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In this feature originally published in 1992, Fiona Parker looks at the remarkable career of one of Tanzania's most famous cultural icons, Remmy Ongala. The singer, who died in 2010, will be honoured at the inaugural Ongala Music Festival between 23 and 25 August in Dar Es Salaam — an event organised by his daughter Aziza Ongala, which will champion artists from Tanzania's vibrant music scene.
In Swahili ‘bongo’ means brain and Remmy Ongala is the self-appointed king of the bongo beat —heavy thinking music. A musician with a mission, he is never short of an equivocal comment or philosophical statement on any subject. Frontman of Orchestre Super Matimila, Tanzania’s most popular dance band, Remmy is a true man of the people with a reputation extending from the crowded streets of downtown Dar Es Salaam to the remotest parts of the bush. For the last fifteen years Remmy has sung out about the social and political problems of his adopted homeland, as well as challenging the country’s spurious, but hard-held beliefs about musicians.
A certain mystique surrounds Remmy Ongala. He is christened ‘Doctor’ Remmy —because it is said his music has the power to heal— a cool-ruler and a benign dictator. Compounded by a hefty physique Remmy is an imposing figure, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a charming and playful individual. Eyes hidden beneath thick locks, shaken or brushed aside from time to time, a curvaceous smile and a resounding laugh, Remmy Ongala is the archetypal gentle giant, physically and musically.
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Born in Kivu, in North East Zaire, Remmy started a musical career at an early age, a decision he admits was based at the time more on pragmatism than overwhelming ambition. The early death of both his parents left Remmy not only penniless but with younger brothers and sisters to support. He could not pay his school fees and without any skills, he feared a future of scavenging ‘like a dog’ to earn a pittance. The only way out was to become a musician, like his father.
Force of circumstance may have motivated Remmy’s decision to play but music was in his blood— his father had been a famous drummer and marimba player. Remmy honed his craft by listening to Kinshasa’s latest protégés— the greatest inspiration came from the legendary Franco and OK Jazz, while in true sixties fashion the imported sounds of Dylan, the Stones, Santana, the jazz of Louis Armstrong and the young George Benson all exerted an influence. Today Remmy plays urban dance music, a complex mixture of driving Zairean soukous, Tanzanian street sounds dashed with rhumba, soul and jazz, but the folkloric tradition forms the root and often pervades the feeling of his songs.
Remmy spent the next twelve years performing with local Zairean outfits Grand Mickey Jazz and Succes Muachana. His break came when an uncle called him to Dar Es Salaam to join Orchestre Makassy. Makassy’s success prompted a local businessman named Matimila to buy Remmy instruments to set up a band. Taking their in name in honour of their proprietor, like many Tanzanian groups, Super Matimila was born in 1981.
In Tanzania the musician’s life is far from easy, especially for those who don’t toe the official party line. Music and dancing are national pastimes but there is no organised music industry. The only recording outlets are via the state-owned Radio Tanzania, or the double track studio owned by the Tanzanian Film Company, also government controlled. Once you get inside the studio there is a distinct absence of trained technicians and sound engineers. The only alternatives are to record in Kenya, where the facilities are poor, or in Zimbabwe, where the costs are prohibitive. Things are only beginning to change very gradually; a handful of individuals are now setting up privately-run studios and plans are underway to build a studio in Dar Es Salaam with Japanese backing.
Alongside this slow freeing-up of the economy and increasing private ownership there are hopes for a move towards democracy and freedom of speech. Until this happens, however, the government works to promote Tanzanian music in its purest form while rigorously preventing any kind of cultural mixing. This contradictory cultural policy has put musicians such as Remmy Ongala who have absorbed many different musical influences, not all of them African, in a difficult position. The state asserts its power in a more obvious way by using music as a way of promoting government policy and any material which doesn’t meet with official guidelines is subject to some invidious censorship laws. Remmy’s outspoken stance fits awkwardly within this stifling and repressive system.
Nonetheless, paradoxically, the music scene in Tanzania is thriving at a grass roots level. Remmy’s popularity is secured with or without airplay and the edge of his bongo beat is razor-sharp and a source of irritation to the authorities. His lyrics cover many topics but most often they contain potent messages, which sow the seeds of discontent among Tanzania’s poor and badly educated classes. Remmy has not been quick to forget the deprivation of his early years. “I lived in trouble, food was a problem, I picked up bread that others had thrown away. All the songs I sing result from the difficulties I had in the past… I speak out for my fellow brothers.” In this extract from ‘The Poor Have No Rights’ Remmy attacks the deep-seated divisions of Tanzanian society, the supreme irony being that in Swahili, Dar Es Salaam means Haven of Peace.
