The muffled sound of voices and strings in harmony resonates out of a neatly constructed mud house across the dusty street. Someone sits outside their door, lazily plucking out a bluesy melody on a massive African harp made of wood, gourd and skin. Chickens cluck, pecking at the ground, adding punctuation marks to an otherwise ethereal soundscape that floats gently on the humid air in Tanzania’s coastal town of Bagamoyo. Though the town and all of its details is now just a haze- I find myself in a village where children play upon hardened red earth and women gossip around cooking fires, casually presiding over the days food. Amidst the overpowering heat and blissfully cool breezes, the echoes of music and voices slowly becomes an alluring invitation to let time simply slip away.
I arrived here because I was seeking a distinct Tanzanian instrument, commonly known as the illimba, a traditional thumb-piano with an otherworldly sound. Having traveled on a whim to the Dodoma region at the arid center of the country, where the instrument has its roots, I was met by blank stares and sun-baked dust. In Zanzibar I was unexpectedly introduced to a master of the instrument, Anania Ngoliga, who was kinda enough to point me in the direction of a famous family of musicians I knew only by name and reputation: Zawose.
The Zawose family, or clan, rather, is the collective progeny and relations of the internationally renowned Wagogo musician, Hukwe Zawose. Recognized for his talent by Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, while on a trip around his newly independent nation, Zawose was brought from Dodoma to Dar es Salaam to play his traditional music. After several albums and many years later, Zawose caught the eye of Peter Gabriel, who produced his final three albums on his Real World record label. It’s fair to say that Hukwe Zawose introduced Wagogo music, certainly the most unique music in Tanzania, to the world.
When Hukwe passed away in 2003 he left not only an impressive body of work and an important musical legacy, but a family of around twenty children from four different mothers to carry on his work. What’s more is that he taught his children everything about their traditional music; how to sing in perfect harmony, play their songs, and also make all of the instruments that comprise the Wagogo musical repertoire. Now Hukwe’s children have many children of their own, and the music continues to be passed on through the chain generations within this talented family that numbers upwards of seventy or eighty people (I could never get an exact number.)
A multigenerational clan of musical masters who hold their culture strongly and sing with a resounding harmony and unmistakable confidence, the Zawose family embodies a wealth of cultural knowledge that seems harder and harder to find within an increasingly globalized Africa. Brothers sing with sisters, fathers with daughters, children follow along and learn the old way as they are shown how to drum, dance and sing by their proud and patient elders.
I was privileged enough to spend close to a week with them in their home in Bagamoyo, in an enclave they call “Zawose Village;” about eight households spanning over six plots of land, complete with an instrument workshop and a developing recording studio. To get there, you simply need to hitch a ride on a “picki-picki,” or motorcycle taxi, anywhere in Bagamoyo and say the word, “Zawose.”
Sitting in the shade on the porch of his workshop, Julius Zawose spends much of his day constructing illimbas (or malimba, pl.) During my time visiting the family, Julius was my host, teacher, and friend. Rivaling his skill in constructing instruments is his ability as a musician. The first born son of Hukwe, Julius clearly carries his father’s spirit and talent. Hearing him sing together with his sister Tabu, a kindhearted and smiling woman, is a sublime experience. Their voices harmonize with buttery ease, melding together with perfect pitch, tambour, and expression- the result of a lifetime of musical collaboration.
Then there is Mzee Ndahani Zawose- a seemingly frail old man with a light in his eyes that shimmers like the indigo vastness of the Indian ocean. Though any sense of frailty is quickly cast aside upon hearing Mzee (“old man”) sing. I am told he played with Hukwe during his days- a lifelong career that included international travel and sold out concert halls. Mzee Ndahani’s voice explodes out of him, belting out unbelievable high notes coupled with a rapid-fire delivery of lyrics that almost resembles an electric guitar solo.
Singing with his daughter, Grace, who plays the bass Zeze, a massive harp with a bluesy tuning, Mzee plays the soprano Zeze, a bowed instrument more akin to a violin or Persian Comancha. Both instruments together create a droning soundscape that immediately dominates your perception. Coupled with the vocal harmonies, this music is utterly transporting. After this single recording session, Mzee casually went on his way, not even taking a moment to catch his breath.
