Another hit release from Bongoland is taking the Kenyan music scene by storm. Enthusiasts of this popular Tanzanian music genre, and there are thousands in Kenya as well, are being swept to the dance floors by the song, Jitolee — Kiswahili for volunteer. Behind the hit are Tanzania’s top artistes, Prof Jay and Mwasiti, but the two just made guest appearances; the main singer is a very interesting artiste, Mzungu Kichaa.
As the name suggests, Mzungu Kichaa is a Dane. His real name is Aspen Sorensen. He acquired the stage name, Mzungu Kichaa (Kiswahili for a crazy white man) because of his skin colour and wizardry on the guitar. However, you consider him Caucasian only when he opens his mouth to speak or sing. He speaks Swahili more fluently than some of the natives of this Kiswahili speaking region.
Mzungu Kichaa moved to Tanzania from Denmark with his parents, who worked in development projects in the country in the early 1990s. Although he went to international schools in Tanzania alongside diplomats’ children, his love for music saw him mingle more with the locals, especially musicians.
“Unlike the other mzungu (white) children, I learnt to speak fluent Kiswahili and even sang their songs, much to the surprise of my parents,” he told Review in an interview in Nairobi the other day. Keen to take his musical aspirations further after school, he approached P-Funk, a Tanzanian producer, who founded Bongo Records.
His skills on the guitar meant he was always called upon to play for recording artistes. Consequently, Kichaa found himself playing a vital role in the birth of the now popular bongo flavour genre. Do you sometimes wonder where the music type originated from? The beat and the poetic nature of the bongo songs, Kichaa says, were actually the creation of Bongo Records.
In recent years, the genre has been made popular all over East Africa by the likes of Matonya, Ali Kiba, Mallow and Lady JD, putting Tanzania in the music charts. Other than play instruments for other artistes, Mzungu Kichaa was keen on launching his own music career.
He released his debut single, Mambo ya Pwani, in 2001, which topped the East African charts. He explains that it was done by a mixture of Tanzanians and a foreigner, but that listening to a Mzungu sing in Kiswahili also played a big role. It was also unique as it was one of the first songs to take traditional Tanzanian music and fuse it with hip-hop.
“I took a while before releasing other songs because there was demand for me to play instruments for other wasani (musicians),” he recalls. “I also wanted to start my own labels.” His debut album, Tuko Pamoja (We’re together) was finally released in May, last year, under his own label — Caravan Records. The infectious Jitolee is one of the tracks in the album, and it reached the Top 3 on the East African TV video charts.
Following the release of the album, he went on a tour of East Africa, performing in Mombasa, Nairobi, Arusha, Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar to expand his fan base. His most inspiring songs speak about political injustice, poverty, inequality and ways in which the world can unite for greater progress.
Others such as oYah oYah are feel-good songs. In this particular famous track, he boasts of his musical achievements, which involves performing alongside some top Congolese artistes and playing the violin in the legendary Taarab Orchestra of Zanzibar. The song also describes his experience of living with the Maasai, learning the their culture and taking part in cultural events like being modelled to be a young Maasai warrior.
A holder of a bachelors degree in ethnomusicology (study of cultural music) and a masters in African studies, Kichaa’s current has a mission to open the European market to East African music, and with a foot in both Africa and the West, he is able to transcend barriers, build a bridge between cultures and reinforce the concept of music as a universal language.
Ironically, his skin pigment has sometimes worked against him when it comes to performing at music festivals in Europe. “Some organisers of festivals have dropped me from their list when they discover that although I sing in Swahili, I am actually a mzungu,” he rues.
But this hasn’t deterred his mission to promote East African artistes in the Scandinavian countries. Last year, he had a concert in Denmark and Ashimba from Tanzania was the opening act. He has also performed with Tanzanian hip-hop artiste Fid Q in Denmark, and there are plan for more.
“As you know, Denmark is hosting the World Music Expo (Womex) for the next two years, and there are plans to perform there with a few artistes from this region,” he reveals. Womex is an international music fair that brings together professionals from the world of folk, ethnic and traditional music, and includes concerts, conferences and documentary films.
It contributes to networking as an effective means of promoting music and culture of all kinds across frontiers. Traditional band Kenge Kenge and Suzzana Owiyo are among Kenyan artistes who have been privileged to perform at Womex. Jitolee has been chosen for the Womex CD, which will be distributed with the Womex edition of the magazine songline.
He has also received accolades, including winning the best upcoming artiste award at the African Achievement event held in Copenhagen last year. At the moment, Mzungu Kichaa is planning for a performance at the Sauti Za Busara — the biggest music festival in East Africa — to be held in Zanzibar next month. Then, he will be in Nairobi for a concert to popularise his album.