“We all live in Dar Es Salaam
In Dar Es Salaam everyone is on his/her own
Why look into the affairs of your fellow
Brother if he has only eaten cassava leaves
I’ve got nothing to say, nothing to say…”
“I lived in trouble, food was a problem, I picked up bread that others had thrown away. All the songs I sing result from the difficulties I had in the past… I speak out for my fellow brothers.” Remmy Ongala
More recently Remmy has started to speak out about AIDS. In Tanzania, where somewhere in the region of 800,000 people are estimated to be HIV positive, AIDS is a taboo subject. Considered to be a ‘shameful disease’, employers often dismiss those who are known to be HIV positive and many sufferers are ostracised from their families and communities. Remmy’s song ‘Mambo Kwa socks’ (‘This Business About Socks’ —socks is slang for condom) contains a strong educational message, but caused so much controversy among the people that the government attempted to ban it; he rarely sings it now. In ‘Kidogo, Kidogo’, however, Remmy is able to deal with the subject from a different angle, while at the same time embracing a whole range of women’s issues. He adopts the voice of an angry woman with a promiscuous and often violent husband, concerned about her own and her family’s health:
“Slowly, slowly my husband
It’s 2am where are you coming from?
It’s 2am my husband, tell me
If you went to rhumba, 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)”
Music is universally enjoyed in Tanzania, but musicians hold an ambiguous place in that society. They are commonly regarded as drunkards, drugtakers and layabouts. “If you want to become a musician”, Remmy explains, “Your father will probably say, ‘Get out of my house and don’t bother coming back!’ Young musicians in the West have heard it all before but in Tanzania where economic necessity and cultural tradition make familial ties much stronger, the threat of severance from the family is far greater. In ‘Lolango, Lolango’, Remmy puts across a strong case for the musician:
“I will sing! To sing for me is to sing for my family/ancestry…
I will sing so I can feed my children
To sing is to work like any other
I will go on with this work until the day I die…”
Remmy has worked hard to achieve the respect he now enjoys. The popularity of the bongo beat at home and his standing in the global music scene has dealt a striking blow against traditional values and is finally starting to raise some questions about the status of musicians. How can a dedicated musician, leading a band comprising twenty-two members, be a lay-about? And how can a junkie get it together to carve out an international career? “I want to be a different kind of musician,” Remmy states categorically, “I want to sing a different song.”
Artistic success, however, rarely translates into financial success. When Mr Matimila bought Remmy the instruments back in 1981 he was, in effect, buying the band. The system of ‘ownership’ which operates in Tanzania often means that musicians can barely scratch together a living. The proprietor owns all the instruments, pays the band a monthly wage and more often than not gets a cut of the door collection. The musicians are wholly dependant on his benevolence for their livelihood. Remmy’s song entitled ‘The Roots Of Music’ demonstrates the absurdity of the situation:
“Where are the roots of music
Whose is the music?
Music has no owner
Music is a calling…”
The ‘ownership’ system is grossly unjust. The musicians have to endure long hours of work with shows lasting up to eight hours and they have no control over artistic matters. The artists do all the work while the owners rake in the cash. But the situation is not necessarily clear-cut and we must beware of our western notions of the exploited African artist. Remmy can see the absurdity of the situation but is loathe to criticise it. The music business in the West, preoccupied with commerciality, imposes its own restrictions just as ‘ownership’ does in Tanzania. For the few artists who have made it in the West, because of industry and media hype, there are thousands of jobbing musicians on the dole or busking on the Underground.
In real terms the lack of a music industry and of protective legislation in Tanzania does inevitably keep artists poor. Production is limited to bootlegged cassettes of deadly quality and which provide no source of income for the musicians. For artists like Remmy there is no market at home for their recordings made in Europe, people cannot afford to buy them. So while Africa as a whole is in a state of economic deprivation, sadly it will keep on losing its biggest stars to Paris, London or the States, where good facilities and potential deals with major labels offer an opportunity for financial recompense.
Remmy, however, is keen to stay in Tanzania. His links with WOMAD and the Real World label have also given him a welcome opportunity to expand his reputation and the size of his wallet. “I want to become big rich,” he says, resplendent in leather jeans, silver-tipped cowboy boots and whacky shades. In Tanzania, money can buy you decent instruments and Remmy now has his own— a sure sign of upward mobility. Money can buy you a decent PA. Money can also buy you freedom. Freedom to travel and freedom to develop artistically— to make sure the bongo beat goes on, resonating, questioning, criticising, and in some way helping to affect social and political change. This is what lies at the heart of Remmy’s heavy thinking music.
The inaugural Ongala Music Festival will take place between 23 and 25 August 2018 at Malaika Beach, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Named after Remmy, the festival aims to provide a platform for artists across Africa and beyond, whilst promoting and showcasing local talent enabling both to come together.
Released 30 October 1989
Released 02 March 1992
Released 23 September 1995
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