A hidden gem that demonstrates the beauty of cross-cultural collaboration
Hukwe Zawose, folk musician or fusion pioneer? That is the question posed by this underappreciated collaboration he made with celebrated Canadian producer and guitarist Michael Brook. Brook himself had made his name on a series of ambient solo efforts, as well as having collaborated with some of the titans of world music, with the legendary Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Armenian duduk maestro Djivan Gasparyan, and famed Indian mandolin player U. Srinavas all having worked with him on world fusion albums in the 1990s. What all these have in common is the fact that they allow the specific regional styles to come to the fore. So, when Hukwe Zawose came to collaborate with Brook, it was the Tanzanian ilimba that was prominently featured. It is a lamellophone, which means it makes its sound through the vibrations of a metal plate. It is also an instrument that is traditional to Zawose’s tribe, the Wagogo, who traditionally are a tribe of cattle herders. Zawose learned to play the ilimba while herding cattle, and his career took a turn when he was invited to live and work in Dar es Salaam by the president of the time, Julius Nyerere. He initially achieved prominence as a singer of folk tunes, but when he was spotted by Real World Records, he began to experiment with musical styles.
“Whether it’s Zawose’s traditional music, Brook’s guitar riffs or their shared love for a wide range of genres, the album twists and turns and surprises you with every song. Going from the quasi-space rock on Haliko Chjende, to the French accordion sound and ska-adjacent beats of Mbeleje, the album really does try it all.”
The album is both clearly reverent of Tanzanian musical traditions as well as forward-thinking in its approach. The record is also usually quite high energy and funky, but there are also much gentler tracks, and often the sweet sound of the ilimba acts as light relief from the intensity and chaos of the multi-instrumental songs. Though it sometimes sounds like the instruments are individually vying for attention, somehow it all comes together, allowing for the traditional melodies to act as a canvas upon which musical styles can be painted. Songs like Ntambilze Lijenje feature funky horns alongside tribal chanting and Zawose’s unique style of singing. It also features some excellent rock guitar that fits alongside the electronic sounding beat. Chilumi Kigumu, on the other hand has a much softer techno-style beat, feeling almost like a ballad were it not for the sparse electronic instrumentation accompanying the singing. The funky feel of Ntambilze Lijenje is turned up to eleven in both Chilumi Cha Kwetu and Awuno Mgnang NDeje, this time with the emphasis on the latter being placed on the funky guitar sound. On this album, unlike some of his other collaborations, Brook’s wonderful guitar playing manages to occasionally take centre stage in a way that can sometimes detract attention from his collaborator; however, this works well due to the collage of sounds that the two musicians have created, and the high energy nature of the piece.
In many ways, this album subverts expectations. It is not your typical ambient music record, nor is it simply traditional Tanzanian music, and neither is it reminiscent of much modern afro-pop. Rather, it is its own unique melange of styles and ideas, that work on its own terms. Whether it’s Zawose’s traditional music, Brook’s guitar riffs or their shared love for a wide range of genres, the album twists and turns and surprises you with every song, going from the quasi-space rock on Haliko Chjende, to the French accordion sound and ska-adjacent beats of Mbeleje, the album really does try it all. In many ways, we both see Assembly as a jazz album without jazz instruments, with each song acting as a jam with many genres flowing through it. Though we don’t know for sure, the album sounds like it might have grown out of jam sessions between the two musicians and their band, allowing the organic mixture of music to express itself. Whilst Brook might be best known for music that could be described as spiritual or emotional, this album perhaps serves a different purpose. Like some of Brook’s previous work, Assembly showcases a musical culture that the West might be unfamiliar with, but unlike those other albums, it has much more of a carnivalesque atmosphere, whilst still remaining musically ambitious and inventive. Here we can see Zawose’s true skill and talent as a musician. His background of traditional music always remains in focus, but his pioneering vision allowed him to update it with modern genres and production techniques while keeping that core that made him such a treasured character in Tanzanian music.