Interview: Q&A with SinaUbi Zawose & Pamoja Zanzibar – “The Power of Gogo Music Showed Us the Way” (April 2024)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Valentin Rudloff

Zanzibar, an island steeped in musical traditions shaped by centuries of cultural exchange, sets the stage for Pamoja Zanzibar. Born on the Southeastern coast of Unguja island, near the laid-back fishing village of Jambiani, this one-of-a-kind collaboration unites Polish bassist and producer Radek Bond with SinaUbi Zawose, a torchbearer of Tanzania’s renowned Zawose musical legacy. Together, they forge a mesmerising sound where intricate Gogo melodies and soulful vocals intertwine with the deep, resonant pulse of Bond’s basslines.

We first experienced their dynamic energy at their showcase for Visa for Music in Rabat last November. Intrigued by their unique partnership, we reached out to Radek and SinaUbi for a Q&A interview to unearth the origins of their unlikely collaboration, ignited by Bond’s fascination with Zanzibar. We delved into their creative reimagining of traditional Gogo music, a genre historically absent of bass and drums, and discussed their debut album, GOGO HIP. The musicians also shared insights into Zanzibar’s music scene and the impact of their collaboration.

How did the collaboration come about, and what inspired the idea of presenting modern Gogo tribe music through this partnership?

Radek Bond: I came to East Africa in 2019. In Zanzibar, I accidentally purchased a bush plot to develop. Almost immediately, I started PAMOJA ZANZIBAR activities around the island’s east coast, which was part of my research into the local music community. I learned about SinaUbi in mainland Tanzania and invited him to join the Pamoja Zanzibar Festival 2021. It was a nice experience, and we collaborated again in 2022, playing a tour in Zanzibar and the mainland with a combined Tanzanian/Polish lineup. Not only did we have fun on stage, but we also connected as a team. That same year, we decided to apply for the IOMMA Indian Ocean Music Market and were selected to perform on Reunion Island as SinaUbi Zawose & Pamoja Zanzibar.

Your music combines traditional Gogo music with contemporary elements. Could you elaborate on how this fusion of traditional and contemporary styles manifests in both the music and the accompanying dances?

RB: Traditional Gogo music doesn’t use a drum set and lacks a bass instrument. I was happy to see that my bass sound, which I prefer low and muffled, fits Gogo music very well as it doesn’t interfere and is very supportive. Also, the way I like to play the bass fits Gogo music, gives it a warm bottom, creating a nice “pillow” for high-pitched Gogo instruments. Ngoma, dance, is an important part of Gogo culture, and for me, that is another challenging experience to try to take part in the movement while keeping the groove going. I’m really enjoying this vibe on stage.

SinaUbi, coming from the renowned Zawose musical family, how does this family legacy influence your approach to music, especially in preserving the traditional Gogo music of your father and uncles?

SinaUbi Zawose: The Zawose family has a rich musical heritage, known for our contributions to traditional Tanzanian music. Being part of this musical lineage means I carry on the traditions, techniques, and styles passed down from my father and uncles. This heritage plays a significant role in shaping my musical identity and approach, inspiring us to preserve and innovate upon the traditional Gogo music while staying true to our roots. I see it as a great benefit and a responsibility, but I also feel I have gained clarity and guidance on unlocking distinct and unique musical desires through our indigenous music.

In your collaborative journey, what has been the most surprising or unexpected aspect that you both have discovered about each other’s musical influences, and how has this influenced the evolution of the project’s sound?

SZ: The journey started after Bond invited me to his Pamoja Zanzibar Festival, which connected us. We didn’t even plan that we would create a band, but the power of Gogo music and its history showed us the way to do what we do now. Surprising things or an unexpected aspect is that we have some commonalities, and by listening to each other, it helps us to grow stronger in our relationship.

Given the cultural diversity represented in your collaborative project, how do you navigate potential challenges in merging traditional Gogo tribe music with contemporary elements, and what strategies do you employ to ensure a harmonious fusion that resonates with a global audience?

SZ: My musical journey is a testament to the power of preserving and celebrating cultural heritage, as I continue to draw on my roots to create music that is both rooted in tradition and relevant to contemporary audiences. To fuse Gogo music isn’t an easy job, of course, because it is a very different style, from tempo and time signature to tuning, etc. Gogo music evolved through the Wagogo people’s language, but I feel there’s potential that we have. When we are invited to perform for a new crowd, we are not worried because we’re going to perform music some people have never heard before. And people love it; nobody can really judge it because it’s our own thing. It’s a new style but very interesting as well.

Your album, “GOGO HIP,” is a little over six months old. How do you feel about its release, and with hindsight, what do you like, or is there anything you would have done differently?

