Maisha

The Zawose Queens

Released 07 June 2024

  1. Kuseka
  2. Maisha
  3. Dunia Hii
  4. Lulelule
  5. Fahari Yetu
  6. Mapendo
  7. Kusakala Kwenyungu
  8. Sauti Ya Mama
  9. Muheme
  10. Masanja Kalila
  11. Chidodo

Liner notes

There is spirit and fire in the music of The Zawose Queens. There’s the vibrations of the ancestors, coming through on traditional instruments — soaring chizeze fiddle, buzzing illimba thumb piano, ngoma drums that chatter and thunder — and voices that go deep, high and out there.

There’s the connection to nature, to ceremony and ritual, in their dance-inspired fusion, their blend of the organic, harmonic and modern-day electronic. There are lyrics that tell, in their native kigogo, of the passion for music, the wonders of life. Of pride in environment, in tradition. In their [East] African roots.

Maisha, the duo’s stunning debut album, heralds a new era.

Bow down. The Zawose Queens are in the house.

“This is our heritage, performed our way,” say Leah and Pendo Zawose, each Queen a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of enormous, hitherto uncelebrated, talent. “The time has come for the women of the Zawose family to take their rightful place.”

L-R: Pendo & Leah Zawose. Photo credit: Michael Mbwambo.

Helmed by UK-based producers Oli Barton-Wood (Jordan Rakei, Obongjayar, Nilufer Yanya) and Tom Excell (Nubiyan Twist, Onipa), recorded on a hotel rooftop in Zanzibar and beachside and hearthside in Bagamoyo, the historic Tanzanian port town that has been home to the extended Zawose family since the 1970s, Maisha presents The Zawose Queens in ways powerful, inventive and fiercely, liberatingly danceable.

Here are 11 songs, 11 glorious originals, that showcase the fluid polyrhythms and rapturous polyphonic singing of the Gogo (aka Wagogo) people of the arid, hilly Dodoma region of central Tanzania. A people whose small but powerful muheme drums are played only by women, whose repertoire is accompanied by ankle-bell-bedecked dancing, and whose most famous exponent is the late, great Dr Hukwe Zawose.

Pendo’s father. Leah’s grandfather.

A showman with a five-octave voice and a fine line in traditional feather headdresses, Hukwe Zawose released three albums on Real World Records in the 1990s and early 2000s between touring the world with his ensemble. He had seven wives and 17 children, many of whom studied Gogo music at the arts college he founded in Bagamoyo in the years preceding his sudden death in 2003. Charles Zawose, his nephew and musical partner, took over as frontman before also falling ill and passing away the following year.

Hukwe Zawose was a strict and conservative taskmaster. Women were only permitted to sing backing harmonies and play their designated muheme (a subset of ngoma) drums.

“We were never allowed to sing lead vocals,” says Pendo, who was 14 when she joined her father’s troupe.

Change has come slowly. When the younger generation regrouped as The Zawose Family from 2002 until 2009 (releasing Small Things Fall From the Baobab Tree on Real World in 2007), the women played the metal illimba thumb pianos in concert. At home in the Zawose commune they also played marimba xylophone and sometimes, in secret, if the men were away, the (male-only) bowed four-string chizeze.

Various Zawoses have continued to win musical acclaim. Msafiri Zawose, Hukwe’s fifth son, respectively brother and uncle to Pendo and Leah, is regarded internationally for his tradi-modern mix of Gogo rhythms and leftfield production styles. And after more than a decade out of the spotlight, the Zawoses are once again performing as a family ensemble, their turn at Zanzibar’s 2022 Sauti sa Busara festival documented on Instagram by Leah Zawose — for whom the traditional and contemporary go hand-in-hand.

But until now — or at least until 2019, when Oli and Tom visited Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, courtesy of the British Council — there were still no Zawose women owning the space out front.

Just how our Zawose princesses transformed into The Zawose Queens is a story involving vision, serendipity and other strong women. Among the latter, Aziza Ongala, daughter of iconic Tanzanian guitarist/singer (and Real World signing) Remmy Ongala, and her band manager colleague Pepe Waziri, herself the daughter of Waziri Ally, founder of the well-known Kilimanjaro Band.

“I was working as arts manager on a British Council-funded project connecting Tanzanian and British artists,” says Ongala, “and wanted to merge our traditional artists with UK electronic DJs. We had a young all-male band from the north [Wamwiduka, who play street corner dance music on banjo and percussion] and I needed to involve some women, which we always have a problem with in Tanzania as the families don’t allow women to fully express themselves musically and artistically.

“I knew of the Zawoses because my father was on the WOMAD festival circuit with Hukwe,” she continues, “and when I saw Leah and Pendo singing and playing I got goosebumps. I brought them into the project, which was so successful that Tom and Oli decided to come back to East Africa and record an album.”

Emboldened by workshops in songwriting and music production, by jam sessions in Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo and across the water in Stonetown on Zanzibar Island, The Zawose Queens began writing their first ever songs. This was a pivotal moment. A gateway to a different future.

