Zenji flava, also referred to as zenji fleva, from the English word ‘flavor,’ is a musical genre that emerged in the 1980s on the Isles of Zanzibar (United Republic of Tanzania). Within the upsurge of bongo flava as popular Tanzanian music performed and produced mainly by very young musicians – and therefore considered muziki wa kizazi kipya (music of a new generation) – zenji flava has developed as a distinctive genre, articulating the disrupted and intense cultural, social and geopolitical identities of Zanzibari youth. Their choice to shape a clear Zanzibari identity rather than a comprehensive Tanzanian one mirrors and enacts the geopolitical discourses ascribed to the critical relationship between mainland Tanzania and the archipelago of Zanzibar, dating back to the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar officialized in 1964. The musical heritage of the Islands, comprising long-standing ngoma performances (including ndege, kibati, msewe, gonga, uringe) as well as initiation rituals (unyago), kidumbak music and taarab music, resonates in zenji flava, responding to the historical and sociocultural context of the islands (Brunotti 2005a, b). Further, the zenji flava scene differs from that of other Tanzanian musical performances in its language, topics and musical patterns.
While the term bongo flava links the genre’s emergence to the urban context of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city (bongo translates from Swahili as ‘big brains’ and emphasizes the shrewdness and craftiness needed to survive in the metropolis) (Englert 2008; Reuster-Jahn and Hacke 2011; Suriano 2007), Zanzibari young people increasingly refer to their music as zenji flava. The term zenji, derived from the Arabic word zanjibār, which in turn comes from the Farsi term zang-bār (zang means ‘black’ and bār means ‘coast’), is employed as a conscious act of self-identification (Omari 2013) that emphasizes the unicity of performance aesthetics, musical motives and particular playing styles, vocal techniques and timbral features, due to the historical and musical context.
In the early twenty-first century, prominent zenji flava performers include Alhaji Goya, AT, Baby J, Berry Black, Berry White, Chidi Yobo, Cool Muza, Didah, Dorica, Offside Trick, Rama B, Rico Single, Short Gun, Sultan King and Warda Baby. Through forms of dissemination including television, radio and the Internet, zenji flava articulates lived experiences in contemporary Zanzibar to a local and a global audience, affirming itself as an ever-growing phenomenon.
Zenji flava emerged in Zanzibar in the 1980s, albeit maturing as a relevant cultural and musical genre only in the 1990s. To trace the history of zenji flava is partly to trace that of bongo flava, since the distinction between the two genres surfaced later for geopolitical reasons. Nevertheless, Zanzibar has been a cosmopolitan context for a longer period of time. Situated at the intersection of the maritime routes across the Indian Ocean, along which peoples from the surrounding littoral societies have been traveling for centuries (Sheriff 2010), Zanzibar is a threshold to the African mainland and a harbor, providing access to a continuous flow of commodities and peoples. Musical genres have traveled with their performers and molded the original soundscape of the islands.
In the 1980s a few privileged young Zanzibari musicians who came into contact with US rap and hip-hop because of studying abroad or having relatives overseas (Englert 2008) began imitating these genres, singing in English. A decade later musicians started rapping in Swahili, first translating lyrics by US rappers and then composing and rapping their own lyrics, appropriating foreign patterns and innovating on sounds, beats, language and creeds (Perullo 2012), in a continuous negotiation between local and global flavors. Thus, while bongo flava was considered a mere imitation of North American hip-hop and rap styles when it emerged, it developed as an innovative and creative genre, appropriating and reinventing several further genres, such as R&B, reggae, ragga, zouk, bongo banghra and takau (Perullo 2012; Suriano 2007). As for two other prominent Swahili musical genres, muziki wa dansi and taarab, the emergence of zenji flava, as well as of bongo flava, confirms how the appropriation and accommodation, also referred to as Swahilization, of foreign performing elements are fundamental characteristics of Swahili culture (Askew 2002).
The founders of zenji flava include, among others, DJ Saleh, DJ Kim, Dula Ukasha, Abdullah and Cool Para, later joined by Cool Muza, SJ in the crew ‘the Struggling Islanders’ (Omari 2013). At the time, there were only the state-owned radio station Sauti ya Tanzania Zanzibar and Television Zanzibar, both of which aired only music that was considered representative of an exclusively Tanzanian identity, acquiescing in the cultural project of nation building (Askew 2002; Fair 2001). Yet, it was Television Zanzibar, established in 1974 and owning the proper equipment and technology, which in the mid-1990s produced the first bongo flava music videos, among them the first videos from Zanzibari musicians, featuring songs by Cool Para and ‘the Struggling Islanders’ (Juma4 2011). The liberalization of the media and the establishment of private radio stations and recording studios, as well as the digitalization of the media, facilitated the diffusion and growing popularity of zenji flava, although the local context reveals important disparities in the access to the production and the consumption of the genre.
Since the early 2000s several radio stations have been established on Unguja Island, the biggest and most famous within the archipelago: Coconut FM, Bomba FM, Zenji FM, Spice FM and others; on Pemba Island, on the contrary, there are only Radio Micheweni and the religious stations of Radio Istiqama and Radio Maria (Omari 2013). This partly reflects the controversial history of the archipelago, which plays a relevant role in molding the unicity of zenji flava. Alhaji Goya, a musician from Pemba, addresses the issue in his famous song ‘Hali ya Pemba,’ portraying precisely the challenges faced in everyday life on the island, never directly criticizing the Zanzibar government, but using rhetorical figures proper to the long-standing Swahili poetic tradition. In fact, until the 2010 Tanzanian general elections, when a Government of National Unity was established after a popular referendum that enabled the setting-up of a power-sharing government (31 July 2010), the political context was characterized by the denial of political and civil rights. In that framework the use of cultural performances as a counter-narrative to the mainstream culture was not allowed (Brunotti 2005a; Omari 2013). The new political scenario enabled young people to address diverse feelings of belonging and identification, letting an overall Zanzibari identity arise as a conscious act in the reinvention of a powerful unifying identity to oppose the disputed national Tanzanian one.
