Straight from Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), here's JAGWA MUSIC: a crew of 8 youngsters playing intricate grooves at breakneck speed on traditional & makeshift percussion, a keyboard player going wild on a battered vintage Casio, and three relentless front persons: two breathtaking, spectacular dancers & a charismatic lead vocalist/MC, belting out songs about survival in the urban maze, unfaithful lovers & voodoo.
Known as Mchiriku, their music derives from popular dance styles, which underwent a mutation when the band adopted low-cost electronic keyboards and their gritty, distorsion-laden sound. JAGWA MUSIC are not only immensely popular in the poor suburbs of their hometown: their electrifying appearances at European festivals such as Roskilde have created a sensation.
Some call this "Afro-punk", because of the DIY attitude and the creative use of noise. Some refer to minimal or trance music, to the sexual energy of kuduro & mapouka... Let's simply welcome the advent of one of the most exciting bands around.
Strange as it may seem when you're looking at the current band members' youthful looks,
(the line-up of musicians has gradually renewed itself over the years...) JAGWA MUSIC was
founded around twenty years ago. They are the leading exponent of the Mchiriku style of
playing which developed in the poor suburbs of Dar es Salaam, when cheap Casio keyboards
became available and drew the attention of bands playing Chakacha dance music. What
happened next is reminiscent of other, by now familiar stories (like that of Konono No.1):
Jagwa Music & their peers were immediately attracted by the Casio's lo-fi sound, adopted
it, rechristened it kinanda ("a box that plays music"), and hooked it to vintage amps &
megaphones. This new gritty, edgy, distortion-laden sound became known as Mchiriku.
Although it's been deliberately ignored by the Tanzanian media, as it is associated with uhuni (thuggery) & the city's low life, it has been thriving ever since.
JAGWA MUSIC have a large following around Dar es Salaam: almost everybody knows their
songs, which relate to everyday issues. Many of their lines have become proverbial: you can
see quotes from their songs painted as slogans to the sides or backs of the local dala dala bus taxis. The songs often contain advice on how to survive in the city, when you're
faced with unemployment, oppressive relatives, unfaithful girlfriends or husbands, AIDS,
drugs & alcohol.
Jagwa's members are all living the street life themselves, mostly working in Dar es
Salaam's cut-throat private bus-taxi business as dei-waka (unlicensed drivers who jump in
when another driver is caught by police or does not make it to work). Others are manamba,
who, for a few shillings in return, hustle customers into dala dala buses. By mid-day they will
have made enough money to keep them going until the next morning, paying for food and
other enjoyments they may like. In the afternoon they all meet at their maskani (hangout)
under a tree in Mwananyamala close to their patron Jolijo's little restaurant & home. When
they need to rehearse new songs, they convene in Jolijo's backyard to get it all down. Friday,
they stop hustling for the week & their performing weekend usually starts. They relax all
day and play all-night mchiriku gigs at family celebrations such as weddings around Dar's
suburbs or smaller towns in the vicinity.
The name "Jagwa" has roots in terminology that originated during the first Gulf War.
In response to a rival band who had named itself in honor of the Scud missile, the group
chose to fight back with an hommage to a French fighter plane, the Jaguar. And as for
the title of the album: "Bongo" is the nickname for Dar es Salaam. It comes from a
proverbial expression in Swahili: "kuchemsha bongo", literally "to make the brain boil"
(i.e. "Hothead"), meaning "to think hard", because in Dar, you need to use your brains to
The band's line-up features two kinanda (Casio) players, Daliki and Diploma, a 4-men
percussion section led by master drummer Mazinge (also nicknamed "Kompyuta" for
his ability), playing incredibly precise, shifting, orchestrated and exciting polyrhythms,
spectacular dancer Catherine Msafiri and electrifying vocalist Jackie Kazimoto.
"Bongo Hotheads" was recorded live in front of a crowd of family, kids & curious
neighbours at what has come to be called Kuti Kavu Studio (but most still know it as Jolijo's
backyard). The album was engineered & produced by Werner Graebner, who has been
involved with the Tanzanian music scene since the early 80s. He arrived as an academic
researcher on dance band music and later moved on to film, record albums and arrange
international tours, working with bands such as Culture Musical Club, Bi Kidude, Zuhura
Swaleh & Mlimani Park Orchestra. Currently, he produces the
Zanzibara Series for Buda Musique.
As for the mix of "Bongo Hotheads", it was naturally entrusted to Crammed mainstay
Vincent Kenis, whose A&R and production work with the likes of Konono No.1, Staff Benda
Bilili and the entire Congotronics series has been acclaimed the world over.
More about Jagwa's instruments, structures and Casio sounds
The master drummer plays the misondo (customarily, two mid-sized hand drums and a deep
bass drum, all made from various lengths of plastic pipes). The other percussionists play
the dumbaki (two small carved hand drums and an array of differently pitched drums played
with sticks), the vijiti (a wooden stool beaten with two small sticks), the rika (tambourine)
and chekeche (maracas).
Mazinge, the percussion leader, holds down the fast rhythm on the smaller misondo, while
punctuating the vocal message with the bass msondo. This bass sound also guides & incites
the dancers in the faster, second section of songs. Of late, he has added two more bass
drums to his assemblage, creating a more complex counterpoint to the vocal lines and
adding more depth. The dumbaki lock into the basic rhythm with higher pitched sounds,
and the players later add further layers of sound and excitement to the the fast section
of the song with the three tuned, stick-beaten drums. Together with the "stool/stick" and
the "tambourine/bicycle bell" combinations, the whole percussion section does not just keep
rhythm & time (horizontal organization) but also create shifting patterns of sound and a
layering of pitch levels which is generally typical of African music-making.
As the only melodic/harmonic instrument, the kinanda/Casio usually plays different fixed
patterns throughout the song which change drastically for the faster dance sections (called
Mtapa). It generates a lot of exciting dynamics; by morphing patterns in relation to the
shifting percussion, and through the distortion & feedback sounds generated by both the
playing technique & the amplification system. As such, the kinanda is akin to the nzumari (a
double-reed oboe-type instrument) used in old-time ngoma music, which fulfilled a similar
role by signalling changes of pace and pattern between the different sections of a piece.
The kinanda brings an additional flavor with the effects generated by a natural 'voltage
drop', when the internal batteries run down during the band's all-night performances in their
home town. It appears that some of the 'natural' sound effects of Mchiriku are actually well
in vogue with so-called 'circuit-bending' technician/artists around the globe… Judging from
the prizes paid on ebay for some particular models of these vintage keyboards, they are in
If you want to set up your own Mchiriku band, remember this: only two of the old models
are suitable, as Casio changed the sound on subsequent editions. As for the rest: you need
to be in touch with a local plumber for the plastic pipes to build some of the bigger drums
(have some goats on standby for skins), a solid old stool (with some good sounding sticks to
beat it) & a rusty bicycle bell. Last but not least, don't forget an old Japanese Toya amp & a