A lot of these things are what people feel anywhere in the world. There are troublemakers, people who drink or gossip a lot, and cause disasters. There are real loves that last a long time and make things better."

These perspectives from the outskirts are purposely ignored by Dar es Salaam's media. You'll never hear them on commercial radio. They haven't always sat well with local authorities, either, who have repeatedly banned the music for its association with hard partying and criminality. "Even today, a lot of musicians in mchiriku bands come from the ranks of the underemployed, people who survive day to day with odd jobs and some kind of hustling," notes Graebner. "They are often overlooked or ignored as undesirable or unsavory by cultural gatekeepers."

The music booms and buzzes on, however, thanks to cassettes and private parties. Groups like Jagwa Music who have broken out of the local scene and caught international ears. "We are looking forward to meeting Americans and seeing what they are like," says Kazimoto. "We can't wait to play for them."

Center Stage (www.centerstageUS.org) invites performing artists from select countries overseas to the United States to perform and conduct engagement activities.

Now in its third edition, five acclaimed contemporary music and theater ensembles from Algeria and Tanzania will travel to the U.S. between July and November, 2016; two bands from Pakistan will tour in the spring of 2017. Each group undertakes independent, month-long tours around the country to perform, interact, begin meaningful dialogues with Americans, and share these experiences with friends and fans at home. Center Stage artists perform and engage with audiences onstage and online providing positive and popular avenues of engagement to build mutual understanding through shared culture and values.

Each tour includes a range of community engagement activities, such as performances, workshops, discussions, artist-to-artist exchanges, and community gatherings. To date, 17 ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and Vietnam have toured the United States, focusing on interactive engagements in diverse cities and towns across the country.

Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Center Stage Pakistan is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.




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