Imagine a crew of 8 youngsters playing nutty grooves at breakneck speed on traditional & makeshift percussion, a keyboard player going mad on a battered vintage Casio, and three relentless front persons: two breathtaking, spectacular dancers and a charismatic lead vocalist/MC, belting out songs about survival in the urban maze, unfaithful lovers and voodoo.
Shall we call this "Afro-punk" because of the DIY attitude and the creative use of noise and distortion? Or shall we refer to minimal or trance music? To the sexual energy of kuduro and mapouka? To the connection with any socially-conscious Western musical tradition (from rock to hip hop)? Or shall we simply welcome the advent of one of the most exciting bands around, and enjoy their exhilarating combination of pure energy, dazzling virtuosity and great showmanhip?
Jagwa Music are the leading exponent of the Mchiriku style, which originated twenty years ago in the poor suburbs of Dar es Salaam, when cheap Casio keyboards became available, and drew the attention of bands who were playing Chakacha dance music. What happened next is reminiscent of other, by now familiar stories (like that of Konono No.1): Jagwa Music & their peers were immediately attracted by the Casio's lo-fi sound, adopted it, hooked it to vintage amps and megaphones, and the resulting gritty, edgy, distortion-laden sound was rechristened Mchiriku. This new style has been thriving ever since in Tanzania, although it's been deliberately ignored by the media, as it is associated with uhuni (thuggery) and the city’s low life.
Jagwa Music have a large following around Dar es Salaam: almost everybody knows their songs, which relate to everyday issues. Many of their lines have become proverbial, and you can see quotes from their songs painted as slogans to the sides or backs of the local dala dala bus taxis. The songs often contain advice on how to survive in the city, when you're faced with unemployment, oppressive relatives, AIDS and unfaithful girlfriends or husbands, drugs and alcohol.
Jagwa’s members are all living the street life themselves, mostly working in Dar es Salaam's cut-throat private bus-taxi business as dei-waka (unlicensed drivers who jump in when another driver is caught by police, or does not make it to work). Others are manamba, who hustle customers into the buses for a few shillings in return. By mid-day they will have made enough money to keep them going until the next morning, paying for food and some of the other enjoyments they may like. In the afternoon they all meet at their maskani “hangout” under a tree in Mwananyamala close to Jolijo’s, their patron’s little house and restaurant. When they need to rehearse new songs, they convene in Jolijo’s backyard to get it all down. Their performing weekend usually starts on Friday when they suspend the week’s hustle, relax during daytime, and play all-night mchiriku gigs at family celebrations such as weddings around Dar’s suburbs or smaller towns in the vicinity.