Mambo: Track by Track

Remmy Ongala walks through downtown Dar Es Salaam. People shout across the crowded street ‘Mambo vipi Remmy?!’ How’s things? Ça va? Wha’appen? Remmy flashes back with wit and everyone roars with laughter. ‘The voice of the Tanzanian people’ always has something politically astute or deeply philosophical to say.

‘Mambo’ is a Swahili word that roughly translates as the French ‘affaires’ or as ‘things’ ‘concerns’ or ‘observations’. The word covers a whole range of meanings and moods from personal to political, tremendous to trivial. Remmy calls the songs on this album ‘songs for the people’ and each one seems to express a different ‘mambo’ that people might discuss on the street corners of Tanzania.

There’s Tanzania itself— ‘Inchi Yetu (Our Country)’ and ‘Dodoma’, the new capital city:

Inchi Yetu

(Our Country)

For socialism
For respect
For love
For peace
Our country Tanzania
Congratulations to our leaders
For the good job they’ve done
For bringing unity to Tanzania



Dodoma is our capital
At our country’s centre
Our defence and peace are easy there

Inchi Vetu (live at Real World Studios)

In just 20 years, however, Tanzania has seen the dwindling of its natural and human resources, and from being Africa’s second largest exporting nation, it has become its second poorest. As self-elected spokesman for the poor, Remmy has never shrunk from tackling the negative aspects of the country. Even the most straightforward lyrics can contain subtle criticism. Mrema —the Minister for Home Affairs— is, however, a politician greatly respected:


The drum is calling
To advertise the war on corruption
Black marketers, profiteers and laziness
And those who sabotage the nation
Mrema is here
Some are complaining, saying he’s gone too far
Inside the country mrena is here
He is looking everywhere for those who are corrupt
He’s searching round every corner
He wants to know who is the thief
Who is killing elephants?
Who is selling rhino horns?
He wants to know who the gangsters are

Whatever its problems, social or political, home still has a hold on the minds and hearts of those who have left their roots:

I Want To Go Home

I want to go home
I need to go back home
The place that is our home
Good or bad still home

I Want To Go Home (live at Real World Studios)

There are also the ‘mambo’ dealing with personal  affairs. At the beach or at the fish markets, the cry of ‘Hey socks!’ is often thrown out to Remmy. This is a gleeful reference to one of Remmy’s big hits ‘Mambo Kwa Socks’— things with socks (a Tanzanian slang word for condom). For about six months people wrote letters to the papers voicing their views about this song; some MPs tried to ban it, but most were praising Remmy for his fight against AIDS. Although it ranks as one of the most important songs in Tanzania on the subject, Remmy rarely sings it now. The track ‘What Can I Say?’ with its sometimes surreal imagery, is Remmy’s reply to the controversy which surrounds his original song:

What Can I Say?

(Niseme Nini)

That’s how the world is, no wonder
Everybody knows
Prisoners and rules
Among us
Managers and labourers
All are stealing
Eating each other, eating others’ rights
Eating each other, like fish
What can I say?
Nothing to say
People fear my face
But my soul is clean
Promising no mistakes
But one day I will see God

What Can I Say? (live at Real World Studios)

From a women’s point of view, the struggle of living with a drunken, violent husband becomes even more dangerous with the risk of AIDS:

Kidogo Kidogo

(Little by little)

Slowly, slowly my husband
It’s 2am where are you coming from?
It’s 2am my husband, tell me
If you want to rumba, why go alone?
If you were out enjoying yourself, who were you with?
If I ask you, father of my children
You always get so angry with punches and kicks
These days there is no medicine, no injection, no cure (for AIDS)
Go carefully

‘No Money, No Life’ destroys the romantic image of Africans existing happily in the country on simple means:

No Money, No Life

Hey young brother, come close to me
I need you, come close to me brother
I want you to take my greetings back home
Tell mother and father that I’m still sweating
For my bread
Life in town means more money
If you don’t have money you will suffer
If (you have) no money you never sleep
If (you have) no money you can never eat
You wont even wash your clothes

One World (live at Real World Studios)

While his concerns are rooted in day-to-day life and the problems that beset many countries held back by poverty, in ‘One World’ Remmy takes issues on to a global level;

One World

No more embassies, no more passports, no more flags
No more immigration, no more boundaries, no more borders
I say mankind was given, to use this earth
Of which today some are prisoners
Freedom fighters, others are refugees
Same man, on the same planet….
One man different colour, from the same father
One heart, one blood, one machine
Let us be one

By writing in English, Remmy has widened his potential audience yet further:

Living Together

We came together to this planet
So it I die, cry for me…
If I be sick, come to see me
And if you die, I will cry for you…

People come to listen to Remmy but they also come to dance. The language of Matimila’s hypnotic guitars and driving rhythms is universally infectious. Whoever the audience, whatever the subject matter, the music is cooking, or ‘mambo fresh’.

Featured Release

  • Mambo

    Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila

    Released 02 March 1992

    This album features Remmy Ongala and the band in sparkling form at the 1991 Real World Recording Week. Intricate four-part guitar patterns interlock with bubbling bass lines, while the rhythm shifts seamlessly from a gentle lope to a galloping rhumba.

By Toni Ongala

Toni Ongala is the wife of Tanzanian soukous musician and singer Remmy Ongala.

Published on Mon, 02 March 92

Further reading

Real World Sessions: Remmy Ongala & Super Matimila, 17 August 1991

Rupert Hine and Stephen W Tayler look back on the 1991 session which yielded Remmy Ongala's 'Mambo'.

The Real World Recording Week

Music journalist Johnny Black chronicles the famous Real World Recording Week 1991.

And The Beat Goes On: A profile of Remmy Ongala

Remmy Ongala was Tanzania's most famous musician and originator of the bongo beat.