For although this new material sounded a lot like the traditional music of their forebears, it spoke of modern concerns. Crucially, it was theirs to do with as they wished.

“When we brought up the idea of collaborating on more songs and bringing in western-influenced production they were both so up for it,” says Oli, who’d briefly lived in Dar es Salaam with his family as a child. “Gogo music is inspired by and incorporated with dance so the fusion felt appropriate.”

When Tom’s band Onipa were invited to perform at the 2020 Sauti sa Busari festival, they carved out a further two weeks of recording time, renting a house in a cul-de-sac not too far from the Zawose compound in Bagamoyo — but far enough away for privacy.

“We wanted to showcase the women as pioneering female voices within their heritage,” says Tom. “It was a conscious decision not to add too many instruments in order to capture what makes them unique.”

The Zawose Queens - Maisha (Official Video)

Maisha‘s collection of songs range from the stripped back and traditional-sounding to those treated with subtle electronic elements, with beats and drops and found sounds and switch-ups.

Some were written by The Zawose Queens, others by The Zawose Queens with Oli and Tom. Features include members of Wamwiduka on banjo and percussion and a man known only as Baba Leah — Leah’s father, Pendo’s uncle, an original Hukwe collaborator and a master of the chizeze violin.

“To have this Gogo elder, this incredible musician, giving his blessing to the project, felt important,” says Tom of Baba Leah, who guests on four tracks.

Two such tracks, co-writes between Baba Leah and The Zawose Queens, were recorded live on the beach in Bagamoyo: ‘Lule Lule’ finds all three Gogo on vocals, singing lyrics of wisdom and gratitude. On ‘Kusekala Kwa Nyungu’, a song with Tom on guitar and with Oli’s deftly added overdubs, Baba Leah likens himself to a rusty old pan that has cooked many an incredible meal.

“Baba Leah might look frail and elderly, but his youthful energy when he started playing matched that of the women’s, which is saying something,” says Oli with a smile.

Aided by Peter Mashaka and Andriano Wilson of Wamwiduka, the percussion-heavy ‘Muheme’ was also recorded live, the Queens dressed in their colourful traditional outfits, calling-and-responding to each other while singing, dancing and playing the muheme drums clamped between their thighs, their words cautioning the youth who only love money.

‘Fahari Yetu’, a tune praising Gogo traditions, and ‘Sauti Ya Mama’, about motherly love, were recorded live (between Pendo breastfeeding her baby son) on a Zanzibari hotel rooftop, the thrum of the nearby port in the background. Drum and percussion parts, added later, lifted the energy higher (“Watching Pendo play the drum on every unexpected beat while dancing at the same time was remarkable,” says Oli).

‘Kuseka’ and its otherworldly vocal intro bottles the spirituality inherent in Gogo music, in its indisputable connection to the frequencies and sounds heard in nature; ‘Masanja Kalila’, a song about missing home, finds Tom on guitar, bass and the single-string Brazilian berimbau alongside Baba Leah on illimba and that oh-so-nimble chizeze; the woozy ‘Diniya Hii (Wabaya)’ comes strafed with delays and reverbs that dovetail with vibrating buzz of the illimba and voices that seem to float, supernaturally.

Darker, weightier, ‘Mapendo’ is a reconstruction of drum ideas cherry-picked from a long creative jam and treated with modular synth and dub-influenced space echo; ‘Chidodo’, a co-write between Wamwiduka and The Zawose Queens, is a goodtime blend of two very different East African musical styles that features Brown Isaya on vocals and ukelele and lyrics that recommend counting even the smallest of blessings.

Then there is ‘Maisha’. The album’s title track. A song whose lyrics tell of the daily fight for a better life, whose potent ancient-to-future sound finds the Queens on vocals, illimba and percussion, Wamwiduka on backing vocals and percussion and club-focused production including drums, synths and 808 Bass.

A song that — like every song on Maisha — dares you not to dance.

“We wanted to blend the traditional and modern, to present our heritage to the world, and we have,” say Leah and Pendo Zawose. “We are setting an example for other women artists in East Africa to follow.”

Maisha. The Zawose Queens.

Let the rejoicing begin.

Words by Jane Cornwell

Further Listening

  • Chibite

    Hukwe Zawose

    Released 16 June 1996

    Enchanting, innovative songs from Tanzania's national treasure, using the vital tools of his musical ancestors: thumb piano, fiddle flute and voice. Hukwe Zawose’s songs are rooted in his traditional homeland and reflect the balance between earthy humanity and spiritual power.
  • Assembly

    Hukwe Zawose

    Released 19 May 2002

    Canadian guitarist/producer Michael Brook (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Brian Eno, Youssou N’Dour…) works his magic with legendary Tanzanian singer/musician Dr. Hukwe Zawose. Gorgeous, melodic, driven by irresistible grooves, featuring Marie Dalne (Zap Mama) and Lee Thornberg’s Latin brass.

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