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Jagwa Music – Bongo Hotheads

Crammed Discs

The sleevenotes talk about this band being derided for being from the poor part of town; the sleeve is shouting luridly at my hangover and I think I’m going to go blind. I can’t help but feel that this is Tanzania’s answer to Happy Hardcore. Moreover, all the songs are towards the pulmonary-antagonising side of tempos, and tend to get faster.

They’re also handsome swines. And they appear to have a dancer with one leg. And they look cool as fuck. And they have dancers. And they look like they’ve not long been able to grow beards. Basically, entirely awesome and correct behaviour.

The promo flappery talks about them being similar to Konono No 1, but that feels like a bit of a superficial thing to me – this is drum-lead music, rather than mbira – the big difference being that the mbira (I could pretend I knew they’re actually called likembés if you’d like) is a relatively melodic instrument, whereas percussion tends to be a very different beast. Plus East Africa is bloody miles away from Central Africa. And Jagwa Music are about a million times faster – if Konono are a sedate cup of tea in first class on a high speed train, Jagwa are like being strapped naked to the windshield.

It’s entirely exhausting music as well – I’m sticking with the Happy Hardcore comparison – all of the tracks start off very fast and get faster. Most tracks start with half a melodic motif repeated on shonky Casio keyboards with a singer, but the mix is such that it’s more of an assault of crazy complex drumming (the live videos suggest the live mix is a bit more melody-heavy). I mean, the Konono comparison probably fits in terms of how it’s exciting and dense music from Africa, but Jagwa seem substantially less Grammy-friendly (a good thing, likely).

Sleevenotes – it’s always a disappointment to have a record from overseas, from a world you’ve a minimal idea about, and not get furnished with a bit of context. So much kudos to Crammed Discs for furnishing us with plenty of info about the group – background, information on the instruments, a smidge of music theory. We’ve also got translations of the lyrics, which is great – especially because they’ve got a song (“Jagwa Watoto Wa Mjini”) which is basically them going “We’re Jagwa Music, fuck you, we’ll kick the shit out of you because we’re amazing.” That’s the sort of rabble-rousing attitude you need from your mchiriku, right?

I get the slight impression that some of the lyrics are a bit more political than is immediately obvious – while there’s a few that are pretty plainly about the authorities not liking the poor kids, there’s one in particular (“Maji hayapandi Mlima”) which has the lyrics “it would be a wonder for us humans/In this world for water to flow uphill.” Now, it might just be that that sentiment is lost in translation, but given the rest of it seems to speak for/to the poorer folks of Tanzania, it leaves me with the impression that it’s similar to the trick that TPOK/ Franco used to do – mbwakela, which is a kind of political criticism through apparently innocent lyrics. What I’m saying is that if there’s any Tanzanians reading, I’d appreciate a heads up on their lyrics.

And yeah, the music – seriously amazing, multi-rhythmic amazingness being amazing. The rhythm section (the largest, and loudest on this recording) are apparently oriented around a kind of ‘lead’ drummer, and there’s innumerable times on this record where you can just about perceive that it’s suddenly got a smidge faster, but all the drummers are so entirely together that there’s no real catching up – so either these are incredibly taught, rehearsed-to-all-hell recordings or it’s a band who are just psychically intuitive with each other. Really though, at this speed, it’s a wonder they can play it live at all (and looking at their touring schedule, that’s not even slightly the case).

It’s a bit of a mind=blown moment for me, if I’m honest. It’s a massively dense, fast, and quite overpowering record but if you’re hankering for something with the intensity of (say) Atari Teenage Riot raised in Tanzania, this’ll do you handsome, sunshine.

-Kev Nickells-

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