SZ: I am very happy with the result; I can say the GOGO HIP album is my life because all the songs actually reflect my life and my story. I’ve been dreaming of recording these songs in very high-quality production, and we did that thanks to the producer of the album, Radek Bond, who did a big job. Now that we have a nice product and the album is doing well, even slowly, but it will reach more people, I hope.

GOGO HIP made the TOP 20 in the World Music Charts Europe last year, which means a lot to me because I know there are hundreds of albums dropping every day and our album to get such recognition is amazing. I invite everyone to listen to our album because GOGO HIP comes from the hearts of our community. It’s on Spotify and other streaming services, also available on CD and as a download directly from our Bandcamp page.

What themes or messages are explored in this album, and how does it contribute to the broader narrative of preserving Swahili and Gogo tribe songs?

SZ: My music often reflects themes of identity, tradition, and community, drawing inspiration from the rich tapestry of Tanzanian culture. My songs convey messages of unity, resilience, and reverence for the land and its people, echoing the values and spirit of traditional Tanzanian music.

SinaUbi, having started as a traditional dancer and ngoma player at a young age under the guidance of your father, how has your early exposure to traditional Tanzanian music shaped your musical journey and the messages you convey in your songs?

SZ: Honestly, I didn’t have plans to become a traditional musician and perform music from my original tribe, the Gogo. In primary and secondary schools, I was a rapper, an MC. I loved Hip Hop so much that I performed it at school graduations and became the best rapper in my school. After finishing secondary education, back home, I started to learn traditional instruments like Zeze and Ilimba by listening to recordings. My teacher was Lucas Ubi Zawose, brother of Hukwe Ubi Zawose. He showed me some techniques on how to play Gogo instruments, so from that moment, I started to write my own songs. And it wasn’t so hard because I already had those hip-hop songs. I was getting better at writing songs every day, but in fact, hip-hop and pop songs shaped me.

Early exposure as a dancer and ngoma player under the guidance of my family has had a profound impact on my musical journey and the messages conveyed in my songs. That early immersion in traditional music and dance has not only provided me with a strong foundation in the rhythms, melodies, and storytelling techniques of Tanzanian music but has also instilled in me a deep appreciation for my cultural heritage.

Radek, as the founder of Pamoja Zanzibar, could you share your perspective on collaborating with SinaUbi Zawose and the vision behind Pamoja Zanzibar in fostering artistic connections?

RB: I can say SinaUbi plays a significant role in my musical presence in East Africa. Even though he’s on the mainland and I’m in Zanzibar, we’re always working a lot together, playing local shows, shooting music videos, and looking for ways to promote the band. We’ve been performing at Visa for Music Morocco last year, and it was another big experience. Every big travel is also consolidating the team. We can count only on each other I’d say, meaning that we need to work hard ourselves as there’s no one really to push us yet. So we know that if we don’t do it, nobody will. It’s good we can motivate each other positively.

Pamoja Zanzibar is about interactions. I think there might still be a lot to explore on that basis. I want to keep it open for pure, original, and unique music. I’m constantly thinking about directions but I also make my decisions instinctively, so let’s see where we go. I have recently started a “Pamoja Garden” series – whenever I meet someone interesting, I invite them to perform together a little piece of music in my bush where I live. Even though Zanzibar is booming, Pamoja Garden is still surrounded by nature, blending with all island sounds, birds, wind, ocean… It’s a wonderful feeling to be part of this universe.

Radek, how do you navigate and integrate your Eastern European musical background into the collaborative efforts with Tanzanian musicians, and in what ways do these cross-cultural influences contribute to the uniqueness of the music produced by SinaUbi Zawose & Pamoja Zanzibar?

RB: I’m running the Eklektik Session festival in Wrocław, in Poland, which has been around for almost 20 years. We present various music styles and invite artists from a wide stylistic range. They perform on the same stage in one evening. I know it might be for a limited audience, but in fact, it’s not the quantity that matters. The final night of the festival is a performance by the Eklektik Orchestra that I join, but not as a classic leader. I provide some guidance but I’m just one of the musicians really. I have been putting on one eklektic stage artists who would’ve probably never met, for sure not on such occasion. So I realised perhaps I’m able to make it work. If you have a sophisticated concept but give others trust, respect, and understanding you can achieve a lot together. And that works both ways, of course. I really appreciate and enjoy being around creative open people, like Sinaubi. And I love to travel, explore cultures, musical instruments, listen to stories, and simply share these little moments of life with people on the way. We come from different places but perhaps there is more that unites us.

What are your perspectives on the current music scene in Zanzibar? Are there specific local musicians or bands you would recommend for a broader understanding of the region’s musical diversity?

