Bongo Flava is the name for the music that has been coming out of the streets of Dar es Salaam, and other Tanzanian towns and cities since the early 1990s. Bongo Flava is not exactly one style: it has a mix of rap, hip hop, and R&B for starters but these labels don’t do it justice. It’s rap, hip hop and R&B Tanzanian style: a big melting pot of tastes, history, culture and identity. You can often hear echoes of Taraab, arabic and other traditional african styles coming through in bongo flava’s rhythm and melodies.
Although Bongo Flava is a purely Tanzanian phenomenon, its use of Swahili and its strong roots in the East African reality means that the music translates across borders with a growing fan-base throughout the East African region.
Bongo Flava makes up its own rules and not all of its stars feel compelled to copy their brothers in America. Many have a clear sense of who they are and what sound it is they’re making Bongo Flava is about urban life– ‘bongo”s literal translation in swhaili is brain/intelligence, but it’s the street slang for Dar es Salaam. Most of the artists in this scene are from or based in Dar es Salaam — living, working and studying in the unofficial heart of the country. The ‘flava’ they create — is varied and cutting edge — and is unique to the city and its people.
It has its roots in the rap, R&B and hip hop coming from America but from the beginning these styles have been pulled apart and put back together with African hands. Bongo Flava mixes up a whole host of styles and influences from black American music — hip hop, rap, R&B, soul, swing – and black American culture — the clothes, attitude and street look. All of these ingredients are combined with what East Africans have played with for decades — music styles such as African jazz, salsa, zouk, taraab — and the reality that is contemporary East Africa.
Bongo Flava lyrics are sung in Swahili peppered with words and phrases in English and tackle subjects faced by the continent and the world over: poverty, ambition, success, money, HIV/AIDS, education and experiences we can all relate to such as love, jealousy, beauty and loneliness. The range of issues bongo flava covers is probably resonsible for its wide appeal across tanzania’s age groups. The liberalization of the media in Tanzania, post the Nyerere era, has created the opportunity for emerging Tanzanian artists to be heard across the country and the East African region via the radio and TV. With this of course comes competition within the music industry which is as fierce as it’s ever been.
On the plus side, the easy access to national and international media is pushing up the standard of Bongo Flava writing and production. Bongo Flava makes up its own rules and these guys don’t need to copy their brothers in America, but have a sure clear sense of who they are and what sound it is they’re making. The scene is small — everyone knows everyone — which means there’s a lot of collaboration and exchange of ideas and styles, making it an exciting and dynamic place to be. The following video features an interview with Tanzania’s most prominent Bongo Flava producer – Paul Matthysse aka Pfunk or Majani. Credited as one of the founders of the genre P.Funk speaks about the origins of bongo flava and what defines it as a genre.