During much of the 20th century, it wasn’t unusual for a country’s government to define itself as the primary arbiter of national life and culture in a way that is unimaginable today. In the west, that usually (although not always!) meant the creation of relatively high-minded institutions like the BBC. In a tightly controlled socialist state like Tanzania during the rule of Julius Nyerere, this attitude tended to result in a far more repressive system, one that allowed only a scant few outlets for artistic expression. During that period, one of the most important of these outlets was Radio Tanzania, the state-sponsored and sole radio station of the nation. If you weren’t played there, you weren’t played anywhere. Literally.
As a result, for a period of several decades prior to the 1994 liberalization of the airwaves that finally spelled an end to its monopoly, Radio Tanzania played host to the cream of the Tanzania’s musical crop, recording artists who performed everything from ancient folk musics to the up-to-the-minute dance styles that ruled the nation’s night clubs. Recordings of the groups playing these latter styles form a particularly impressive body of work; supported by government funding, musicians attained an impressive level of financial stability, receiving regular wages instead of having to rely on record sales (the downside being that they didn’t end up owning the rights to their music or, in many cases, even their instruments). A great number of these performances were recorded onto carefully notated analogue tape with the help of aging machine donated by the BBC, and then filed away into a growing archive.
That archive eventually came to comprise an enormous amount of music- estimates put the total at over 100,00 hours. And after the eventual collapse of the socialist government, an influx of western pop music that doomed many of the most popular performers to nearly overnight obsolescence, and an entire generation of technological change, the tapes are still there. Sitting in enormous closet, and gathering dust. Dangerous, tape-destroying dust.
Which is where the Radio Tanzania project comes in. Knowing that the rapidly ageing archive contained endless hours of irreplaceable music, they realized that time was running out to salvage its contents. In order to forestall this loss, they have set out to digitize as much as they as they possibly can. Tape by tape by tape. A long, and painstaking process? Yes. But a worthwhile one? We think so!
The project needs all the help it can get- so if you want to support it, you should go HERE to find out more information. Donations will go towards operational expenses and (most importantly!) the purchase of more digitizing equipment.
To get a sense of what’s at stake, listen to some of the music! Not to give anything away, but…. it’s pretty incredible. And given the fact that it’s only the tiniest fragment of what’s in there, it really underscores how important this work is.