• Danny Wiser

TANZANIA: Songs for the Poor Man - Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

A great gateway into the soukous genre, as well as a window into a bleak period of Tanzanian history when they were blighted by economic contraction, in which The Doctor’s cutting lyrics were a glimmer of hope in trying to remedy the nation’s afflictions

Throughout this journey, Joel and I have discovered that there are genres of music that we previously had never heard before that now we have an immediate penchant for and both revel in delight when we are recommended an album in a certain style that we have only recently discovered we like. For example, I know that if I recommend Joel, Britain’s biggest qawwali fan, an album of that genre, I am pretty sure that he is going to be very optimistic that he'll love the music as he excitedly tucks into the record. The same is true for me when it comes to soukous music. I am so far yet to hear an album of this genre that I haven’t delighted in.

“He gained this level of respect, particularly amongst the poorest in society, as his lyrics would talk about major issues that were endemic in Tanzanian society.”

It is fair to say that though I was right, inasmuch as I really liked the vibe of the album on the first listen, unfortunately, that was about it. It did not blow me away initially, despite the fact that it was obvious that it most certainly did not have any weak tracks nor any songs that I didn’t enjoy. Yet the more I listened to this album, the more it grew on me musically. It is hard not to get pleasure out of the rumba style percussion, the rapid twanging of the guitar and the funky rhythms. However, as my enjoyment of the musical arrangement increased so too did my desire to find out what the evocatively named Songs For The Poor Man was really about.

It was through my research that the album revealed itself to me fully and gained another level of respect. This is because the music touches on deep social and political themes and yet does so in a way that if you don’t speak Swahili one could very easily be none the wiser about due to its rhythmic danceable beat that one might associate with futile love songs. It is therefore not a surprise that upon learning about Ongala, the patron saint of the world music genre (and this blog), Peter Gabriel, invited him to record this album for his label Real World Records, as well as to play in the 1988 WOMAD tour.

Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Doctor’, Ongala’s story is a fascinating one. Like several artists we have come across from post-colonial Africa, most notably Fela Kuti, he seemed to also adopt an unelected political role in calling out wrongdoing amongst the authority and protesting in representing those who did not have a voice. He gained this level of respect, particularly amongst the poorest in society, as his lyrics would talk about major issues that were endemic in Tanzanian society. Little did I know that my two preferred songs on the album in terms of instrumentation, were also very powerful on a lyrical level. The 9-minute long Kifo is about reckoning with death, perhaps a premonition for the Kenyan and Tanzanian people ahead of the East African Embassy bombings that would shake the region less than a decade after the song’s release.

Meanwhile my favourite track, Kipenda Roho, which in English means ‘what the heart loves’ is about the non-existence of romantic love, as well as the risks of HIV due to infidelity. In fact, this is not the only song from his back catalogue to address this issue. Mambo Kwa Socks (Things with Socks), which was banned on Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam, called for young men to wear condoms to prevent catching AIDS. However, most of the album focused on themes of urban poverty and on racism. His ability to tackle social themes with such mastery through his music is perhaps down to his personality and likeability, watching him perform adds another level to the enjoyment that listening does not do justice to.

If you get the chance, I would definitely recommend watching this documentary on YouTube, where he addresses a range of ideas including his belief in the hellish nature of this world that is influenced by his Kitabala faith. Whilst I cannot pretend that I initially did not think the album was just too long, I do not begrudge Ongala of that, particularly as he is tackling important issues within his music. Unlike most protest music, Ongala’s ability to not take himself too seriously shines through in what is still ultimately a fun album. With great musical flair on display, particularly on the guitar, The Doctor managed to combine virtuoso talent, with a vital message that now serves as a cultural piece of history documenting the dissenting voices against a struggling nation.