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Destination Festivals: Tanzania’s Ongala Music Festival – “the festival of conscience”

The second annual Ongala Music Festival took place on August 23 to 25 in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. The festival named after Tanzanian musician Remmy Ongala highlights musical talents and creative collaborations in East Africa.



We left it at Bagamoyo, like pour your heart. 

But then there was more to it than fine beaches, nice weather and great music. 

Later Saturday evening, I bumped into Aziza Ongala, the festival founder. We wrapped out heads around this pour youth hear thing. It’s connected to slavery. Bwaga Moyo was that last port through which slaves poured their hearts all out before shipment. Yeah. That tells you that you got to be a conscious man, when you go to Bagamoyo, and you will meet many conscious people at the festival. 

The Sarabi Experience 


Mandela, passes for the reincarnation of young fella. It reminds me of words of my father in music, Mr. Tabu Osusa, who argues that Felas successor doesn’t have to be a Kuti. In at article published by Music in Africa, Tabu argues that everyone is looking at looking at Femi and Seun Kuti yet the successor doesn’t even have to come from Nigeria. 

Mandela opened the night, backed by his band made of his original Sarabi band, and new members of a finely aged band from Tanzania. His first track kicked in, so finely built on the Afrobeat, and it felt like the reincarnation of Fela Kuti. 


Mandela grew up playing music in the Eastlands of Nairobi, together with his teen brothers and sisters in band called Sarabi. At Sarabi, they build a successful brand of conscious music crafted over unique blend of Afrobeat under the stewardship of NDECH, their mentor and former Eric Wainaina’s percussionist. 

Sarabi toured the world, and some of their highlights includes opening for Habib Koite in Ethiopia and performing a major show at Roskilde Festival.

Read: Sarabi band makes history in Denmark

Bands grow, and Sarabi has grown too. Mandela has shifted base to Daresalam where he is building a culture of conscious music in a foreign land. For a long time, whether it’s Mandela or Sarabi, or both, they represent hope in the face of Africa today. 


The Zawose Spirit 

Tanzania is rich in music and heritage, and some of the stories you could explore include that Zawose family – from Dr. Hukwe Zawose. Signed and released under real world records, the same label that released and made world famous the likes of the late Ayub Ogada, Geoffrey Oryema and Remmy Ongala himself.

Dr. Hukwe Zawose — singer, educator, instrument builder, cultural conservationist. Photo credit:

 Real World asserts that Zawose “was a musician of great significance —both as a national treasure and as a magical character of almost mythical proportions amongst his own people and to his fans around the world”. Indeed, he grew an empire of musicians who continue to conquer the world with the same strength as he did. 

His eldest son Msafiri Zawose recently released UHAMIAJUI album with Soundway records, an album “that redefines the boundaries of gogo music”. He tours extensively across Europe and America. Pendo Zawose opened the Saturday night show. Sinaubui Zawose recently performed at East Africa Got Talent. This musical family has kept the tradition of zeze and ilimba traditional instruments alive, in addition to being ambassadors of gogo music to the world.

Msafiri Zawose

The Remmy Revolution 

BONGO BEATS band is the ashes that remained of Dr. Remmy Ongala, and his son Tom is revived the musical spirit of the family. On stage, he quips “Baba ndiye amekwenda, watoto wamebaki” to mean its just the father that’s gone, the children have remained. TOM Ongala belted several hits from his father’s repertoire, and I couldn’t help but pick for you this one called Muziki 

Muziki (music) is a calling, it’s a lesson, it’s a cry, don’t see me sing and think I am happy, I also sad inside my hear” This is the kind of timeless reflections that Remmy would sing in his music. People spoke big about his heart – his generosity was beyond measure. Most people said that Remmy had a big heart, and you had no reason to doubt that because the festival itself was a big heart gesture. 


Tom Ongala

Karola, a song that should be played on repeat today – it connects us at the right point, and points at what you give is what you receive, you give good you get back good, you give bad you get it back. It warns us of the friendships we make, it reflects on the paradox of friendship and betrayal. 

Ukiwa mpenda mabaya wewe mwenyewe hujijui. Ukiwa mpenda mabaya kila siku unasema unaonewa. Ukiwa mpenda mabaya huko unakokwenda pia ni pabaya. Ukiwa na roho mbaya kweli tutakuogopa. Ukiwa na pesa nyingi usahau hata madugu zako. Kweli walimwengu hawana wema. Mola awape nini?……………………………. Huyo unakula naye……..kumbe ni adui yako Huyo unacheka naye…..Kumbe adui yako……Karorala Karola….

Growing up listening to this music in the late 80’s and early 90’s gave a sense of a calm and collected East Africa. I remember my mom tuning in to listen to the burial of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in October 1999. 


There has been attempts to create a common economic front for the East African nations, but that doesn’t seem to be catching as much fast as the arts and creativity without boundaries that is making East Africa a creative and festival destination today.  Cultural trips to explore destinations such as Zanzibar, Arusha, Bagamoyo, Jinja, Kampala, Lunkulu and Kigali are led by friendships and curiosity amidst increasing economic and ideological tensions. 

It is my strong believe that beyond the physical borders imposed on us, Africa connects through music, and the ONgala Music Festival is in the spirit of connecting East Africa, the same way music from the Golden Era of East African music (70/80) connected Africa through Congolese rhumba and Soukous. 

Pendo Zawose