Pop Playground
Bongoflava: The Primer

it took two specific anonymous songs to pique my interest in bongoflava (translation: "the flava from Dar-Es-Salaam"), and a couple of mp3s to have me totally hooked. Tanzania's fledgling hip-hop scene is taking flight, with the biggest stars of the genre now setting their sights on the northern hemisphere. Bongoflava's delicious mixture of Afrobeat and arabesque melodies, dancehall and hip hop beats, Kiswahili lyrics, and a low budget European production style has the potential for mass appeal, with plenty of contenders for crossover success.

Already incredibly popular in neighboring Kenya and Uganda, bongoflava is quickly sweeping the continent, causing buzz worldwide—particularly in Europe (where uber-authentic political rap has a devoted following). Pinning down the sound, especially one as young and vibrant as bongoflava's, is impossible: tracks run the gamut from almost pure Afrobeat to hardcore hip hop to lighthearted pop ballads. Typical tracks mine one of two major styles—up-tempo party tracks and more somber, forceful socially conscious songs, with plenty of variation within each. Limited technology and limited job opportunities left bongo artists with lots of time to explore the limits of East Africa's studios and polish their flows. The Kiswhaili language, itself a conglomerate of African dialects, Arabic, and English, is an essential part of the music.

Pardon the clumsy metaphor, but scouring the internet for bongoflava mp3s was like hacking through a dense jungle, with impasses of broken links, bad files, and Bantu languages at every corner. Many of the links to these files have long since decayed; some songs remain holy grails yet to be found in an easily downloadable form. I've included functional links when possible, but I tried not to let accessibility taint my recommendations. I claim no authority as to my selections: the Internet is a vast and vastly limited resource, and I don't know Kiswahili, so my search for music and information only take me so far. Look for the harder-to-find tracks on the Stypod and helpful links at the bottom of the page. Any readers with more information on bongoflava should email me without delay.

Finally, shouts out to Adam Peltz and Scott Hanson for their invaluable assistance in bongoflava excursions.

Park Lane – Kumama Sima (?)
After months of knowing neither the artist nor the actual track name (it was part of a blank mix CD given to a friend), my team of experts finally concluded this was Park Lane, a popular bongo group named after a street in Dar-Es-Salaam. The lyrics aren't Kiswahili (it's something else, maybe of Ugandan origin), but that's not exactly a problem. Bongo's arabesque influences come out strong in the instrumentation and melodies, but the framework is a particularly holy matrimony of dancehall structure and African production style, and once again, I prefer it to almost every Jamaican dancehall track I've heard.

Mr. II (AKA Sugu) feat. Justin Kalikawe – Haki
One of the first bongo tracks I downloaded was from the "Run-DMC" of Tanzania, Mr. II. Armed with a bevy of aliases, a booming voice, and at eight albums to his name, Sugu has set his sights for the big time, releasing his latest album internationally. This track from 2001 has him paired with late Tanzanian singer Justin Kalikawe for what may be the definitive bongoflava anthem (although Sugu's "Dar-Es-Salaam" is the more obvious choice). The song's secret weapon is having two contiguous hooks, each in a different key. "Haki" means something along the lines of "freedom" and "justice" in Kiswahili, and ranks chief among the desires of Tanzanians according to Sugu.

Dully Sykes (AKA Mr. Misifa) – Handsome (wma)
If the name wasn't enough of a giveaway, Dully Sykes favors a more dancehall informed take on the bongoflava style. And what a take: a dancefloor burner with beats, bass, and most importantly, Mr. Misifa himself. Dully practically cartwheels over the track with flows so perfectly executed that he must have born with this beat in his head. This is the song that will grab you even if all the other bongoflava leaves you cold.

Phat Family – Tucheze
When production values are low, technique has to make up for lagging technology. Bongoflava artists can't rely on expensive bass sounds or the latest bhangra samples. The standout tracks are the ones with well-written components, and "Tucheze" boasts perhaps the best bassline in bongoflava, a sneaky, playful rope-a-dope punctuated with hand claps, kicks, and string hits. Put this on your summer jam mixtape before it's too late.

