Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Behind a barbershop in Dar es Salaam

Dar es Salaam was a sleepy fishing village not so long ago. It’s Swahili name, Mzizma, meant ‘Healthy Town’. That’s not the obvious description for the sprawling mega-city port that dominates the Tanzanian coast today, although having arrived via Lagos, Dar is a beautiful city in comparison, with a gorgeous coastline and an interesting mix of Arab, European and east African architecture. But what markontour enjoyed most here was the music, even it took a speakeasy behind a barbershop to provide it.

Dar es Salaam has been one of the most important settlements in East Africa since the Sultan of Zanzibar invested in a splurge of construction here in 1862. Monsoon winds enabled swift passage from India and Persia and the town quickly flourished as an inter-continental port. Slaves and ivory topped the list of traded commodities and in there is a particularly disturbing photograph in the National Museum of a small child chained to railway-sleeper-sized block of wood she was forced to carry on her head to prevent escape.

Early on the Portuguese managed slaving, in cahoots with local tribal chiefs, but that small nation was quickly over-powered by German colonial conquest, as the bigger European powers sought to divide up Africa.

German interest and influence is still strong today, although imperial ownership passed to Great Britain after the First World War. The local population seems to have become more cosmopolitan after it was integrated into the British Empire, including a large Indian community, although characteristically my ancestors also brought racial segregation. By the time of the Second Great War, Dar’s population has swelled from 20,000 to 90,000, but its the most important chapter of its modern history was still a decade away.

That came in 1954, with the formation of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), a movement that would swiftly deliver independence from colonialism in 1961 under the leadership of Julius Nyere. As one of the first countries to break free of British rule, Tanzania (formed when Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar in 1964), and Dar es Salaam in particular, would become home to many of the rebel leaderships in exile from other African countries, including the African National Congress (ANC).

The Dar Centre for Architectural Heritage has great photographs on display charting the city’s role as global centre for rebels, and featured alongside Nelson Mandela and other ANC luminaries are also Malcolm X and Che Guevara, who visited in 1964 and 1965 respectively.

This much I learned in short, but engaging, lunch-break visits to Dar’s two main museums. True, the National Museum is not going to win gallery prizes, but the Centre for Architectural Heritage has a thoughtful new permanent exhibition and looks like it is being carefully renovated. A planned rooftop restaurant will become a great place from which to survey the city.

The view of the sea from the palm trees at my hotel was also pretty wonderful, but my main memory of my first visit to Dar es Salaam is going to be of the nine-piece band who entertained us in the small hours in back room behind a barbershop.

As my friend pointed out, each song followed the same pattern: a slow-ish start that focused on story-telling vocals, followed by a chapter-closing musical interlude, and then a pick-up in pace that brought the crowd to the dancefloor.

It was captivating stuff, full of jangly guitars with beautiful up and down melodies, along with lots of drums and three harmonising vocalists. The crowd of late-night revellers were apparently a well-heeled bunch, although it didn’t look that way – more like a night at the Spanish bars off Tottenham Court Road back in the ’90s. More mysteriously, the owners chose to accompany the live performance with a TV showing Titanic minus the audio on three screens around the venue. As far as I could see, most punters’ eyes were firmly glued on the band or the dance-floor, but the bass player and rhythm guitarist managed to bang out their chords with necks turned to the screen throughout the performance (see photographic evidence above)!

Sadly, I don’t know what the venue was called or how to get there again. We were taken by a local friend and I can’t find any mention of it on Googlemaps. Trust markontour, however, and if you ever find yourself near a barbershop in Dar es Salaam late at night and you hear music, follow the sound. You won’t be disappointed!

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