Africa’s rendez-vous with music, commerce and the DJ

We Africans are renowned for our love of music, drama and dance. In fact racist people all over the world, coined the term Kumbaya, an otherwise spiritual song by black Americans, to identify with Africans. The term was given the image of short people with small bodies, big circled stomachs, huge heads and leaves tied around their bodies.

We Africans are renowned for our love of music, drama and dance. In fact racist people all over the world, coined the term Kumbaya, an otherwise spiritual song by black Americans, to identify with Africans.

The term was given the image of short people with small bodies, big circled stomachs, huge heads and leaves tied around their bodies.

They spent their entire time on the universe, drumming and dancing under the tree shades during the day, and under the brilliant moonlight in the nights.

In fairness to the said racists, Gutarama was such a favourite pastime in my home town before the DJs and FM radios created customized entertainment. Everything about this Kumbaya image screamed kwashiorkor in your head. If you gave it a caption, it would read cynicism and sympathy, with words like, “Oh those miserable people, they are so poor but happy.”

The idea that we love music is true, but the images that have been coined to the idea and thereby branding Africa and its people are wrong. Speaking as someone that has been blessed to visit and work in DR Congo and South Africa; I can write with some authority that indeed the love of music and dance runs in our genes.

And is it not true that the people in those two countries have seen some really bad times? For all their talents and fortunes, west and North Africans have never really been known for music and dance, at least in mainstream Africa.

Just as music and dance are so popular on the continent, the people that play it are revered. From the Fela Kuti dynasty in Nigeria, Salif Keita in Mali, Youssuo N’Dour in Senegal and your pick in DR Congo, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. These music stars enjoy iconic status.

But since most of them ply their trade in Europe and overseas, not many Africans ever get to see them perform. And many of these fans are average Africans who sell produce in the local markets.

They cannot also afford to purchase the work of their musical heroes. Therefore most of us were left to middlemen, to taste the sounds our favourite music tunes.

These middlemen in my early teenage years were the DJs, and they worked in conjunction with the market cassette tape seller, who appeared on special market days near the village square along with other nomadic merchants. They appeared at intervals of a week or a month.

The cassette tape salesman, set up his stall near the entrance of the market, but since most village markets were randomly set up in an open redundant expanse, they never had any structure.

The cassette tape seller set up his shop at the most vantage point. He would attract clients by placing his small watts speaker in a large empty box that would act as an amplifier. The sound it produced was really annoying, but his intention was not to give potential clients quality tasting.

The louder his makeshift boom box shouted, the happier he was. He only wanted to attract people to his stall and not to please them. Noise is a good and important thing for us Africans, but this is a topic for another day.

The cassette salesman was responsible for the gradual death of Gutarama in my neighbourhood and all its side advantages.

The cassette salesman, has been an eternal feature of African markets from the time the Arabs helped us change from a barter to monetary system of trade, and set forth the village market day commerce, that later gave rise to Africa’s first commercial centres like Timbukutu, Tabora and most urban centres on East Africa’s coastline.

These were the first years of Africa’s liaison with mercantile trade, and this salesman, basically sold music composed and performed by the local church choir and local folklore.

In later years, music performance evolved and there were many composers of other music genres and places yonder which came up. The salesman even became more important. And it was befitting that he was a VIP amongst all traders in the village market. 

To start with, we never had radio coverage in most parts of Africa till the late 1990s and as such, whenever there was a military coup de tat, ubiquitous throughout Africa, the most important instrument of power that the soldiers took first, and that which most symbolized the change of power was the radio station.

There’s no point in explaining what radio station it was, as most African countries had only one radio station serving the whole country.

In my hometown, which interestingly is only 35 miles from a capital city, there is a legend that once, there was a change of government three times in a row, and the locals never knew about it till one day, somebody came to the village speaking a strange language with a gun.

In this village they have since sworn to hate the language this man spoke. This language was Swahili.

The cassette tape salesman claimed to understand Swahili, and he also claimed that he never had anyone in the village with whom to speak. He in fact, sold music performed in Swahili by Congolese artists or so he told the community.

We were later to learn that in fact the Congolese sang in Lingala not Swahili as the salesman had told us. But who were we to doubt the cassette salesman? He who had brought us music! 

Some of us that could not afford to buy his Judi Boucher, Don Williams, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Chiko Chimora tapes, would go to the market on the said special day not to purchase anything but to dance at his stall, inadvertently helping him to attract even more clients.
But above the cassette salesman, was an even more important person, more prominent than even the local church priest.

He was the DJ. In later years and as Africa developed and connected, the DJ was responsible for compiling songs of different artistes onto one cassette, which would be sold through the market cassette tape salesman as the middleman.

The DJ was so important that the best musicians of the day composed songs in his honour. Chaka Chaka’s “Thank you Mr. DJ” comes to mind, you can add your favourites.

The DJ, however, lost his place on our musical pedestal with the onset of HIV/Aids, as the man (there were very few female DJs earlier) schmoozed his way into many bras and pants of any agile women.

In the process the DJ, the truck driver and later the motor cycle man, were responsible for the penetration of the disease and many other STDs in many families, schools and communities.

This was all before the computer revolutionized Africa’s musical rendezvous and its people. And now the rules of piracy are catching up with the computer too. Ditto Rwanda’s piracy laws.

Till next weekend!



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