Hukwe Zawose

Dr. Hukwe Zawose —educator, instrument builder, cultural conservationist, and, most importantly, a charismatic singer and musician of singular abilities— introduced the music of his people (the Wagogo, of central Tanzania's arid Dodoma region) to an international audience.

This master musician from Tanzania was a WOMAD Festival favourite for many years, and not just because of his extraordinary voice, which had a five-octave range. Zawose was also a consummate musician and a charismatic performer and anyone who saw him leading workshops at festivals or in schools knows the rapport he could establish with audiences of all ages.

Zawose grew up on a farm in Doduma, teaching himself to sing and play the music of his people, the Wagogo, while he herded the family’s cows. He gained such a reputation that Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyrere invited him to come to Dar es Salaam, the country’s capital. Zawose then toured abroad, appearing in England in the mid-eighties with the Master Musicians of Tanzania. fRoots editor Ian Anderson recalled: “He seems to have at least three voices from different parts of his throat, sliding from one to another with breathtaking ease.” While in the UK, the Master Musicians recorded a number of studio sessions, released on Triple Earth as Tanzania Yetu (1985) and Mateso (1987).

Zawose returned from his tours and set up the Bagamoyo College of Arts on the shore of the Indian Ocean. Here, the music and dance of all 122 of Tanzania’s ethnic groupings is not only kept alive but strengthened. Returning to the UK , he toured with his band Chibite and gave workshops organised by the WOMAD Foundation.

In 1996, Zawose recorded an album for Real World at its idyllic studios in Box, Wiltshire. Chibite, produced by Richard Evans, featured Hukwe and his nephew Charles, who was also an accomplished player of the ilimba (thumb piano). Hukwe additionally played violins and flute on the album. Onstage, these magical, evocative songs were given fresh impetus by Zawose’s imposing presence and brilliant traditional feather headdresses.

On his 2002 release, Assembly, Zawose collaborated with the atmospheric Canadian guitarist/producer Michael Brook and co-producer Richard Evans for a recording that merges the poetry and grace of Tanzanian Wagogo melodies with science-fiction funk, the shape-shifting sound of a digitally enhanced roadhouse band. Shimmering thumb piano melodies and the many voices of Hukwe —some high-pitched and keening, others of seismic depth and resonance— are woven within dense rhythmic laminates of sternum-shaking beats and insistent grooves, and gilded with the signature tone of Brook’s own invention, the infinite guitar. Billboard magazine called it “a gripping fusion.”

Hukwe Zawose died in 2003. He was a musician of great significance —both as a national treasure and as a magical character of almost mythical proportions amongst his own people and to his fans around the world.

Further reading

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