One of the most intriguing nuances of Wagogo music is a style of singing they call mganga: a type of overtone singing, or throat singing, that is also found amongst the cultures of Mongolia, Tuva, and central Asia, though quite rare in Africa. Achieved by constricting certain areas of the throat, mganga, or Khoomei, as it is called in Tuva, creates a deep, growling voice that contains subtle harmonies and overtones. There was no explanation as to the origins of this style of singing, nor anything remotely similar amongst the Wagogo’s neighboring tribes- a mystery that points to the curious uniqueness of Wagogo music.
Another interesting factoid that speaks to these people’s deep knowledge of acoustics is their use of spider webs as resonators. Spider egg sacks, to be precise, are placed on the illimba to dramatically alter the sound, providing both a distortion effect, and a noticeably increased volume to the instrument. These white, silky, bandage-like scraps are collected off of their traditional houses in the Dodoma area, and stuck on the illimba’s resonating sound holes with bit of saliva, and left to dry in the sun. The result mimics the effects of a speaker. Just how the Wagogo figured this out is yet another mystery.
I am told their music is used for “entertainment”- cultural activities such as weddings, births, and casual enjoyment. The Wagogo, a pastoralist people from a sun burnt country halfway between a savannah and a desert, traditionally had plenty of time on their hands while waiting for their cattle to graze across miles of scrubland. They say that out of this excess of free time they developed their unique music and complex instruments. In other words, this powerful, intricate, and harmonically rich music developed out of boredom- a debatable claim that warrants deeper investigation.
Wagogo music, with the Zawose family as its brightest beacon, has a proclivity for harmony and rhythmical complexity that borders on musical genius. It is a music of time and space; of vastness, travel, longing, and finally return. There is something unspoken in this music, a transmission hidden amidst the polyrhythms and meditative harmonies that speaks to the ingenuity of human kind and our primordial need to transcend the everyday world of normalcy. It is one of our most ancient and ingenious discoveries that repeated polyrhythms and melodic harmony leads to trance- music is a vehicle to altered consciousness.
Though trance itself is yet only another vehicle, the ultimate goal a state of mental clarity and rarefication that we can call transcendence. From this state, known through the ages by many names (oneness, heightened awareness, Nirvana, collective effervescence, spirit possession, ecstasy, etc.) humans have constructed the very fabric of our socio-cultural lives. Many scholars of religion assert that collective experiences or at least socially-sanctioned access to this state provided the mythical foundation for what we can call religion, social cohesion, and even worldview. If Wagogo music did truly developed out of boredom, (an arguably modern condition,) then it is clearly not an expression of it, but an antidote to it.
Primordial trance rituals aside, it is beyond inspiring and heart warming to watch this family make music together. Because they are all related, their voices resonate exquisitely with one another, achieving precise harmonies that any a capella group would envy. The children, most between the ages of two and ten, excitedly rush and gather their kid-sized drums when their mother gives the word. While the younger boys beat them with a frenetic joy regardless of rhythm or timing, the slightly older group of girls drum, dance, and sing with an ease that demonstrates what is possible when music defines and saturates your family life.
Tabu says that music touches all aspects of her life. “If I’m cooking, I’m singing. In church, I’m singing. Cutting firewood, I’m singing. Farming I’m signing. Even if [my baby] is sleeping, I’m singing!” Upon asking her why, she says simply, “Because I’m showing my heart.” For the Zawose’s, music is more than just a pastime, a cultural activity removed from other aspects of life. It is the lifeblood of their family, the legacy of their father, and a living, breathing embodiment of an ancient heritage that transcends time. “Music from the blood,” Tabu says, smiling.
The Zawose family is featured in the film Throw Down Your Heart, and has many albums of their own. Today Hukwe’s young son, Msafiri, holds the torch, and regularly tours internationally as the sole representative of this music on the world stage. Julius continues to craft one-of-a-kind instruments, and the rest of the Zawose family continues to pass on and teach their music not only to their children, but to students across Tanzania and the world.
To contact Msafiri, the Zawose Family, or African Promoters Foundation, a developing music and arts initiative based at Zawose Village in Bagamoyo, please visit: http://msafirizawose.wordpress.com/