By Salome Gregory
This text provides an overview of gospel music in Tanzania. By drawing from interviews with some of the leading figures in the local gospel industry, the text looks at the history of the genre and some of its key artists in recent times, as well as the challenges they currently face.
Gospel music as we know it today started in Tanzania back in the 1980s. Back then, only choir groups and bands were responsible for the so-called full evangelical ministry, preaching through songs. But the presentation of music through choirs worked against the genre and by the mid-1990s gospel music was not a genre that moved the masses. The genre was underrated and anyone venturing into this area of music was frowned upon or regarded as a mediocre. It was difficult to hear this kind of music playing at events, or even in public places as the genre simply became unattractive to many.
By the late 1990s, however, talented artists with soothing voices burst onto the gospel scene, heralding a new dawn for the genre. By this time, gospel was no longer just talked about in hushed tones; it was on its way to new glory.
Key artists in recent years
Epharaem Mwansasu, Faustini Munishi, Mungu Four, Ency Mwalukasa, Jeniffer Mgendi and Cosmas Chidumule are among the artists who can be said to have changed the face of gospel in Tanzania.
Armed with his accordion, Faustini Munishi has released hits such as ‘Malebo’ and ‘Niko Chini ya Mwamba’. Munishi, who in 1980 changed his vocation from painting when he acquired an accordion, started to sing old Sunday school themes such as ‘Niko Chini ya Mwamba’, which became a Kenyan number one single in 1990. Munishi is set to release his ninth album, Nafurahi, in 2015. Munishi’s music can be said to have popularized the gospel genre in Tanzania and beyond.
Another artist, David Robert, emerged around 2002 with his album Baba (Father), which became a favourite on the gospel music circuit and achieved massive market success. On Baba David collaborated with Godwin Gondwe, who had a deep voice that was attractive to the audience. The album comprised of 10 songs and was a favourite among many Tanzanians. In 2003, following his success, David was back in the studio to record another album, Kiganjani pa Mungu (loosely translated to 'In God’s Palms') that continued to grow his popularity. His popularity led to his new fans demanding that David release videos for the songs on his second album. He gave in on this demand and with huge investments engaged the services of a German filmmaker, Daniel Uphaus, who joined forces with Tanzanian director Sye and worked on selected songs from both albums to come up with The Best of Daniel Roberts.
Around 2005, a new artist was ushered onto the gospel music stage: Rose Muhando, who was born a Muslim had converted to Christianity when she was nine years old. Through her music she was out to share her life story through music. Her songs ‘Mteule uwe macho’, ‘Yesu Nakupenda’ and ‘Nakuuliza Shetani’ became East Africa’s most popular gospel anthems. Gospel music from Tanzania was no longer just confined to Tanzanian territories but also spread across the East African region.
Christina Shusho, another renowned artist on the Tanzanian gospel front, emerged around the same time. Her first album, Kitu gani Kinitenge na Upendo wa Bwana, was mainly sold in her home country Tanzania. She then released singles such as ‘Unikumbuke’ and followed it by ‘Nipe Macho’. Shusho has collaborated with other artists both in Tanzania and Kenya. In August 2015 she unveiled a 10-track album in which she collaborated with Kenya's Geraldine Oduor at a concert dubbed Eastlands Gospel Festival at Nairobi's Christ Is the Answer Ministries (CITAM)’s church in Buru-Buru.
Ado November is among the best-known and most respected gospel singers in Tanzania. He is also the president of Gospel Music Association of Tanzania, dubbed Chamuita in Swahili. The main aim of the association is to provide a platform for gospel musicians and stakeholders to talk about their challenges, successes and the way forward. “Gospel music is a full evangelical ministry, which should be purely handled in a way that the daily lives of the singers reflect what the holy Bible says about the life of a born-again Christian. And since gospel music is all about singing the word of God, the songs should reflect what we sing in our daily lives,” says November, who has three albums to date, namely Safari, Amenitoa Mbali and Kijana Mzuri.
Since 2005, the Tanzanian gospel industry has witnessed the rise of many other gospel artists who have become big household names across East Africa. Among these artists are Bonny Mwaitege, Bahati Bukuku and Upendo Nkone.
Promoters and producers
The introduction of Msama Promotions, run by well-known gospel promoter Alex Msama, was his way of thanking God for his blessings in life as he had a very tough beginning to be who he is. Msama is the first gospel music promoter to start gospel festivals to be performed in the halls. Besides festivals, Msama also promotes music on media platforms such as radio. A dedicated defender of gospel music, Msama in collaboration with the police has been able to destroy facilities that illegally produced gospel music work worth an estimated $40.6 million. For more than 10 years now, Msama has been conducting Easter festivals that also feature international artists, who manage to pay between TSh30-40million (about US$14000-18600) per festival. The festival's popularity has grown in popularity and in 2011 the then President Jakwaya Kikwete graced the event. In this same year, Msama had to refund more than $4629 after the Diamond Jubilee Hall where the event was held was full and it was not safe to allow more people to get in.
