‘Dear Mama’ and imitation modes of Bongo Flava since 2000

23Mar 2020
Michael Eneza
The Guardian
‘Dear Mama’ and imitation modes of Bongo Flava since 2000

A striking feature about Bongo Flava – but which is now diminishing- in the way it has sort of dominated the teenage music field for nearly 20 years is the preference for frontal talk and other theatrics, instead of actually singing.

Musician Judith Wambura, nicknamed ‘Lady Jaydee’.

Quite often musicians virtually labour to talk at their loudest and virtually at their most provocative, and it becomes difficult to figure out what sort of music copy or model they took from. Surprisingly, they believe they have impeccable sources.

Bongo Flava was the result of a technological and a social phenomenon, in the sense that their social role model is United States ‘rap’ music that is known as ‘hip hop’ and scarcely ever the long form of the shortening. The key voice in the US context was the late Tupac Shakur whose single (or album eventually) titled ‘Dear Mama,’ a monologue or reminiscences about his mother (perhaps being a lost boy in the streets, in the alleys of crime ridden New York suburbs), revolutionized youth music in the US. Evidently this was among black youths there, as rap has never been a predilection of other sections of US society, slightly unlike reggae.

The second source of Bongo Flava was the introduction of 24 hour music television as IPP Media diversified, which gave talented youths the much desired exposure to US rap music, more than they could bring up via recorded music as such. This shift came about in year 2000 and ignited a whole new field not just of music but of the media as well. Keeping track of local music and enabling the fans to socialize with their entertainment stars is a major industry downtown Dar es Salaam in particular.

Looking at the traditional style of Bongo Flava – and it has largely remained true to these origins though its predominance is waning – is that what it took from ‘Dear Mama’ and such other hits of the classical hip hop period was the talking, not the beat. Listening to Tupac, and even acolytes like ‘Snoopy Doggy Dog’ or ‘Dr Dre’ what one finds isn’t a talking shop of shouting to those at the front standing places in a music hall. It is a soliloquy of profound moral meditation and self-defence, but then the sort of sentiment expressed in Bongo Flava is more intensely tied to attack.

The reason perhaps is that they do not too often speak audible English, and tended to notice the speaking, conducted in a rather energetic manner at times – and then the dancing which makes Michael Jackson’s moves take a different note, even a little of gymnastics for a change – and thought this was the real thing. They expend energy in talking and muscled dancing as if it is a music-mingled body building showpiece, and have little idea of the sort of ethics that Tupac raised in the classical hit. The reason again is the social theme of music is local, never imported.

Looking at the background to Bongo Flava, one finds plenty of weaknesses in the so-called dance music of old, as at any rate had so many branches and individual efforts especially with emerging themes during the early hip hop or ‘rhythm and blues’ period. There was also the solo performance orientation of Congolese music in the post classical era with its emphasis on bands and each member holding an instrument. East of music recording had DJs starting to masquerade as musicians because of a good voice and making ‘musical speeches’ to crowds, as was for most of the 1990s the way some bands, like Twanga Pepeta, performed.

The key failing that the teenage music of the past two decades took over from remodeled ‘dance music’ and even earlier performers in the proper classical age was that strictly speaking, unlike the ‘Zaireans’ old, the balance was poor in local music. There was a tendency at privileging the singing and instruments sort of come later, a problem that was to an extent avoided by expatriate bands which tended to live up to the basic ethos of Congolese music, despite variations thereof. Some succeeded at guarding the serenity of the beat in Congolese music while some tended to come over, not just slightly, to Bongo music, where the beat is lost.

It is this difference which made local artistes envy their Congolese counterparts on the note that people tended to favor that music though they did not quite grasp what was being said if they were singing in Lingala. But the point is that music is about the beat, and for reasons of show off and lack of cultivation of producers or band managers or the owners, the failing continued. The talking version worsened this imbalance in large measure - and it can also be said that women artistes helped to reset the balance as they do not have the typical macho outlook, a teenage failing.