Unguja Island, a major tourist destination, provides opportunities for zenji flava artists to gain the attention of a wider and more varied audience. Nevertheless, this audience never compares to the massive attraction bongo flava counts on in Dar es Salaam and elsewhere on the mainland. Although many zenji flava artists regard Dar es Salaam as the center of growth for musicians, especially because of promotion and distribution and improved quality of life, zenji flava is not confined to a geographical context. Production and consumption of zenji flava music have been changed and facilitated by digital social networks, which allow easy downloads of songs and videos and constitute commentary platforms and provide updated information on venues, concerts and new releases, eventually contributing to the popularity and success of the artists. Since music video production seems to be taking the place of earlier means of diffusion, communication and reception, in the early twenty-first century the role played by the Internet is becoming impressively significant to the musicians’ visual self-expression (Hacke 2014).
At the intersection of global and local youth culture (Perullo 2012; Perullo and Fenn 2003), zenji flava claims a space within the past and present African diaspora (Hacke 2014), while voicing contextual cultural and sociopolitical challenges. Like the music style identified as taarap, a fusion between taarab and rap, experimented by one of the most prominent Zanzibari musicians, Cool Para (Khamis 2001), the repositioning of bongo flava into strong recognition as zenji flava is grounded in the musical and poetic heritage of the islands. In Zanzibar, producers craft lyrics employing verbal interplay, prosodic rhythm and proper intonation of taarab tradition. They produce tracks that replicate the instruments used in traditional live performances, such as kinanda(harmonium), udi (lute), ganuni (Arab zither with 78 strings), violins, accordion, cello, but also Western drum kits, electric guitar, double bass and other percussion instruments. Instrumentals also reproduce ngoma performances distinctive of the islands. In ‘Dege,’ a song performed by the Offside Trick crew (2012), the lyrics, dancing and musical instruments are related to the ndege, ngoma genre from Pemba: this was traditionally performed at weddings and used to display a unique mimicry, representing and enacting the social identities involved in the ritual, and in society at large. Yet, ‘Dege Hilo’ introduces musical forms, beats and sounds that figure in different musical and cultural discourses too, eventually embarking on a project of hybridization of the soundscape, suggesting patterns of both inclusion and exclusion, of self-identification as well as detachment (Vierke 2015).
The poetic adaptation of the language reveals features proper to the zenji flava genre. For instance, in the song ‘Ahmada,’ by Offside Trick (2010) featuring the late Bi Kidude, renowned as the ‘queen of Zanzibar,’ zenji flava encounters unyago traditional initiation rituals. Swahili language alternates with ‘lugha ya ndani’ (the term used by Swahili people to describe the specific ‘hidden’ language used in the rituals and understood only by participating women), revealing the creativity of the poetic project that makes the genre unique. The music, enriched by msondo, the big drum played by Bi Kidude, mixes genres and cultural significance, eventually creating a profound piece of zenji flava’s history. The dancing is molded according to the initiation ritual’s gestures, coupled with the flava tempo and dancing styles. Vocalization, motifs, imageries and themes derive inspiration from a vast repertoire resounding with local and global tunes.
Lyrics address local audiences, sometimes criticizing accepted social values, not completely denying them but rather reaffirming them, enriched with aspects pertaining to Zanzibari youth. Themes can vary from daily life issues to political concerns, disclosing beliefs, customs and creeds pertaining to the islands. Poetic stanzas may make reference to the existence of spirits, whose realm is commonly accepted as interfering with the human one, or a variety of other topics. Zanzibari cuisine, specific ways to differentiate social categories and to define private and public relationships, debated social issues such as bride-wealth payment, economic constraints and generational clashes are all communicated through zenji flava music. Sometimes ascribed as a strategic choice to gain easy reception and reach fast economic success (Englert 2008; Omari 2013), the topic of love, which is profoundly embedded in Swahili poetic tradition (Khamis 2004), is also a prominent theme. Various images of love permeate zenji flava songs, some locally derived, others rising from cultural exchange, repositioning the genre within local/global narratives.
Locality is not only portrayed in song lyrics and musical patterns; it is elaborated and creatively evoked in zenji flava music videos. Zenji ‘flavors’ are constantly perceptible in the choice of stage costumes, makeup, settings and common use objects. Further, minimal gestures and dramatic mimicry promote an aesthetic that is distinctively Zanzibari.
Through zenji flava, Zanzibari young people address local contexts, singing them and, therefore, claiming a space in the restrictive gerontocratic sociopolitical Zanzibar (Burgess 2005). At the same time, they find a position in global youth culture, defying geopolitical borders in an era of rapid globalization. Self-expression has become global; as soon as songs and music videos are released, they are played on the Internet, allowing Zanzibari young people to conceptualize globalization and modernity through their performance (Suriano 2007), in local and trans-local contexts.
Driven by the need for societal acceptance, zenji flava artists struggle to introduce themselves to their own society as young people, and not as a marginalized and problematic subculture. Often regarded by Zanzibari society as wahuni (hooligans), not exclusively because of the specificity of the genre, but for the simple reason that they are stigmatized as musicians (Brunotti 2005b), Zanzibari young people build, through the zenji flava genre, their own creed and interpretation of authenticity and ‘Zanzibariness.’
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