By Lucy Ilado
African culture made a central appearance at the 2019 edition of Ongala Music Festival at Tasuba College of Arts in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, from 23 to 25 August.
The majority of today's East African musicians have been struggling to pick up from where the pioneers left off. Nonetheless, this year's line-up showed it was proficient in genre archetypes like funk, blues, jazz and reggae, as well as protest and electronic music, while preserving cultural traditions often sacrificed for the sake of Western trends.
With so many bands on the bill, it was easy to saturate the senses. Yet a number of artists managed to captivate the audience with their uniqueness. One such example was Tanzanian musician, activist and visual artist Vitali Maembe, whose music embodies a revolutionary rebel spirit similar to that of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, thriving on socio-political commentary and the promotion of human rights.
But the connection between both artists is not narrowed by music alone. For instance, the Tanzanian authorities have succeeded in stifling Maembe’s presence at big music platforms. He is known to perform for small groups in villages; even then the authorities dictate the contents of his setlists. This was not the case at Ongala Music Festival, but just like Fela, Maembe has been physically assaulted, arrested and unlawfully detained. “Artists should be known for more than their music," he said prior to his Ongala Fest performance. "Many musicians are afraid because no government can tolerate critics."
Maembe proved to be more than just a musical artist, but also an adept stage performer. His performance was accompanied by live percussion, dancing, and acrobatics. The audience – including four young boys between the ages of six and 10 – had gathered in front of the stage, yelling his name and chanting their favourite song titles, their hands stretched towards the musician.
Tipped as one of the groups to watch at the 2019 edition of Sauti za Busara, Wamwiduka Band exceeded expectations and left fans jumping with their intensive songs from Mbeya Region. The band has assumed a leadership role among its peers in Tanzania. If there's an increase in traditional bands making babaton music anytime soon, it would be because Wamwiduka has led the charge. This band is more than ready to hit the global stage and it's just a matter of time before it does so.
The young festivalgoers also got to see some of their favourites, among them Ze Spirits Band, whose six members have put a new spin on musical traditions like Zaramo, Makonde and Sukuma. The band was at Ongala Fest for a second time, playing to a moderate crowd of youngsters swarming the stage and dancing to each energetic composition.
Another highlight was Swahili Blues Explosion, one of the most experienced bands at the festival. Led by lead singer and guitarist Leo Mkanyia, the group bridges the gap between traditional Tanzanian music, Congolese soukous and the blues, resulting in an infectious, rhythm-laden performance.
Arguably the best international performer at the festival, Ambasa Mandela from Kenya drew a massive crowd by combining heavy percussion, exclamatory vocals and a philosophy on freedom, which had the audience transfixed throughout the performance.
Proving that the Congolese rumba scene is very much alive and kicking, veteran musicians King Kiki and Papi Kocha individually performed nostalgically mellow music, transporting the older members of the audience to a mystical place.
However, Ongala Music Festival 2019 was outrageously light on female musicians, with only two female-fronted groups present out of 15 bands and troupes. At any rate, Apio Moro served the audience her vocal prowess along with a combination of musical styles from her home country Uganda. Similarly, Tanzania’s Pendo Zawose brought boundless energy onstage, delivering a captivating set. Being the only female multi-instrumentalist at the festival, Zawose alternated between the marimba, thumb piano and the gogo traditional drums played by women, the muhema. Towards the end of her set, Zawose was joined onstage by Wamwiduka Band, the collaboration adding intergenerational touch to the performance. The organisers describe Zawose as a "powerful female musician who hits notes that will touch your soul.”
At the start of the festival, festival director Aziza Ongala was quick to inform the audience that it would witness some of the most exceptional contemporary, socially conscious and traditional artists Tanzania had to offer. In the end, she was right. - Music in Africa.