Music education in Tanzania: 100 years of different approaches

By Mitchel Strumpf

For most people of Tanganyika living 100 years ago[i], one’s culture consisted primarily of a single set of agreements: social, political, economic, linguistic and many other agreements plus, as a focus of this paper, the agreements of sounds that were liked and disliked, and arranged in ways that established what the people of the culture called ‘music’. This changed as time moved on and the agreements of colonial masters, religious missionaries, commercial adventurers and others influenced, more and more, ‘single-cultured’ to ‘multi-cultured’ music practices in Tanganyika. Through a series of ‘approaches’, this text provides an oveview of the various ways in which music education has taken place in Tanzania over the past 100 years.  

Students at the Dhow Countries Music Academy (DCMA) in Zanzibar. Photo: DCMA/Facebook
Students at the Dhow Countries Music Academy (DCMA) in Zanzibar. Photo: DCMA/Facebook

Approach I: Music enculturation in Tanganyika/Tanzania

One can only set the stage when trying to formulate a picture of the approach used in the early 1900s by carriers of local Tanganyika cultures to enculturate children into the sound agreements that they equate with ‘music’ or, more specifically, ngoma, the whole sound/movement experience people hold as part of their culture in East Africa, including Tanganyika/Tanzania. While there was cultural movement and educative influences on music in Tanganyika well before the early 1900s[ii], as populations heard and were influenced by the music traditions of their neighbours near and far through the migrations of other African people and people of other cultures of the world who had come into Tanganyika, major effects from influences on music traditions by the media (ie. radio stations that only started in East Africa in 1928 and newspapers) had not generally occurred.  

One may only assume that in Tanganyika in 1915, music enculturation (the process of learning the music traditions of one’s own culture) was predominantly an absorption procedure - a ‘caught rather than taught’ process. This enculturation method, over an individual’s lifespan, would include a variety of ‘passing-down’ or transmission approaches. Other means of musical enculturation for the general population in the early 1900s must have also taken place, as they do today, in a variety of different ways. For one, the general population in Tanganyika had already by 1915 taken on different religious-cultural orientations (Christian, Muslim or local African religions). Each of these had its own music traditions, into which individuals were enculturated. Young people in many cultures also attended initiation schools and were enculturated into the music traditions of their culture at ‘camps’ where their initiation took place.

Music specialists, royal musicians and other highly respected cultural-keepers in Tanganyika held on to their ethnic traditions. Mulokozi (2002) discusses the training of enanga epic poetry bards of the Bahaya of western Tanzania, and mentions specifically Trifoni Mashombela (1905-1995), who from Mulokozi’s interviews with this well-known enanga player, determined that Mashombela started his training at a young age (perhaps during or around 1915) in playing the enanga and learning the epic poems of the Bahaya. Mulokozi establishes that most of the bards/musicians of epic poetry performances learned from relatives or friends (2002:57).

For both formats of learning the music traditions of one’s culture (as basically a participating-audience member and/or a music performing specialist, as described above), the aspect of having ample time for learning the tradition properly and comprehensively is of great importance. Just as one is enculturated into the language usage of his or her culture, music enculturation is an ongoing process and is never fully achieved. Similarly, over a period of time even general members of a culture learn attitudes related to music and music-oriented traditions, such as (for example) attitudes that one instrument is respectable to members of the culture and another does not have such good social standing, or one type of music is for honoring the chief and another is used for mourning at a funeral. Just as today, it may be assumed that developing skilled soloists and music-leaders 100 years ago required an abundant length of time for a young musician to fully learn the music repertoire and required performance skills to satisfy the critical auditory wishes of the people of the culture.   

There are numerous other ways people of Tanganyika learned the music traditions of their culture. For example, attending any number of cultural events primarily as welcomed observers where they absorb knowledge and perhaps performance techniques; being assigned work responsibilities, for example herding cattle and paddling a canoe and creating sounds that frequently become transformed into the musical sounds of the culture; and observing and imitating the melodic sounds of animals, especially the bird songs of the area into the melodic usage of the culture.

Approach II: Learning music through emulating others

Just as the tonalities, instruments and other aspects of music and music making of Islam came to Tanganyika long before the period under consideration in this paper, it was also well before this period in Tanganyika that the first Catholic evangelization (and music) invasion by the Portuguese Augustinian missionaries who arrived with Vasco Da Gama in 1499 in Zanzibar. The Holy Ghost Fathers, the White Fathers and the Benedictine Monks started evangelistic work in Tanzania in the early 19th century and the Lutheran Church of Germany began its activities in 1887, when the first mission station was opened in Dar es Salaam. Western-flavored church music was always a part of the activities of converting the African population, especially as we come close to the period found 100 years ago.  

Through the missionaries, the European church hymn introduced Western diatonic tonalities, primarily simple-rhythm patterns, basic Western harmonic progressions and homophonic singing styles to the new African churchgoers, many of whom had been enculturated into their very different traditions. In addition, a different attention to singing quality, rehearsing a sung presentation that would be carefully listened to by others and the presentation style of singing without moving was indoctrinated into the Tanganyika aesthetic.  Hymns were studied and rehearsed before they were sung on Sunday mornings, something very seldom done in the presentation of African vocal ensemble music at that time.

Through their association with the prayers, ways and manners of the missionaries, the Tanganyika converts ‘learned’ many ideologies, attitudes and aesthetic feelings. Certainly the sounds, images (eg. stained glass windows in the cathedrals in the cities) and music instruments (both small pump organs in the village churches and very impressive pipe organs in the city cathedrals) were closely associated with the Godly images of the holy missionaries who brought them. The magnificent echoes heard from singing in the large churches and cathedrals, and the sounds of the organs (having pitch ranges from the very large pipes producing low bass, airy sounds to the high flute-like sounds at the other end of the spectrum), very different from the perhaps “less brilliant” sounds the African population was used to, was an education of images; the White man’s God’s magnificence that was all-powerful was articulated with the new sounds and sights in the churches.

The missionaries started ‘formal education’ in the mid-19th century in Tanganyika. It was this church-concerned purpose that brought justification for music to enter the schools of Tanganyika, limited as it was to church hymn choral traditions. In Tanganyika, the early German East African administration placed great emphasis on quality education in its colony to fill the needs of the German-controlled country. The importance of music activities, specifically Western music activities, in Tanganyika was one need German colonizers found of great importance and therefore frequently put music classes into the curriculum of their early established schools.

According to German ethnographer Karl Weule[iii] (1909), the selection of members and the operations of the famous Boy’s Band of Tanga in north coastal Tanganyika (one of the earliest predecessors of the dance bands in this area) was a private activity that grew out of the very strong German-organized education system in Tanganyika.

Lesson at the Boys’ School at Vuga, Tanzania (1914). Plate No. 67.918a. Accessed from the archive of the Dar es Salaam National Museum.

Approach III: Learning music to satisfy a requirement to fill a job

The island of Zanzibar influenced the marching band tradition in much of East Africa. Alexander MacKay (1848–1890), missionary of many years in Uganda, informs us of the traditions that had come into the Buganda area of Uganda in the early 1880s. He discusses in his journal of 1879 that the drums and bugles he saw and heard in Buganda, probably of Persian/European origin, came from Zanzibar and other locations along the coast to the land of the Buganda.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Zanzibar was also an important location known for its learning of Arab music traditions, as well as its display of military power through European music presented in parades at important occasions. Matona (2010) mentions the forming of music clubs from 1905 - for example, the NadIkhwan Safaa (translated as “Serenity Brotherhood”), which still exists as a music club today, to learn Arab traditions such as taarab.