The music blares from makeshift shacks made of wooden planks and iron sheets. In this densely populated Tandale slum in Dar es Salaam, it’s welcome entertainment for the cash-strapped residents who dance to the tune, transported from the miseries of everyday life. This is singeli, an emerging strain of electronic music known mainly for its muddled MC lyrics, sped-up beats and exuberant shaking dance style.
And it’s igniting Tanzania’s largest city. The street genre, derived from Swahili rhythms and rhymes like Mchiriku and Segere, is finding a connection because it resonates with the reality of poorer urban residents. The music, which originates from the grim and poverty-stricken slum once notorious for its robberies and prostitution, offers absolutely no concessions to those who don’t understand it. Yet it’s not just Tandale slum dwellers you’ll find shaking and swinging to singeli — it’s finding a groove with other city dwellers too.
Singeli needs only a singer with a microphone and some supporting beats.
First, the repetitive vocals and fast-spoken verses are hard to resist. “I love singeli because, once you start dancing, nothing will make you stop,” plus there’s often an important message in the lyrics, says Said Halfani, a resident of Tandale. The genre has now reached new heights, overtaking the Bongo Flava, another hip-hop genre developed in the ’90s, known for its mix of local and exotic influences, such as R&B and Afrobeat. But unlike Bongo Flava, which requires placement of rhythmic stresses or accent to suit R&B, singeli needs only a singer with a microphone and some supporting beats.
“Singeli is a typical street music,” says Seleman Jabil, aka Msaga Sumu, a pioneer singeli artist. “We talk about the life of a common man in the street. At the same time, we educate society to uphold our national values.”
The genre’s contemporary mega stars are artists such as Sumu, Man Fongo and Sholo Mwamba, all of whom grew up in Dar slums. Fongo recently released a hit song called “Hakunaga Ushemeji,” with lyrics that capture life in the slums. He says he uses his music to “warn young people to stop engaging” in antisocial and dangerous behavior.
Sumu, who also calls himself the king of singeli, says that when the music genre started over a decade ago, singeli artists were mainly performing in street weddings and baby-head-shaving ceremonies (to celebrate a child’s new beginning). But today, singeli’s popularity has grown and you’ll find the music performed everywhere. “I believe we will continue to dominate [the] Tanzania music stage for a long time,” Sumu adds, “because singeli has captured the young generation, and even young children enjoy singing and dancing to its tune.”
Still, the genre has its critics. Not everyone is a fan of the sometimes explicit lyrics, including sexual innuendo and bedroom fantasies. Sumu says songwriters are encouraged to use “veiled language whenever they want to send a message about an issue which the public might perceive wrongly.”
According to Sumu, singeli artists are mobilizing themselves to develop new talents to ensure that the music remains on the airwaves. With its authentic and real approach and infectious, driven rhythms, it’s likely to stick around.
Have a listen to this singeli tune. We challenge you to try not to shake along.
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