In the blazing speakers of auto-rickshaws throughout Dar-es-salaam you are likely to find the racing heartbeat of the city. In a short time these three wheelers have become minor kingmakers of Bongo Flava—the name given to the Tanzania’s expansive pop scene. The low slung, hooded car motorbike hybrids are everywhere and open on both sides so being favored by them guarantees airplay in every corner of the city. A tuk-tuk driver’s favorite song is more than likely going to be a hit song. And at the current moment the song of choice is not so much a song but a genre by the name of Singeli.
Furious, chaotic and visceral in ways Bongo Flava and it’s participant artists could never dare be it’s hard to look at Singeli as anything other than a backlash against Tanzania’s pop success—anda timely jolt to its perceived its wisdom.
While the likes of Diamond, Ali Kiba and Vanessa Mdee are busy going global with glossy videos in foreign locations the scene at home is shifting towards something messier, more passionate; where Bongo Flava is slow Singeli is rabid and quick, where the former sings the latter rambles. Singeli is repetitive and hard to like; the verses are spoken and there is no chorus to speak of. The kind of music which offers absolutely no concessions to those who don’t understand it.
It should come as no surprise then like other reactionary musical genres—punk, hip-hop—Singeli is indivisible from the street. It has roots in the Dar neighborhoods of Tandale and Manzese both of which are a byword for poverty. The now all but forgotten genre of Mchiriku and its most famous export, the band Jagwa, also first made their name here in the 90s. And the core features of Mchiriku such as the driving tempo, keyboard and drums are all present in Singeli. But pared down to make the drums more prominent, harking to traditional tribal dances.
It’s this pairing of the raw energy and tradition that most defines Singeli and lends an edge sorely lacking from Bongo Flava and Afropop in general. Singeli, in owing more to the local scene than anything from abroad, is overtly authentic; and in the veil of that authenticity come doses of cathartic bad taste— lechery, drunkenness, smoking, women twerking demure dresses down to the ground—all shielded from censure by being fully homegrown, by their lack of discernable corrupting influences from elsewhere. Add to that the outré style of almost all Singeli artistes—Man Fongo, Vairas, Sholo Mwamba—and you complete what is essentially an ironic salute to the country’s clean cut pop success.
Listen and enjoy or hate if you if must. But know that such note perfect subversion could only come from a music scene in rude health.