Mr. II – Barua
The laidback tempo and professional-sounding trills and scratching makes this more immediately appealing to the uninitiated (Sugu's good at that), and I'm sure this has potential to blow up on the European continent. I particularly enjoy the line about "income taxi," and the hook is one of Sugu's best.

Gangwe Mobb – Bundasiliga
Another one of the stars of the bongo scene (where everyone seems to be simultaneously a huge star and weirdly anonymous). I was actually able to track down a cassette copy of Gangwe Mobb's album at an African bookstore in Chicago, but I had already downloaded "Bundasiliga," the best song on the tape. "Bundasiliga" means "slinger of bundles of hay" (I think), and the serious tone suggests it has a social message, but I have no idea what it is. Bonus: One of the rappers on this song sounds like Mystikal, which really needs to be heard to be believed.

Professor Jay – Yataka Moyo
Another popular and prolific artist, Professor Jay really hooked me with "Piga Makofi," an ebullient slice of niceness. "Yataka Moyo" is darker and more serious (but still sounds like it was recorded in a cardboard box and dubbed to tape a few dozen times). The main attraction is the beat's sinister "Knight Rider" keyboard line.

Ubalozi – Kwenye Chati (mp3)
So if G-Unit recorded a bongo track, it would sound like this: some Dre-like ghetto-gothic symphonics, lots of vaguely threatening aggression. Bonus: you don't have to listen to any of the G-Unit rappers' faux-gangsta drawl.

X-Plastaz – Bamiza (Video Version) (ram)
The X-Plastaz are the most successful group out of Tanzania, probably because they have the best gimmick: they're Masai. They even have a traditional Masai singer who dresses in the get-up, spear and all! The X-Plastaz international debut was a bit of a letdown—too much reliance on flat European beats, a lack of inspired song-writing—but the biggest disappointment was the re-recorded version of "Bamiza." The raw, '94 gangsta sound was replaced by delicate strings; the barely controlled aggression of the raps melted into a whisper (pre-Ying-Yang, y'all). Make no mistake, the video version (recorded during a live performance) is the way it should be. This is what I wanted from Dizzee Rascal videos: raw, thugged-out footage from under a bridge.

Noorah – Vijimambo
"Vijimambo" means "rumors" (I think), and the song creeps and slinks along like a juicy piece of gossip, out of the mouths of assorted passersby apparently conscripted to shout the song's title. However, I fear I'll never hear this song again, as it was only available on the africanhiphop.com webcast, which has since been revamped to include more than just Senegalese and Tanzanian hip hop (to its detriment, in my opinion). Soon I won't even remember how it sounds; only the memories of the enjoyment it gave me will remain. A testament to the transient, elusive nature of the quest for bongoflava.

QChief – Aseme
I have trouble placing this bizarre song, and I have no information about QChief, but Timbaland's exosphere-R&B; always comes to mind. A lot of Arabic influence on the vocals, but those huge reversed snares? That's the kind of serendipitous experimentation that makes such cultural tourism so rewarding.

Dully Sykes – Ladies Free
Yes, Dully can follow up "Handsome," and while this song isn't as transcendentally resplendent as the other, Dully proves that he's perhaps the best MC in Dar. I think he just needs better management.

Mkoloni – Baby Baby
Perhaps one for the "WTF Files," this track defies explanation or explication. It sounds like a drunk old man slurring come-ons at a virginal girl, but then cut up and put back together again, a la ODB's Nigga Please. Mkoloni's quite a charmer, obvious inebriation aside, but not quite for the song's entire six-minute duration. Perhaps it's better that way.


I downloaded a large part of my bongo mp3s from this site (the "muziki" section), but few of the links still work. Supposedly a revamped site is coming soon.

Kwetu Entertainment
A major Bongoflava label, home of Sugu and Ubalozi. Lots of mp3 samples here.

The semi-official bongoflava page is pretty inadequate, but they have music videos that are a lot of fun (and occasionally updated).

African Hip-Hop
Not exclusively bongoflava, although there's plenty of bongo info here (in English!). Funded by Dutch NGOs (which have been essential to supporting bongoflava), this site boasts a webcast, although it features a lot of African rap not particularly to my taste (I'm not big on a lot of Francophone stuff).

By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2005-05-12
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