February 6, 2012
We never quite know what the reception will be like when we get to the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation. Sometimes, the man at the gate looks at me warily, as if I have disturbed him from a pleasant nap. Other times, he seems outright suspicious, as if I were a spy or policeman come to raid the place. A couple times, we’ve been warmly welcomed in like old friends. Most often, we’re asked who we are there to see and we wait in the furnace of our un-airconditioned car as the guard disappears to check that we’re expected inside. Once our appointment has been verified, we roll our car through the big blue gate and park inside, next to a few broken-down cars that never leave and some big government ones that do. There is a long, dirt road that runs about two hundred yards and stops at the TBC building. It is a brick two-story in the shape of an L. A car park sits to the left with reserved spots for the bosses and special guests.
Inside, there are a couple of leather chairs and a desk with a TV behind it on the wall. No one ever seems to be sitting there. On one occasion, the desk was covered with magazines, all appearing to be propaganda material from China. Today, we went straight to Bruno Nanguka’s office. Bruno is the librarian of the archives, a post he’s held since 1974 when he was just 18. When we ask why he’s stayed with the job so long, his answer is simple: “The music.”
Maybe it’s just the natural light coming in from the windows and the vinyl records and reels that are always scattered across the desk, but I could swear there’s something magical about Bruno and his small office. A faded old “Radio Tanzania Dar-es-Salaam” flyer and an illustrated poster of a city street scene with a curling lower-right-hand corner are all that adorn the walls. There’s no artificial light in the room. A very old PC sits in front of Bruno but I’ve never seen him using it. It’s somehow refreshing that he doesn’t glance at the screen every few minutes as we talk, like most people do these days.
Today, Benson and I bring along Jonathan Kalan, a freelance journalist who lived in Dar for a year but has since relocated to Nairobi. We had warned him we weren’t sure that we had the authority to grant him access to the archives, but seated comfortably in Bruno’s office, with the archivist leaning casually back in his chair with his hands crossed over his belly and a small smile on his face, I'm hopeful we will leave with a story. Jonathan places his handheld audio recorder discreetly on the desk and it’s small red light seems the only modern thing in the room. I thumb through the short stack of records in front of me. The one on top is an original Beatles album, its sleeve worn but the Fab Four’s pale, young faces still visible. Several alpha-numberic combinations have been written in a list down one side of the back of the record, and Bruno tells me that this shows when the record had been borrowed by RTD staff-members. I have a brief, nostalgic flashback to flipping open library books as a child and running my finger down list of dates stamped there to keep record of when the book had been checked out throughout the years.
Bruno reminisces as we ask him about his memories from the past 35 years. He remembers bands coming to the Radio Tanzania building to record their songs, and says how exciting it was for him as a young man to see these famous musicians strolling through the doors. King Kiki, or “Kitambaa Cheupe,"--so called for his habit of wiping the sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief when he performs--the Congolese Rhumba legend we interviewed last Friday, was there frequently, recalls Bruno. Sometimes, Kiki would pick the young Bruno up from work and take him to his shows, then drop him off at home at the end of the night. An incident with a drunk man and a beer bottle being hurled toward him ended his late nights at the live shows, but Bruno has the entire oeuvre of Tanzanian music at his fingertips every day. He says that people ask him if he can locate a certain tape or band or song for him, and though he doesn’t have a written catalogue of the holdings, he always knows exactly where everything is. “Even asleep, I know,” he says. Jonathan asks if there is anyone else who knows the archives like Bruno. He tilts his head back as he thinks about it. “No,” he says. “My colleagues, they have died or gone away. It’s just me.” “So you’re the only one, the master of the archives?” Jonathan asks. Bruno laughs, “You could say so. I guess you could say so.”
I’ve heard from a few people that the TBC has started playing Zilipendwa on the radio again on the weekends, and I ask Bruno about it. A few minutes later, the presenter from the show walks past the door and calls in a greeting to Bruno. The tapes on the desk today have been borrowed recently to play on the show. “How do you choose which songs to give them to play?” I ask. He says he chooses the best ones, the most popular bands and songs from the old days. Sometimes, he tells Benson in Kiswahili, the presenter asks for specific tapes and other times, the listeners write letters to the station to request a song. “You mean sends in a text message?” I ask. “No, a real letter!” Benson tells me. “In the mail.”
I finally ask if we can step into the archives for a moment. Each time I do this, I feel as though I’m asking permission to see the dragon’s treasure. It’s as if it should be forbidden, spoken about in whispers, a myth that only the anointed are able to see or else you might open the door only to find a closet full of brooms and old shoes. When we walk in, I’m again awed by the tall shelves filled from floor to ceiling with reels in their dusty cardboard boxes, dated, titled, and numbered on the spines, the musical culture of a nation in one place, waiting to be explored. My eyes scan the now-familiar band names, Kiko Kids, Cuban Marimba Jazz Band, NUTA Jazz Band, the Kilimanjaro Band, Dar-es-Salaam Jazz Band, Afro 70 Band. I can hear the high-pitched guitar riffs and Afro-Carribean beats buzzing in my ears.
One of the boxes has “Voice of America: This tape is property of the United States Government” printed in red and blue across its cover. But glued to the inside of the top is a track listing for “Ngoma wa Wazaramo,” which means “Music of the Zaramu Tribe.” The song titles are listed, along with their duration. Underneath the list, there are three paragraphs of “Historia.” I skim the writing, and with my rudimentary knowledge of Kiswahili, I can tell it gives ethnographic background information on the tribe, the style of music, and the story of when and how the tape was recorded. We ask whether Voice of America worked at Radio Tanzania. Bruno tells us that they donated the tapes. “So the ngoma isn’t actually the property of the U.S. government?” I ask. We laugh. “But who wrote this information?” I want to know. “We did,” Bruno tells us. “We had a typewriter.”
Soon we have another visitor, Tulanana Bohela from the BBC World Service. She digs around in her purse for a portable microphone, which she hooks up to an audio recorder. I’m amazed as she pieces together her equipment from various pockets in her purse. “Women can fit their whole lives into their handbags!” she says.
Before I know it, Benson and I are holding our first official in-person interview with a major news network. Tulanana wants to know why we’re doing this, two young people, and and American at that. I try to explain what it’s like to know a place is your home, even if you weren’t born there. I remember my first trip to Tanzania, chasing the sunset on a rickety bike in Bagamoyo, holding bright-eyed children in my lap at the school where I volunteered, the first time I ate ugali and learned to roll it between my fingers and palm and scoop sauce into the indentation I made with my thumb. I think also of the night of my motorcycle accident in Dar-es-Salaam, the slow torment of a long and uncertain recovery, and the first steps after nine months of not walking. “I wanted those first steps to be back toward Tanzania,” I said. “Back toward this music.”
Then she wants to know why we think we’ll succeed at this where others have failed. We explain that we have a new approach. We’re not scholars with a big grant from a university or institution, we’re young people who believe in the power of social enterprise and crowdfunding to make change happen. We don’t want to digitize these tapes just to have them sit around gathering more dust for another 40 years. We want to unshelve them, to revive them, to bring them back and give them another lease at life, another chance to shape the nation and make us all dance.
We exchange at least four rounds of handshakes with Bruno before we leave the TBC, promising to return soon. “Karibu tena,” Bruno says. “You are welcome again.”
Photos by Jonathan Kalan