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The Zawose Queens – Maisha (Album Review)

The genesis of Maisha, The Zawose Queens’ debut album, is long and involved, but it might be explained by three distinct historical phases.

Arguably, the Western World was first introduced to the music of the Gogo, or Wagogo, people who inhabit the hilly, arid Dodoma region of central Tanzania, in the 1980s and 90s by Dr. Hukwe Zawose. This charismatic, self-taught master musician and singer, reputedly with a range of five octaves, was also an instrument builder, educator and cultural conservationist. First appearing in Britain with The Master Musicians of Tanzania in the mid-80s, he was subsequently a regular favourite at WOMAD Festivals. Having set up the Bagamoyo College of Arts, which aimed not only to train young musicians but also to keep alive and perpetuate ethnic Tanzanian music and dance traditions, in 1996, he recorded his first album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World Label.

However, the great Dr was somewhat of a conservative traditionalist, and he would only permit women to perform backing vocals, along with playing the small but powerful muheme drums. By the time of his sudden death in 2003, he had seven wives and 17 children, many of whom had studied Gogo music at the College. Evolution was slow, but green shoots of emancipation were apparent when the younger generation emerged in the first decade of this century, as The Zawose Family, again releasing a 2007 album on Real World. In concert, the women played metal illimba thumb pianos, whilst back in the Zawose commune, they also played the marimba xylophone and, if the men were absent, and in secret, the (male-only) chizeze, a bowed four-string instrument.

Fast forward to a period which covers the last five years, and in a series of convoluted, serendipitous events, we see the metamorphosis of princesses Pendo Zawose and Leah Zawose, daughter and granddaughter of Dr.Huweke respectively, into The Zawose Queens, and, for the first time, females at the forefront, literally, of Gogo music. With each Queen performing as singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, they state, “The time has come for the women of the Zawose family to take their rightful place.”

The album was recorded, some tracks live, in locations varying from a hotel rooftop in Zanzibar and the beach in the port town of Bagamoyo, the home since the 1970s of the Zawose family. One of the aforementioned chance events was the 2019 visit of UK-based producers Oli Barton-Wood and Tom Excell to Dar es Salaam, courtesy of the British Council and their engagement with the Zawoses. Such was their interest that they agreed to produce, record, mix and play on this release.

All 11 songs are original, with the majority being credited to The Queens, Oli and Tom collectively. Whilst what is presented here sounds much like the traditional music of their ancestors, which is characterised by polyphonic singing and the polyrhythms of the chizeze fiddle, illimba thumb piano and ngoma drums, the production duo introduces western-influenced techniques, such as electronic beats, loops and found sounds, which sit easily with the traditional Gogo music, with its connection to the natural world, the ceremonial and ritual, and which is inspired by, and incorporated in dance.

Lyrically, modern concerns and sensitivities are addressed in their native kigogo language, speaking to the awe and wonder of life, a passion for music and pride in the environment, tradition and their East African roots. The whole is explained thus by Leah and Pendo, “We wanted to blend the traditional and modern, to present our heritage to the world, and we have,”

The album kicks off with one of the six Pendo, Leah, Oli, and Tom-penned collaborations, Kuseka (To Laugh). Lyrically, it celebrates having children and the need to cherish them, working and music, alongside what appears to be a narrative referencing infidelity. Musically, the opening vocal introduction, followed 43 seconds later by pulsating acoustic percussion, accompanied by chizeze and then a melange of electronic beats, is irresistible.

Next is the title track, featuring guests Wamwiduka on backing vocals. This young, all-male group from the north of Tanzania who play street music on banjo and percussion called “Babatone” were another element in the ‘convoluted story’ outlined above, hence their presence on this album. This is a lively, uplifting song featuring the Queens on vocals, illimba and percussion, Peter Mashaka, from the Wamwiduka band, on the Kenyan manyanga shaker, whilst programming, drums, synths and 808 bass provide the modern yang to the ancient, traditional ying. The lyrics are simple, voicing the difficulties of daily life and the struggle for an improved existence.

