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Tanzanian Swahili Blues Band in town

By Samuel Getachew

Leo Mkanyia and his band, one of the most acclaimed African bands hailing from Tanzania, the Swahili Blues Band, is visiting Addis Ababa for the month of June. They are to perform at various locations, including the Hilton, Ramada and Mama’s Kitchen restaurant and help introduce the music of the blues (African style) made famous by the likes of jazz great, BB King to a new audience.

The Reporter was invited to experience the sound of the band, as they prepared to sing at Mama’s Kitchen on Thursday, June 8. “I love Ethiopia, love the people and the atmosphere is nothing I have ever seen,” the lead guitarist of the group, Leo, told The Reporter. “The music of Ethiopia, the food, the unique hospitality of the Ethiopian society is beautiful to a fault,” as the band nodded in full endorsement.  

The son of a talented guitarist from Dar es Salaam (a.k.a. Dar), Leo was introduced to music at a young age like all of his siblings. His father, a quiet and dignified jazz giant on his own right and a member of the band and was the biggest inspiration for Leo. It was also an added pressure, not only to be at the bands personal best, but to exemplify and meet the demands and standards of his father.

The music of the Swahili Blues band is unique, as the patrons of both Mama’s Kitchen (on Thursday) and Ramada (on Friday) found out. (They are to play at the Hilton tonight). For them, they describe their sound as “Swahili blues”.  Alternating in Swahili and French, they even insert quickly adopted words such as “Emelesalehu” (I will be back) in their songs. To them, that is their way of paying tribute to a country that has made an impression and one they want to still be engaged in past their temporary stay.

Wearing colorful shirts, with images of Nelson Mandela and Jimi Hendrix on two consecutive days, Leo told The Reporter that both of these men, one former President of South Africa and a legend guitarist had constructed an image of how he ought to live his life – as an artist and activist.

“I like Mandela, for all the good ideals he stood for, his forgiveness nature, while Jimi Hendrix was the standard for every guitarist to aspire to become, and I am no exception, he said. “Mandela made me an activist, while Jimi made me a guitarist.

Leo has toured the prestigious stages, from Uganda and to the United Kingdom, while his activism work has had him tour his home country in its many parts, singing and preaching on important social issues, such as on the AIDS epidemic issues of his land.

Leo’s musical career started in earnest, borrowing his father’s guitar but it was not until 2010, in his early 30’s, he was able to release his full album – Dunia Hii (This World), followed by Jasho Langu in 2011 and Bangili in 2017. Each a reflection of his own experience – as a traveler, new father and with the 2017 effort, his admiration for Ethiopian Jazz great, Mulatu Astatke.

The father of a young girl, he has also become a feminist of some sort. The experience of fatherhood has mellowed him, helped him transition as a man bound by a desire to see a world where gender parity, equality and fairness is the norm of society. 

A frequent wine drinker, he is also excited to discover great wines made in Ethiopia, in particularly the Acacia brand, the sponsor of the band in their month long voyage in Ethiopia. They seem humbled by the many people to witness the early shows of the band in the capital and expect to see more people come to their future shows.

For Leo, he hopes the bands performance in the country will produce a conversation, a mutual musical journey and the inspiration for the bands next album.  “That will ultimately be the legacy of our visit to beautiful Ethiopia”. The tour is sponsored by Castle Winery – as part of Acacia wines being accorded ISO 22000: 2005 for food safety management system certificate.