Last Wednesday, outside the coffee shop at Shoppers Plaza in Mikocheni, I sat down with the Danish Tanzanian Musician, Espen Sorensen and over a coffee, he talked to me about his evolution to Mzungu Kichaa, the struggles he went through trying to release his album and he also delved deeply into what influences his music. In his own words, this is his story.
“I became Mzungu Kichaa not too long ago…when I released my [debut] album ‘Tuko Pamoja’ in May 2009…So in that sense I am new to the game as an artist, under the name Mzungu Kichaa. But in reality…I have been around and I’ve been involved in Music ever since I was…very small. And also I have been involved in Bongo Flava since the start of Bongo Flava…recording at Bongo Records. I went to [International School of Tanganyika] with P-Funk aka Majani…just before he got expelled for stealing the school’s musical equipment so he could produce [laughs].
“So…even before [P-Funk] had Bongo Records…I worked a bit with him and he helped me record some of my demos and he was kind of the one who got me involved in Hip Hop, cause I wasn’t really a Hip Hop artist or a rapper, and I am not really even today cause my other strengths are much greater than that. So, yeah, I was around, in ’99, 2000, 2001, when Bongo Flava kind of came up as a genre, when Stevie B at Clouds FM had the program called Bongo Flava and showcased all of P-Funk’s work at Bongo Records…I did stuff behind the scenes like on Juma Nature’s  album ‘Nini Chanzo‘ and then I did this song which featured quite significantly on Solo Thang’s album, ‘Mambo ya Pwani’ which was a big hit. My role was quite significant cause I actually helped…program it, pretty much all of it, cause the remix took my guitar as the foundation of the program. So we did that and that’s kind of what made me known within the industry but I wasn’t known by the public. The name [Mzungu Kichaa] I got…at Bongo Records [given to me] by Juma Nature way back then when I was working there. So I decided to take up the name.
“The album [‘Tuko Pamoja’] was supposed to have been out in 2003. I was supposed to do the whole album with P-Funk at Bongo Records. But it got sidelined in favour of Ferooz’s debut album, ‘Safari’, which sold 500,000 copies. And that’s P-Funk’s excuse, that he had to jump on the thing that he believed in more and also what the guys at GMC [Wasanii Promoters] also believed in.
“I was at [School of Oriental and African Studies] in the United Kingdom. I kind of had to finish the whole mixing in one week. So…I didn’t have a lot of time. What happened was he then sidelined me in that week, because that was when [Ferooz’s] ‘Starehe’ came out and it just became the biggest hit in Tanzania and he had to deliver the album as fast as possible. So he couldn’t finish mixing [my album]. I then got a hold of a lawyer that ensured me he wouldn’t release it after I had gone ‘cause I thought that was his trick, which was may [me] be paranoid or mistrusting him. But at the end of the day, he couldn’t release it without me anyway, so it wasn’t gonna happen, so I was just kind of being on the safe side.
“I left Tanzania feeling very upset cause I had an amazing album and people from Clouds FM had listened to it and they were really excited about it. So I left feeling very upset and I didn’t go back to Bongo Records for about two years. And when I then got back the story has it that the hard-disk that we recorded all that stuff disappeared. So even though P-Funk wanted to do it, he couldn’t. Cause he felt really bad. So…we did ‘Jitolee’ with Professor Jay and I then finished up all the other tracks in my studio in Denmark.
“[However], because…record labels and the record industry was going down…since about…2007, when I wanted to release [my album] in the beginning of 2009, there was [no one prepared] to release it. So, I then established a record label, Caravan Records, and…worked out all the logistics and released it. And in Denmark it went quite well…I went on a tour as well to promote it in February 2009…I did Nairobi, Mombasa, mainly TV and Radio…and I did an off Sauti za Busara, Busara Xtra, in [Zanzibar] and also Alliance Francaise in Dar es Salaam and I had an official launch at Dar Live with Fid Q and Mangwea featuring on stage, which was very nice. Then I went back…and released it back in Denmark.
“My label was very small, so the…influence in the media was kind of hard. But I [was interviewed] on Danish National Radio and people were very interested in the story of me being from Africa and having released an album [entirely] in [Ki]Swahili. The big breakthrough [came after an] organization called Celebrate Africa, which is a Scandinavian organization, that celebrates African talent by holding an annual African achievement awards, and they nominated me for Best Upcoming Artist. I went there and I performed and won the award. Because [Africans] were…behind this award, it legitimized me in Europe and what I was doing. So the Danish World Music Awards also invited me to perform and nominated me.
“So things started happening from then. I went to this WOMEX, which is a big music expo. And I got the song ‘Jitolee’ in [the compilation album ‘World Music from Denmark 2009…produced in collaboration with the British music magazine Songlines]…Since then even other international media like the BBC, the German National Radio, the Norwegian National Radio, Radios in Holland have picked up on it. I don’t know what’s happening in America cause its hard to find out, there have been some DJs who have been playing it there. So that’s the history in a sense of my music.
