An Interview with Swahili Ally
"A country which has no culture is not free," says Tanzanian musician Swahili Ally a.k.a Digo.
Swahili, you are based in Dar es Salaam, the Mecca of the Tanzanian music scene. Which problems do you have as a musician in Dar?
I face several problems and challenges. First of all, it's hard to get space to present my music. And the people still do not believe that traditional music is good music which needs to get attention. You need to cultivate your own culture. You know, a country which has no culture is not free.
You are saying Tanzania misses its culture?
Yes, Tanzania misses its culture! Songs of our culture and our culture as a whole are not been given space. The commercial music has taken over the whole country and we as traditional musicians, representing and cultivating our culture, have been left out.
What do you think where does that come from?
I think it has to do with commercial musicians who are seen as examples nowadays. I think the current society does not know about traditional musicians who were successful. I mean there are legendary ones like Tatu Nane who among the first ones to successfully present traditional music even far away. And they were being loved for that. Nowadays young musicians heavily copy western music and it seems like this is the music which gets attention and with which you can make more money. Local music is said to be music which is difficult to listen to. But if people would listen more to local traditional music they would get more used to it.
Can the government improve the situation of traditional music in Tanzania?
The government and the media need to bring back musical infrastructure so that people can rediscover their own society. People need to hear songs from former times. And the government needs to open up much more music academies. Then people will be able to know traditional music instruments and to create their own music. Without this it will be difficult, because the society has forgotten its origins. People have forgotten what is part of their own African identity. Now they need to get food which is not yet there, but which they need to know.
You play the Kora, a typical West African instrument even though you come from Tanga, a city close to the Kenyan border. How did this come about?
You're right, the Kora comes from West Africa. But I met a European musician who played the Kora and that inspired me. I wanted to play the Kora and to mix it with my own music, because it matches perfectly with my own voice and my own style of music. Also originally the Digo people migrated from West Africa long time ago, so my family roots have kind of a West African origin.
Where did you learn to play the Kora?
I was lucky to be taught to play the Kora by Ebrima Mbye from Gambia when he was staying on Zanzibar for six months. He worked as a volunteer at the Dhow Music Academy and I had the opportunity to stay there as well. He taught me how to play Kora in a typical Gambian way, which is the original one. It therefore dominates my own style of playing the Kora nowadays.
Storytelling is an important element of the Digo culture as well as of the Kora culture. Do you see yourself more as a musician or as a storyteller?
I see myself as a musician who tells stories. In my music I talk about where we come from, where we are and where we are heading to. Through the way I am doing this I try to remind the society of its own people and ethnic groups and to show them that they still exist and that they are still able to influence things.
Your grandparents introduced you to the world of Digo music and passed you on the knowledge about it. What role do your grandparents have and how do they influence you nowadays?
My grandparents still influence my music even though they are no longer there. I still draw on the advices they gave me – they make me unique, they help me to be different. When I composed my melodies my grandfather gave me some assistance sometimes: he told me what to do and what to change. When I wrote my lyrics he told me when I did mistakes and corrected them. He is therefore a person who is an important part in my life. He pushed me and made me understand many things.