Singing Wells Project: Making Tanzania's folk music great again

The Singing Wells Project (SWP), a collaboration between a London-based record label, Abubilla Music and Kenya's Ketebul Music has pitched camp in Tanzania this year, seeking to identify, preserve and promote traditional music. Just back from a reconnaissance trip in Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Chalinze and Msoga, the Singing Wells team is now preparing to return for a field recording visit from 18 to 24 February.

Kusini Umoja group from Dar es Salaam will be recorded under the Singing Wells project.
Kusini Umoja group from Dar es Salaam will be recorded under the Singing Wells project.

They have identified 11 music groups and solo artists from three communities, the Kwere, Zaramo and Gogo. The recordings will cover a range of folk music genres, from vanga to mdundiko, godo, shiranga, mdomole and bingilia. They also intend to revive the memory of the famous Ngoni drummer, the late Mzee Morris Nyunyusa, who, despite being blind, made memorable compositions, some still played by Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation as their signature tunes.

SWP was started in 2011 with the aim of preserving the rich music heritage of East Africa. The project has since documented and shared music from Kenya and Uganda. The field recordings are carried out by a group of sound and video engineers, producers and musicians. The next three years are dedicated to music from Tanzania, with two recording trips scheduled for 2017. The recordings take place not in a studio but in the villages, to keep the authenticity of the music and culture.

But the project seeks not just to identify folk music and leave it in the past, but to also make it relevant to today's audiences.

“Through our Influences project, we link young artists to the village musicians and offer them an opportunity to exchange ideas, fuse their music and record in a studio. We would like to see East Africa's traditional music become an inspiration for new musicians. It’s the only way we will develop music with a strong identity,” said Tabu Osusa, Founding Director of Ketebul Music.

Steve Kivutia, Projects Manager and Audio Engineer at Ketebul Music explained that despite the South of Tanzania having a rich folk music heritage, thanks to the Yao, Makonde and Makua communities, the region has received a lot of coverage, and they opted to start with the uncharted Coastal region.

“With the guidance of Yusuf Mahmoud, festival founder of Sauti za Busara, Mandolini Kahindi, a researcher and Leo Mkanyia, a Tanzanian artist, we scoped out Tanzania's cultural music scene, seeking to discover and expose obscure and forgotten music, artists and traditional instruments,” he said.

He clarified that they tend to avoid music groups that play for tourists because often their performance is embellished to make it more entertaining.

“For Africans, music has always served a purpose bigger than entertainment only. It's also about communicating certain messages, chronicling history, enriching communal activities and as a form of social responsibility. In the Kenyan Coast, for example, we found that music plays a huge role in healing, funerals and exorcisms. In the Turkana region, every boy who comes of age must compose a song in praise of his father. It is this kind of music that usually goes undocumented. Some of these musicians don't even relate to themselves as artists, yet they are,” he explained.

The project organizers compensate the musicians, but more importantly, build networks around these village communities that ensure their continued sustenance. For example, in Uganda, they funded a group of drummers to revive the lost art of playing the royal drums of the Buganda Kingdom, and the group now organizes its own shows. With the marginalized pygmy community – the Batwa – of the Kisoro Hills at the border of Uganda and Congo, Singing Wells made a documentary about their music and culture, and had a local tourist hotel buy the documentary in bulk to distribute to the tourists, with proceeds going back to the community. 

SWP is fully documented on the website It is intended to be a formidable archive of East African music.

Watch The Singing Wells Project video of the Kika Boys playing the Kankasa Drums in Kidinda Village, Uganda.



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