I have sorrow gwee,
I am struggling…
work is hard, Life is also hard…
We are looking for better life,
We are looking for money

In contrast, Mapendo talks optimistically of love, and musically, it is a much more complicated affair, with the group explaining that specific drum patterns and ideas had been selected from an extended jam and then given an extensive modular synth and intergalactic echo makeover. Tanzanian dub-plate might be a new thing. Further variation is evident in the atmospheric Masanja Kalila (Masanja is Crying). The protagonist has journeyed far, seeking new pastures, but misses home. With Tom contributing bass, guitar, shaker, tambourine and the traditional Angolan single-string berimbau, commonly played in Brazil, more delicious illimba, soaring chizeze, together with magnificent ululations and vocals from the two Queens, this is intoxicating, almost psychedelic in feel, with the final few seconds of spoken word and musical doodlings, sounding like an out-take, only adding to the allure.

The two final tracks credited to The Queens, Oli and Tom, were recorded live on a Zanzibari hotel rooftop, in between Pendo breastfeeding her baby son. The first of these, which also features an interesting fade, the dreamy, sumptuous, mainly acoustic Fahari Yetu, is a song lauding Gogo traditions and is very much one of pride: pride in the music, pride in the environment and pride in the love of their African roots. The second, Sauti Ya Mama, also very much in the acoustic vein, somewhat appropriately, relates to motherly love, “Mama’s voice is freedom and sweet love, Mama is different from anyone and everyone”, and is a showcase for the Queens’ vocal acuity. For both tracks, the initial live recordings were then taken back to the studio for further drum and percussion embellishments, the ngoma on the latter being particularly effective.

Dunia Hihii (Wabaya) (The World) is one of the two songs credited solely to Pendo and Leah. It is a dizzy composition in which ethereal voices, more ululations and, it has to be said, quite ear-shattering screams and the repetitive illima chimes, alongside the zeze, intertwine with the barely discernible electronic trickery of reverbs, delays and loops, containing the plea.

People, why don’t we love each other
People, we must be one

The second is Muheme (Female Drum), unsurprisingly a percussion-heavy offering, in which the Queens’ own ngome playing and Pendo’s skill on the kayamba, a flat shaken, vibrating idiophone, is accompanied by the ngome playing of guests Peter Mashaka and Andriano Wilson of Wamwiduka. With lyrics issuing a caution to today’s youth who only seem to love money, this very much stripped-back track was also recorded live and is a truly percussive tour-de-force, which, judging by the exalted whoops at its conclusion, was much enjoyed by the musicians too.  

Four songs on the release also feature Ndahani Bwani Zawose. Seemingly known only as Baba Leah, Leah’s father and Pendo’s uncle, this Gogo elder was an original collaborator with Dr Hukwe and is a master of the chzeze. His contributions to Kuseka, (cizeze), and Dunia Hihii (Wabaya), (zeze), have already been outlined, and he receives co-writing credit on two more.

Lulelue (The Moon), which speaks to cherishing and being grateful for wisdom and one’s place in the world, sees all three Gogo artists providing vocals in addition to his searing chizeze and Leah’s illimba in a masterful performance. Kusakal Kwenyungu (Painful Wear and Tear), like the previous track, was recorded live on the beach in Bagamayo. Here, Baba Leah uses a simile to compare himself to a rusty old pan that has cooked many fine meals in a song which postulates that “you can do almost anything in your youth, but with age comes limitations.”

The album’s final track is also a co-write, this time between The Zawose Queens and Wamwiduka, which sees the melding of two contrasting East African musical styles. Chidodo (Something Small) is a joyous, buoyant affirmation of life, featuring Brown Isaya on both vocals and ukulele and Zakaria Michael on babatoni, and the beseeching to “count even the smallest blessings” is a salutary one on which to close.

With Maisha, The Zawose Queens have delivered a debut album that is not only vibrant and spirited but also, at times, electrifying. The traditional sounds of their ancestors, blended with modern-day electronic sounds, signal a new era and ensure that the music of the Zawose dynasty not only continues but evolves in a way that Dr Hukwe could never have imagined. “This is our heritage, performed our way…We are setting an example for other women artists in East Africa to follow,” say Leah and Pendo, and we are all the better for it.

The Zawose Queens’ summer tour will see them perform at several UK festivals, including Glastonbury, WOMAD, Africa Oyé and Tropical Pressure, and other European venues and festivals. They will be joined by musical collaborators and co-producers of their album, Tom Excell (Nubiyan Twist, Onipa) and Oli Barton-Wood (Jordan Rakei, Obongjayar, Nilufer Yanya).

 The Zawose Queens will follow in their father and grandfather’s footsteps by performing at WOMAD this July in Wiltshire.

Maisha is out now on CD, LP and digitally on 7 June 2024 via Real World Records.

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