Music and dance have always been a part and parcel of Afro lifestyles and not a single community activity would be complete without its share of fun and frolic, writes Dr. John Patrick Ojwando.
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania
– The invite to a trinity of fervent entertainment, karaoke band performance, theme dinner and traditional dances of Tanzania at the up-market Peacock Hotel located on Bibi Titi Mohammed Road came as a welcome change, days after making my way into the famed port city or the locals abode of peace.
I had barely settled down to the object of my passage following an arduous and tiring sojourn across east African countries before preparations of gigantic proportions preceding the arrival of Air Force One in the larger of the African nations threw a spanner in the works. The lull, on the days that should have heralded a series of intense activities, brought in the end an engulfing toll on my already battered soul.
“It is not the best time to be in Dar,” Mr. Emmanuel Mattee, my host had cautioned glancing through my itinerary. No one though had gambled on what would ensue.
ADOBE OF PEACE
Dar es Salaam has been a beehive of activity with visitors streaming in hordes after His Excellency Jakaya Kikwete, the President of the United Republic of Tanzania won the rights to host the US President, Barack Obama, much to the chagrin of his counterparts in the region.
Miffed at having missed out on a trip touted as an endorsement of the policies of countries keen to entrench democratic principles, they went into a huddle sending out a subtle message that the visit was insignificant even though the launch of the power plant, the electric component of the trip stood to benefit the entire region, their countries included.
If it had been a Herculean task getting official engagements going, it was equally taxing finding places to stay, the hosts seemingly overwhelmed by the attention and unprecedented arrivals. The bookings – I was informed had had been made months before with many people keen to be part of history- the visit of Africa’s celebrity son.
President Obama enjoys an iconic status in East Africa and his visit was a public event as much as an act of diplomacy. The fact that he is connected to Africa is a fact not lost on the people here, even on the streets. Tanzanians are a courteous lot. During my stint in the country, they wasted no chance to tender their profuse apologies whenever they fell short of expectations. Even then, the decision of the world’s most powerful leader to skip Kenya, the country of his father’s birth was not lost on the larger public. It would feature in discussions every time my hosts came to know I hail from Kenya.
Come evening. I got to the venue to a warm welcome with a steward going down on her knees in typical African reverence before offering Dafu (tender coconut) – welcome toast.
The décor all round was engaging. Bora Bora, a male-dominated band with a lone female at the vocals was getting into the groove when I finally took my seat. “This is not our regular band,” Ms. Davina G Msechu, the sales executive at Peacock sought o offer an explanation as if apologising for a major gaffe. “Kalunde, the regular band is performing for a delegation from the US.” Another casualty or beneficiary of the impending visit depending on the side of the fence you are sitting. I looked around to get my bearings. It was refreshing to see patrons of different ages and nations, some in their early twenties and a sizeable in their middle ages, make their way to the venue.
I must confess the stewards looked elegant in their traditional Kitenge outfits with elaborate African prints. As they went about their tasks, they made bold attempts to work the crowd to the mood of the evening never reticent to shake a leg or two when prompted.
ON THE DANCE FLOOR
Coming back to the band, they did put up an admirable performance. Throughout the show, they made attempts to cater to the diverse tastes by interspersing their show with a mix of oldies and popular songs of various artists in the Afro continent. In the process, they too would try a few dance tricks of their own.
Of particular interest was their rendition of the song by South African house-music sensation, DJ Cleo about Facebook, the popular social network.
A play of events and posts, translated from IsiZulu into English, it goes: “Don’t take my number nor give me yours, let’s meet on Facebook. I will send you an inbox message. Let’s take photos and tag each other, I’ll use them as my profile pictures. I want everybody to see that I got a hot chick and that she has a focused man.” The number is a big hit across the Afro continent and I could not help but admire the remarkable efforts put up by the karaoke performer to match its original composer.
Listening to the beats, the ears may be a taxed by the replicated sequences yet the chorus -Don’t take my number, let us socialise on Facebook -resonated well with the audience. At the end of the song, the band brings its activities to halt and herald what would turn out to be the highlight of the evening.
THE CULTURAL MIX
From the distance, rustling is heard, faintly. This is followed by an aggression of feet-stomping as if in response to the provocation by the drummers. The incisive and throbbing beats become louder. Just then, a four- member dance troupe makes its way, singing to a call and responding to the drumming through well- measured steps.
