Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bongo Flavor, Bongo Flavorless

A recent debate about the quality of Bongo Flava got me thinking about the 'then' and 'now' of this art form. Okay, I confess- I am actually listening to Magic FM's Flava 'hour' and they have been airing an excellent then-and-now playlist today. When Flava was hitting hard in the early naughties, there were some artists and songs that set the basic standards and sounds of Tanzanian Hip Hop: Mwanafalasafa, Professor Jay, Wagosi wa Kaya and even TID with 'Zeze.' In the early days, no one was talking about having money, fame or women because the art form was being practiced by young Bongolanders who had none of the above. They had to make themselves known by the tightness of their rhymes, their delivery, their subjects and lastly their music. Because the truth is that almost none of our Flava artists can play an instrument or produce a track to save their lives.

Still, things were good. Local producer Ludigo and Clouds FM did a lot to incubate the nascent Flava and give young talent a chance at the mike. Wagosi wa Kaya nailed the public service complaint as a form of rap with 'Wauguzi' and other similar tracks. Ndio Mzee continues to be the standard chant of political satire- no one has done better to date. Crazy GK's delivery gives life to the saying 'ulimi hauna mfupa.' Mikasi, Mirungi, Blanti is still one of the best urban anthems about drugs, sex and youth. Mangwea, Mr. Blue...the list goes on. People were hungry, creative and the field was wide open. But the very best of Bongo Flava in my humble opinion has always been the social commentary and political commentary tracks. Those are where Kiswahili shines as a language of praise and censure, of humor and rhyme, of subtlety and depth, of intelligent protest.

It is undeniable, and perhaps even inexcusable, that in recent times Bongo Flava has been dominated by lazy commercial tracks of the American Derivative variety. Yes, the kind that utterly unimaginative youth the world over keep spewing in copious amounts, complete with tiny muscles shown off in limp singlets and Daddy's borrowed car standing in for the blinging ride. Thanks to payola and a whole slew of other music industry problems it can be difficult for the quality to rise to the top where all the shit floats. Is Bongo Flava dying, or even worse, being overshadowed by Kenyan Pop? Not even close, in spite of the best efforts of these talentless hordes.

One piece of good news is that Nakaya Sumari of 'Mr. Politician' fame has signed a contract with Sony, I guess to record and distrubute her work. She'll put us on the map even if she's not necessarily the most Bongo Flavorful of artists. But I understand that she has the voice, the look**, the polish and the command of English that are necessary for a certain kind of international marketability (the kind where you don't end up in the World Music discount bin of Virgin Music Stores). Other songstresses who write their own material and produce locally-inspired sounds (Jay Dee, Ray C, Saida Karoli) don't sell too good outside of the region. Except in Japan. I want to go to Japan. There are so, so many reasons to love Japan...

Aside from Nakaya's windfall, Political Hardcore Bongo Flava continues to deliver as do some of the humor tracks. TMK Wanaume are keeping the form alive and local, and works from the other urbanities- especially Mwanza aka Rock City- remind us Zenj-inspired Bongolanders that there is something going on in Tanganyika. So yeah, like any urban grassroots artform Bongo Flava's golden era came in its early days- right after Hip Hop landed at Nyerere International Airport and bought a Swahili dictionary. Bongo Flava is the love child of that union, going through a rocky puberty.

Eh? What's that you are asking? Where are the female Flavans? Let me get back to you on that...

**So, I don't mind so much about the polish, command of english and such like criteria. But the look? Its like with the Mwishos, the Nakayas and Richards, Paradise is trying to promote a certain svelte caramel-colored hip-young international image for Bongo. It is subtle, but coupled with the protests over Richa Adhia's Miss Tanzaniahood, I sense our melanin politics are doing interesting things to our entertainment industry. So props to Tigo for tapping into our diversity in their ad campaign. Express yourself, indeed.

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