A myriad of factors contribute to East Africa’s struggle with self-definition in the contemporary music world. There are vast differences across the large geographical landscape, which is comprised of many different and complex identities, cultures and styles. To add to this, outside influences such as US styled pop music dominate the airwaves more and more, which has led to East African music being re-contextualised to fit into this contemporary music ‘mould’. Responding to this are the East African collective Santuri Safari – a group of DJs, producers, audio engineers, singers and performers who’ve been running workshops and pop-up studios in a bid to help create and further “underground” music that is truly representative of East Africa. Heading up the project is David Tinning, a DJ of 15 years who’s new mission is to share the beautiful music of the East African region to the world. We caught up with him to discuss the move from Berlin to Tanzania, the underrepresentation of East African music, music identities, and the future of Santuri Safari.
You’ve been a DJ for over 15 years and have played at some pretty special venues (Panorama Bar, Kater Holzig and Tape to name a few), how did you first get into East African music specifically, and why the relocation from Berlin to Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania)?
A friend and I had a project called Hold Tight Radio, and we were always a bit of an anomaly in Berlin. Although we love house and techno, there would always be tonnes of other stuff we’d throw in to our sets. Managing to crowbar all of Shina Williams’ Agboju Logon in at Panorama Bar was a highlight! We did a drunken Sunday night radio show where we’d play all sorts of stuff – drone, dub, funk, and plenty of African stuff. We also ran one-deck sessions at Chez Jacki (initial home of CDR Berlin) as often we’d get bored of the traditional Berlin club night format, and wanted people to just play songs they liked.
After six years in Berlin things had got to be a bit samey, and my family and I decided to take a bit of a risk and try something else. I’d heard about an NGO doing some music stuff in Dar, and got in contact. However, I have to admit I was pretty clueless about East African music before I moved here – as I believe many music lovers are – it’s seriously under-represented when we think of African music in general.
I understand that you’re also involved in the Tanzania Heritage Project – a project dedicated to archiving Tanzanian music that’s been deteriorating on old reel-to-reel tapes – how did that come about?
So this was the NGO I contacted whilst still in Berlin. The project was set up by Rebecca Corey, an American student who kind of stumbled across the story through an unfortunate series of events. While she was recuperating from a horrific motorcycle accident, Tanzanian friends of hers brought her music copied from this incredible archive. It was all recorded by the one and only radio station of the independence era (Radio Tanzania), and is a goldmine of 50 odd years of music – from the Congolese rumba influenced Swahili jazz, to coastal taraab and a huge amount of recordings of the 120 tribes of Tanzania. The sounds of a nation for half a century, essentially. After volunteering for a while I took over running the project for a period, trying to get the various interested parties organised and secure access to the archive to start digitisation. We’ve been partially successful, but will be focussing more on the promotion and celebration of the music rather than the actual digitisation, which UNESCO has now started.
Photo credit: Link Reuben
So from the Tanzania Heritage Project you helped get Santuri Safari off the ground, which impressively only started in February 2014. What was the initial idea behind the project and was it something that you head a “long term” vision for?
Santuri came about after some long conversations between Gregg Tendwa, (a DJ and cultural activist from Kenya), Rebecca and I regarding the ways to promote and sustain East African identity within the current musical landscape in the region. We decided to run a pilot project at Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar, whereby we brought various DJs, producers, musicians and cultural curators together to work on indentifying the problems within the industry. We had conceived it as a pilot project, but with the hope that if we saw enough potential, it would run and run.
Part of the pilot was to run co-creation sessions whereby new tracks were created in a pop up studio, and performed at events around the festival that weekend – essentially a CDR-inspired road testing of ideas, focussing on music that would work in the club, yet retain a strong East African identity. A lot of our conversations were about the role of DJs in disseminating styles and being cultural connectors, so a major part of the concept was to invite various DJs from the region to perform and integrate these new tracks into their sets. It was an instant success, and had grown with each event and recording session we have done since.
Unlike South Africa, which has a thriving homegrown electronic music scene, East Africa seems to be more into US ‘chart-ready’ music. How important is it for East African nations to have popular music that comes from within them, and is influenced by them?
What I have learnt from being here is even though we talk about East African identity or sound, we are actually dealing with a huge area of many different identities, cultures and styles – the diversity is astounding. What makes up each nation within East Africa is highly complex and nuanced, and fraught with many different tribal, historical and post-colonial considerations. In regards to music, and for whatever reasons, certain styles of highly commercial popular music rule the airwaves, and a great deal of it draws its inspiration from US hip-hop and RnB, or Jamaican dancehall. Bongo Flava is a uniquely Tanzanian take on hip-hop and pop, but is marked by its very aspirational, lightweight lyrics and unadventurous production. Santuri is at attempt to draw attention back to the true innovators – those that perhaps play ‘unfashionable” traditional instruments, but make them relevant again to young audiences via cutting edge production, futuristic beats and association with club/ DJ culture etc. In this way we hope that a section of the industry and population start digging their communities’ old sounds, instruments and rhythms for their inspiration.
Do you think it will have an impact on people’s identity?
So far we have seen a very strong connection to various artists, DJs and listeners who appreciate and are inspired by the process of reconnecting with certain sounds or styles. As they go on to explore and create themselves, the potential for a lasting effect gets stronger. Keeping these topics within the cultural conversation as East Africa evolves has to be a good thing.
We’ve been lucky enough to have Esa join us on a couple of occasions to preview some of the brilliant recordings that you have gathered through the project. How do you go about obtaining these recordings?
It’s been a revelation to work with Esa – he’s become such a strong member of the team over the past 6 or 7 months, and he’s a true gentleman. Esa’s involvement stared with a project in Uganda, whereby Sam Jones (of SoundThread and Santuri) located and recorded an incredible 7 man xylophone in a community near Jinja. Esa then twisted the results into an afro-psychedelic house bomb you can hear here. He’s also joined us at Rift Valley in Kenya to record with Sarabi and Makadem – two of Kenya’s finest artists. We set up a pop up studio on a camp site at Rift Valley Festival, and Esa and the Santrui team worked with each artist to co-create tracks from scratch. We tend to prefer the idea of mobile, pop up studios as each event is a opportunity to work on developing the skills of musicians, sound engineers, producers and DJs – and results in a vibe hard to recreate in a traditional studio, which I think carries through to the tracks and performances.
Photo credit: Peter Bennett
Are their any plans to share these recordings so as that collaboration can extend further than within the project itself?
Absolutely, some of the tracks are already available via our SoundCloud, and we also have plans for some official releases in the next months – vinyl and download. What’s also key to the project is that we are very committed to the idea of Creative Commons and sharing the music with our network – spreading it as far as possible. We are happy to share the parts with producers and DJs who want to add their own spin – just get in touch!
We are working on the releases for these tracks now- keep an eye out on Highlife, Esa and Auntie Flo’s label.
Finally what does 2015 look like for Santuri Safari?
Tonnes more projects, releases, recording sessions, workshops, festivals and so on. We are working with Ableton and Native Instruments also, and hoping to develop our relationships with key partners to promote artists and sounds from the region. We also have plans to start building bespoke pro sound systems in Kenya, which has never been done before. Next up is a project with the wonderful Mim Suleiman at Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar (feb 11 – 15th) – and it will mark the 1st anniversary of Santuri. We’ll probably throw a little a party…
Covering photo credit: Link Reuben