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Music review – Vijana Jazz Band

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Being a musician in Tanzania in the 1970s had its blessings and downturns. On the one side, the government sponsored several bands, allowing young artists to blossom even though they were penniless. On the other side, Tanzania was not the best place to be a musician. To put as the envoy of the Washington Post did, Tanzania was the only country in Africa that did not fight a war, and looked like he had just finished twenty years civil strife. Because of its socialist government, Tanzania was left out in the cold by major powers, and did not have the facilities to record music and promote artists. Tanzanians who wanted to record a vinyl had to travel to Nairobi or Mombasa. Selling LPs was another problem. Since the market was small, to recover costs, recording companies accepted to record a band only once the older recording had sold out. It could mean one or two years.

This is why, on the 2nd of January 1975. The members of the Vijana Jazz Band from Tanzania entered the Hi-Fi Studios at Pioneer House on Government Road in Nairobi, Kenya, and recorded 6 tracks under the pseudonym of the Koka Koka Sex Battalion. Along with Rumba and Kamata Sukuma, Koka Koka was a style of music, but the band’s name was a scam. The Vijana Jazz Band had been founded in 1971 by John Ondoro Chacha. They received some support from the government to produce muziki ya dansi (dance music) but they badly needed the cash from recording to make a living. This is why they recorded under different names and with different labels. They are thought to be among the creator of different style of music: sindimba, heka heka, koka koka, watoto wa nyumbani and pamba moto. After reaching nationwide popularity in the 1980s, they almost disappeared after the death of founder Ondoro Chaha in 1990.
The recently released CD Vijana Jazz Band, The Koka Koka Sex Battalion, is the result of Doug Paterson’s research. “As I scoured the AIT Records archive for Vijana materials – he says – I was puzzled by a set of songs under the name Koka Koka Sex Battalion. As I suspected, Koka Koka Sex Battalion was indeed Vijana Jazz, but under an assumed name. This turned out to be a scheme of the studio producer who tricked the label bosses into commissioning more songs than budgeted”.
Those recording are now republished in digital format, and they give an interesting retrospective of East African music in the 1970s. At that time, the common market of East Africa seemed to be a reality and people and goods moved freely between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Music was one of the commodities Tanzania could export. Their Pan-African lyrics, the highly rhythmic music and the guitars loops always created a frenzy on the dance floor. The simple English and the exotic (to Kenyan ears, used to a different dialect of the language) Swahili did the rest. Listen to Koka Koka No. 1 or Gwe Manetu Fii to realize it.
The Vijana Jazz Band was not the only one on the scene. They were eclipsed later on by Congolese Jazz bands from Katanga, and lately by a growing musical scene. Their music, or at least that of their followers, can still be heard in small villages on the coast, near Mombasa and in Sheila, in the Archipelago of Lamu. They are played by people who seem to have remained in the 70s, anyway. This is a good record, if you want to travel back in time and capture some of the optimism of that time.

Vijana Jazz Band, Koka Koka Sex Battalion, Sterns, LC 15328.

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