RB: I would highly recommend the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar – one of the oldest taarab orchestras. Back in the days, they have been touring quite a lot in Europe, also with Bi Kidude, the iconic taarab singer born in 1910 in Oman’s Zanzibar. She lived 103 years. I have worked with CMC; they are amazing performers, very kind, and so professional! When I invited them the first time to perform at the Pamoja Zanzibar Festival, they arrived ahead of schedule. I was shocked as many local artists are more on.. “African time”… or even wouldn’t show up. I also like the music of Siti Muharam, great-granddaughter of Siti Binti Saad, the mother of taarab, being the first woman in East Africa to record music in an album ever. Siti Muharam performs with a great band. Of course, nowadays there’s more contemporary modern music in Zanzibar, mixing traditional and modern styles. From my yard, Jambiani, big up to Amani and Wakushi band, they perform mainly reggae music around beach bars, and they do it very well. I also love Dufu drumming, that you can experience on Arabic holidays when a group of drummers are moving along the streets celebrating. You rather won’t find a Dufu concert; it’s more a local street thing, something under Zanzibar’s skin.

Last year, you toured Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania together. Could you share some memorable moments or experiences from this unique Polish-Tanzanian musical journey?

RB: My main concern before the tour was how we’re going to connect, both on a musical and personal level. When we met for the first rehearsal and little warm-up show at Sweet Beach Zanzibar, it was exciting, but I felt a little nervous. We were six different individuals in the band: 3 musicians from Poland, 3 from Tanzania with very different backgrounds. Eventually, we all enjoyed not only the shows but being off stage as well. The tour schedule was tight with a lot of traveling, and touring a big band in Africa is a bit more challenging, but it’s been such a great time. It was also my first visit to Bagamoyo, the hometown of SinaUbi. We invited local artists, Jhikoman and Vitali Maembe of Bagamoyo. It’s a very unique place where Hukwe Ubi Zawose, appointed by Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere, founded Tasumba Art College. So there is a lot of creative vibe in the air.

Looking ahead, what are the future plans for SinaUbi Zawose and Pamoja Zanzibar? Are there upcoming projects, collaborations, or initiatives that you can share with your audience?

RB: We have just released a new music video from the GOGO HIP album. We were shooting in Bagamoyo with a vibrant team of local fashion designers, actors, and dancers. Next, we are coming to Europe again this summer; we are invited to perform at Afrika Festival Hertme in The Netherlands, which we are looking very much forward to. Then we’ll be in Poland for a couple of weeks, playing shows in a trio with SinaUbi and Bahati Zawose, and when not performing, we will work on the second album. We have some plans for guests but it’s still too early to announce anyone.

Can you share your personal musical tastes and most recent influences? What music are you currently listening to?

SZ: Mostly I listen to Afro-fusion, African traditional music, afrobeat, Hip Hop, and a little bit of amapiano. I like the taste of good music.

RB: I grew up listening mainly to rock and blues. Then I was introduced to jazz, Miles Davis, who attracted me also as a character. I especially liked his electric albums, Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and more wild sessions like Agharta. At some point, I turned towards live electronic music; it became my obsession and I was looking for ways to perform it with my live drum’n’bass band Miloopa. In Zanzibar, of course, I came across taarab, a very special local mix of Arabic and African music. People on the island identify so much with traditional taarab music, they love to sing favorite songs and dance to kidumbaki, which is a smaller ensemble with more movement, often engaged at weddings.

My musical taste could also be explored through Silent Witness releases, an “open” solo project featuring artists like Mieko Miyazaki on Japanese koto, Loup Barrow on a beautifully sophisticated instrument called “cristal baschet”. A recent release features Jimi Tenor, Moussa Diallo, Stevo Atambire of the superb band from Ghana Alostmen, also Norwegian musicians, Erland Dahlen, drummer of Nils Petter Molvaer, and Mari Kvien Brunvoll of Building Instrument, a great Norwegian band. I was very much influenced by Scandinavian music and I’m very happy to have such amazing musicians on my album. It’s an honor. But I listen to music of all genres, dubs, early dancehall, brass bands, ambient, classical Indian… you name it.

For someone who has never listened to SinaUbi Zawose and Pamoja Zanzibar before, how would you introduce the project and describe its unique sound?

SZ: Well, this sound you cannot find anywhere because it’s traditional Gogo music mixing with modern techniques. This music has a history from the Wagogo Tribe Music from Dodoma, Tanzania. Me, as a new generation of Wagogo people, as fresh blood, I add my feelings to it. We invite all people to follow and join us on this unforgettable journey. I introduce this project as a fusion of traditional East African sounds with contemporary influences. The unique sound of the project combines elements of traditional Tanzanian music with modern production techniques, creating a rich and dynamic musical experience that is both rooted in tradition and forward-thinking. Sinaubi Zawose & Pamoja Zanzibar is characterised by intricate rhythms, vibrant melodies, and soulful vocals that transport the listener to a world that is both familiar and exotic.

Photo ©: Valentin Rudloff