This frenetic music is spreading far beyond its roots in the working-class neighbourhoods of Tanzania's biggest city. Aaron Coultate meets its main characters.
Just beyond an unassuming door on the side of the club, the party was in full swing. The four artists found a quiet corner and sipped on soft drinks while a DJ played bongo flava, a Swahili take on hip-hop that's dominated the commercial market for years, as well as party-primed dancehall and pop. Duke and MCZO's 1 AM set time came and went. Around 2 AM, the club manager came over and turned on the air-conditioning, shrugging off the delay. By then, Duke was sprawled out asleep on a couch. Sometime after 3 AM, they got the call. MCZO leaned over and woke up Duke with a gentle punch. The pair made their way upstairs to the DJ booth, which was housed in an imposing cage overlooking the dance floor.
Duke, slim and baby-faced, pulled his laptop out of his backpack and perched it in the DJ booth while the sound guy fiddled with MCZO's microphone. The first hit of singeli coursed through the crowd like a shot of adrenalin. Singeli is a bracing listen to the uninitiated—it's fast, anywhere between 180 and 300 BPM, placing it well ahead of drum & bass and even some gabber, with MCs rapping over relentless electronic rhythms. It's rowdy and uniquely Tanzanian, informed by decades of the country's electronic and folk music.
The dance floor went into overdrive. A couple of people sprayed beer on each other. One man triumphantly lifted up a bar stool over his head and ran around. A woman started doing a Chura dance—a kind of Tanzanian twerk. It was a scene of pure joy, a glimpse into the power of a genre born in the neighbourhoods of Dar Es Salaam that has grown to dominate Tanzanian dance floors, airwaves, block parties and festival stages, emerging as the soundtrack to the country's youth.