The entrance on the stage by the Jummane dance ensemble is akin to combatants readying for a showdown on the battle front. Clad in traditional African gear –aprons made of calf skin, head rings, ankle rattles and their faces smeared with thick white colours, they become animated upon setting their eyes on the audience. That act alone is enough to get them going.
For the next half an hour or so, the audience is witness to a barrage of high kicks of rhythmic progression and steady beats and an absolutely absorbing sequence of dance theatrics. Aside, the audience is treated to an array of dance antics, chants and ear- shuttering yells as if the dancers are driven by some unseen spirits. As they go through their paces, a thought comes to my mind. Could this be the famed Gum boot dance of the South African mines?
From the distance, rustling is heard, faintly. This is followed by an aggression of feet-stomping as if in response to the provocation by the drummers. The incisive and throbbing beats become louder.
As Jummane leads his troupe, sometimes dancing solo, in pairs and finally as a group, I am left wondering whether it is the Indlamu dance, a touchstone of the Zulu identity. May be! Into their paces, the elaborate stick work, their twists and twirls, high kicks, skips and runs take the dance decibels a few notches higher. As if prompted by some unseen force, the dancers gyrate, and then throw themselves high into the air in unison, their legs split or straightened as if fighting some enemies in the audience. This is followed by a test of their individual skills. A dancer strides forward. Completes the dance sequence by engaging with those in the audience and then retreats. Then the second, third and finally the last. One particular phase of the display saw a dancer take to the floor. Lying down, he glides from one end of the makeshift stage to the other. The grins, postures and their indefatigable spirit would remain with the audience for a long time even as they bow and finally exit. A prolonged applause! But why a Zulu dance and music on a Tanzanite?
Such shows, long on the wane, are gradually making a comeback and Tanzania is no exception. The famed Zulu songs and dances may seem to be out of place in the east African nation but they reflect the new found spirit sweeping across a continent where music and dance played a big role in social ceremonies.
Popular African songs and dances are enjoyed in equal measure across diverse countries. In the fast paced urban lifestyles, they offer a form of relaxation or act as stress busters, a fact not lost on the business establishments. Peacock Hotel have been at it for sometimes now, playing its part in revving the dull Wednesday evenings for residents as well as visitors in Dar es Salaam.
Their choice of the medium – the trinity is not hard to decipher. Music and dance have always been a part and parcel of African community’s lifestyles. In fact, not a single community activity would be complete without a slice of music, dance or drumming. They form a major component of the festivities, healing ceremonies, rites of passage, worship, rituals – the list is endless.
Band karaoke can be considered a new age approach, bridging the gap between traditional and contemporary forms. Since it is not customary for guests to attend a gathering and leave with their empty stomachs, the buffet admirably fits the bill. In the end, you have a perfect entertainment excursion.
Karaoke gigs are open to public, not necessarily the residents at the hotel. “Sometimes the participants come with their instruments, perform on their own or join the band in their performance,” explains Ms. Davina. “For some it is an opportunity to let their hair down and for others a platform to free their body and mind even as they explore what Tanzania has to offer in the culinary annals. The only charge levied is on the buffet.”
FOR THE TASTE BUDS
I found an array of dishes from the myriad communities, both the islands and mainland. Tanzanians are known for their love for a good meal.
Since guests are drawn from faraway places, the elaborate buffet offers them chance to try or choose what they would like in their plates. The good thing is that guests are spared the heartache of navigating their way through the elaborate fare with all the offerings aptly labeled with translations.
To begin, there was Supu ya Nyama (Non Veg. Broth Soup) or Supu ya Mboga (Clear Veg. Soup). Some names here were as enticing as the tastes. Kisamvu cha Karanga (Cassava in Peanut Sauce), Majani ya Kunde ya Nazi (Peas Leaves), Ngaralimo (Maize and Beans Puree), Dagaa la Kigoma na Nyanya Chungu (Tropical Sardines with Sour Tomato), Perege wa Nazi (House of Godfish in Coconut), Majani Ya Kunde Chuku Chuku (Peas Leaves Sautee) amongst others, served with Wali Mweupe (Plain Rice) or Plain Bubu (Spiced Rice). Surprisingly, the Veg. and Non Veg. fares were available in equal measure.
It is almost midnight now. The band has taken charge again as I exit my evening’s port of call. With just enough in the tank to retreat to my room, I bid adieu to my newly found friends and hosts before taking the flight of stairs into the night, I thank my stars for what has turned out to be an experience of sorts. I am re-energized again to counter the Obama wave in distant Dar-es-Salaam!