Ephraim Kameta, a gospel producer who owns Kameta Records, feels that the majority of gospel singers are simply looking for a means to survive. Kameta switched from producing Bongo Flava and Bolingo in 2005 to make a special room for gospel musicians to get the right place to do their work. During his formative years he produced ‘Sipati Picha’ by Big Novembe, ‘Majaribu ni Mtaji’ by Ambwene Mwasongwe and ‘Utanitambuaje kama Nimeokoka’ by Bonny Mwaitege. According to Kameta, the artists he produced in the early years, soon after he started producing gospel music, are still known and respected today.
The recent decline of gospel music in Tanzania
A lot has happened in the gospel music industry over the years. Some of the choir groups that kept the gospel music scene live have lost their popularity while others have faded into oblivion. Individuals have emerged and changed the status of the gospel music. There may still be a long list of up-and-coming gospel music artists but the status of gospel music in the country seems to lose its popularity in recent years. A recent survey with several key players in Tanzania’s gospel industry reveals some tentative answers as to why the East African nation’s once-thriving gospel scene seems to be in a state of rapid decline.
Gospel artist Ado November says that the majority of gospel singers are not living examples of what they are singing. As a matter of fact, people don’t take them seriously and think they are just using gospel music to make money and not preaching the word of God through music. He opines that most of the current artists only care about a good melody and not the message to the people. However he says there is still a second chance of reviving the gospel music in the country.
Jennifer Mgendi is another famous Tanzanian gospel musician who has been in the industry since 1995 and has released eight albums to date, namely Nini, Ukarimu Wake, Nikiona Fahari, Yesu Nakupenda, Mchimba Mashimo, Kiu Ya Nafsi, Dhahabu and Wema ni Akiba. She says that changes in technology have a lot to do with the fall of gospel music in Tanzania. She says that the majority of listeners have access to online media platforms, where they can download songs and share them with their friend’s on social media. She says audio sales have also dropped as the majority of fans prefer music videos. Previously Jennifer used to have eight to 10 songs but these days she only does an album with only five songs. “Why invest in something that will never pay you?” she asks.
“Technology advancement affects us since people easily access our content and nobody cares to help us,” says Mgendi, adding that this kind of stealing kills the urge to record and release many songs on one album.
“It takes talent to be a successful gospel musician,” says Kameta. "If one is not talented, you will only hear him for just a short period of time and he or she will fade from the limelight. As a result, talented musicians are afraid of the competition from the budding artists, so it takes courage for them to just release singles at the same time as the budding singers."
Kameta says that the decline in gospel music is due to financial problems. The majority of musicians cannot afford to pay between TSh 400 000 and 500 000 (about $186 to $233) just for one song. As a result, they only have to do a song with poor quality. He says if a singer has a talent for singing, it should not be confused with a talent to write and compose songs. Gospel musicians should only be singers - this will make it easier for them to do their job well.
Pastor Joseph Malumbu of the Free Pentecostal Church in Mbagala, Dar es Salaam agrees that gospel music in Tanzania is declining. He says that soon after attaining some level of success, artists become inaccessible. “I totally agree that gospel music singers play a very unique and important role of preaching the word of God. But once they achieve substantial media publicity, these artists tend to think they have already made it in the industry. It is no wonder the new artists only last a few years,” says Malumbu.
Philipo Haule, a radio presenter at Upendo FM, and runs a gospel music programme says that most of the times artists whose work is of low standards are asked for money in order to promote their work in the media. “It is about favours and not about the quality of work,” he says.
The gospel industry might be big but as revealed by views of the stakeholders, the numerous challenges it is undergoing impedes its growth and demand its place on the global music scene. Treating gospel music just like any other type of music is regarded as one of the main reason for the decline of the industry that has struggled to get the attention of audiences in the past. The survey further reveals that the mushrooming of gospel music singers in Tanzania is due to lack of jobs. Many think it is easy to make money under the umbrella of gospel music, and as a result many people whose music has never even been heard go around claiming to be gospel artists.
Some promoters and media houses arguably play a big role in killing the gospel music industry in Tanzania. One musician who preferred anonymity accused media practitioners for being unprofessional and asking for money from them in order to promote their work. Despite its rapid rise to popularity since the late 1990s, the many challenges currently facing gospel artists in Tanzania threaten to derail the genre's progress.