One of the most brilliantly orchestrated introductions of a musical act in Tanzania saw four boys in their early twenties begin as band with no name. For the purposes of their first single they operated under Mkubwa na Wanawe, meaning the elder and his sons, which was simply the name of their record label. The song opens in one Dar’s working neighborhoods, with shots of amplifiers and instruments amid the dust and heat of the everyday, in a world far from the air conditioned palaces popular in pop videos.
The four boys are led by Aslay, the only one with any recognition in the local industry at that point. He takes the lead as the song begins–a vocal focused, instrumental heavy ditty about impractical love called Ya Moto. With a band this young, its hard not to expect some statement, a reach for some kind of novelty. But rhythm remains easy throughout, with the vocals harmonious and melody infectious. It seemed that for this band success was no more or less than having a good tune and what set them apart, then, and later, through a three year run that included such hits as Nitajuta and Niseme, was their general assurance of having one— how accurately the easy confidence they had in their own music was reflected by the listener. Their assurance was almost self fufilling, and casually, as the song hit, they named themselves after it and became, for a short while, Ya Moto band.
For their leader especially the band was seen as some form of vindication. Aslay had been in the music industry since his early teens without fully breaking out. He began as one of Chege’s recruits for TMK and first came to prominence with a memorable verse on the hit Kichwa Kinauma. Then had moderate success alongside his hero Banana Zorro a few years later with Nunda. The expectation, as with many child stars, was that his career would go one two ways; either fizzling, or riding a wave of one or two hits before fading into obscurity. As a long serving apprentice in the industry it seemed likely that his insider lessons could only serve him well for a short time or not at all and that he had lacked, or missed out on, some of the more informal growing experiences lasting artists are made of. But Asley proved ahead of the curve and sought to prove himself not with a radical new persona or with a sleek and modern single but by defining and refining his own sound.
Born Aslay Isihaka in Dar and introduced to label boss Said Fella in his pre teens by his brother, Asley, a mere 23, is now undergoing his third and maybe final iteration under the public eye. Ya Moto peaked with an expensive South African shot video for Cheza Kimadoido in 2015 which featured house party, a mansion and had Aslay beside a Lamborghini in a leather jacket. The video, like a more recent one featuring nationally known but still internationally obscure Rich Mavoko frowning around Shoreditch alongside Patoranking, seemed to be his entry onto the rarefied Continental stage. Some of usual steps to follow would be to either to join a management group and seek foreign collaborations. At the very least it would expected that Aslay should remain tied to the image set forth in that video and limit himself a few risky, high cost videos that would guarantee him aiplay abroad. The model here would be perhaps Barakah Da Prince, whose smash hit Siachani Nawe saw him join a South African management team and bank everything on the expensive single alongside Ali Kiba; or Navy Kenzo, who following the success of Game, shut down an entire Joberg street for their next single Feel Good. Having brought Ya Moto as far as they could come a statement was expected, some notice on an intended transition in wider stardom. But it never came. There was no heavily trailed flagship single. Instead Aslay looked inward and drawing on influences of classic Bongo artists such as Banana Zorro landed on an approach that has seen him release his solo music almost without an agenda, with each new song seeming like a step towards larger refinement, rather than just bigger exposure.
In an industry of big splashes Aslay has thrived on ripples, habitually allowing his own songs to overlap and releasing the next before another is finished trending. His approach is almost album like, relying less on any signature single than in giving people enough material to trust his sound. And the numbers alone speak volumes.
Of the videos Aslay released in the last six months none has yet adhered to the glossiness required for regular airplay on the large continental music stations. Neither do they have a big name collaborator from abroad. Yet those songs, namely, Natamba, Muhudumu, Baby, Pusha, Usitiee Doa, Natamba, Angekuona have amassed over 16 million views on Youtube and enjoy almost constant airplay national radio. While in comparison, the big bets of those adhering to flagship singles languish. Barakah Da Prince’s Sony Music backed Meji Alabi directed Nisamehe released over a year ago has stalled with just over a million views with almost nothing released in the meantime. While in the same period Navy Kenzo’s Joburg shot Feel Good, Israel shot Morning and Patoranking featuring Bajaj have managed a view count of merely 3 million. Diamond, inarguably the biggest name in Bongo flava and who started the flagship trend with his South Africa shot “number one” in 2012 has 12 million total for Hallelujah and Eneka his only lead singles in the same period. Both of which were shot at great expense abroad.
It would be disservice to Aslay to say that he makes music for the people. To paint him as someone who is exploiting a need for more grounded music in the manner of those doing Singeli. His classical style and easy consistency could easily see his larger ambitions questioned. But this would be to misunderstand his approach and overlook the inefficiency of expending large amounts of energy, time and money on the latest song at a moment when the definition of new is growing more and more limited. More than any other artist Aslay seems ot know that the risk of being silent for too long outweighs the benefit of making a grand statement, however successful the statement might be. And has, with his considered, efficient approach to music making come to reveal a more sustainable way of thriving in all or nothing east african music landscape that is sure to serve artists well going forward.
Aslay’s mother passed in 2015. And the pick of all the songs released this year is the bittersweet Angekuona, if she saw you, whose premise sees him celebrating a new love while lamenting that his mother was no longer around to bear witness.