“I decided in November  to move back [to Dar es Salaam]…because the video has become a big hit and it has been played all over East Africa. [I also wanted to] help re-release the album cause without the promotion behind it, it would kind of go [unnoticed]. It’s hard because the song [Jitolee] is so well known that to get the album as known, a lot of people who know the song might not know there is an album. So, there is [still] a lot of work to do…I have done all the TVs in Tanzania, which has been nice, interesting: Star TV, EATV, TBC and so on. Right now, I am also doing a lot in Nairobi, Kenya which is also an interesting market. I have performed live up in Naivasha and I’ve done the Patricia Show, which was broadcast recently. And then I am a couple of concerts in Nairobi and I have done Nation TV, K24, a lot of that. So there is a lot of interest in Nairobi as well.
I would say at the moment, apart from working on the promotion and just doing what the demand kind of calls me to do, I have been focusing a lot on live performances. [In the beginning of May] we started [doing] a regular event…at Runway…The idea is to [create] a Hip Hop movement in Dar es Salaam for other artists to come and sing…people have come and performed with us and it’s been quite good. We’ve had Langa, we had Dinay from Xblastaz last week and she’s gonna come for [the next one]. Chizi Mabovu has been there every time but he hasn’t got up on stage yet [laughs]. Hopefully, Fid Q, Mangwea and Professor Jay will come and do something.”
On his musical influences
“My musical influences are…many. I mean, the musicians are many and also I’ve had an education within music as well. In primary school, I studied the violin, the flute, the guitar, singing since I was very small.
“But some of the musicians who have influenced me…the most significant ones are, I would say, Bob Marley…and then of course the Congolese music, in the beginning it was Kanda Bongoman, and all those mainstream ones. But then later on, it has become some of the old Congolese musicians like Franco and Tabu Ley are some of my two of favorite singers. Jimmi Hendrix‘s [influence began] when I was abt 15, when I started playing the guitar, because of his musical talent. And even his lyricism, I like the way he writes fairly simple but also very metaphorically, and kind of poetic in a strange kind of way…in a youthful way. Yes, he inspired me a lot in the way he writes lyrics and of course the guitar.
“If I was gonna choose an album or a song, I would say, something which is very unusual I guess, but it is something that really inspires me, is some of the very early recordings in Tanzania. On 45 RPMs…but still popular music. [The] Dar es Salaam Jazz Band and Kilwa Jazz Band [are] my favorite. There is a song I can remember [called] ‘Nacheka cheka Kilwa leo.’ I picked them up in Same, actually, hunting for vinyl in Same [laughs]. I found an old DJ who used to [own] a bar and used to play them on his Phillips Changer, that drops down [laughs]. That sums [it] up Jimi Hendrix, Bon Marley, Franco, Tabu Laye of course, and Mbaraka Mwishee I’ve also listened to a lot, because he has a big catalogue, and then Kilwa Jazz and Dar es Salaam Jazz Band.
Things change a lot because you have periods in your life where you…are… researching a lot, cause I research my music, and then…it becomes a part of you. Like Jimmi Hendrix, I wouldn’t be listening to that anymore, you know. Because I have researched it all. I’d put on and reminisce and so on…[It also] depends whether its vinyl or CD [and] it matters to me because you have your CD collection which is different from your vinyl collection. So whether you are playing vinyl, your favorite is gonna be different from when you are playing CDs, cause [those] are your options, your catalogue at home. [Ok, here we go].
Her album moved me a lot, [especially it’s] Zimbabwean rhythm, the Mbira sound. Mbira is all about summoning up the spirits and talking to the ancestors. And on a lot of African instruments, if you look…at how they work, and what the ones that they use to summon up spirits, they have this vibrating resonance. They’ll have often idiophones, like the Mbira, or the zilophone, they vibrate…I remember in Zambia, there was a zilophone that you play, you dig a hole on the ground and you put it [in] and then the sound travels through the ground. So that has a big impact and reaches a lot of people and a lot of spirits. But this Mbira vibrates in a big calabash and its these vibrations, frequencies and so on that [make] the spirits come out. Also, what it is, if you talk musically, it’s cyclical, it goes on repeat, it has a pattern that repeats itself. And that [is] very trancy, you know, like, even contemporary trance or techno and so on, it’s similar in a sense. And that has a big impact on your mind whether you believe in spirits or not. So, that’s what caught me [about her music] unconsciously, subconsciously. And then also because I grew up in Zambia and Zimbabwe is very close and I have traveled there a lot and I am a fan of Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo and what she has done now as a female singer [there] is very unique and very nice. And she has an amazing voice. Another thing [about her music] as well, apart from summoning the ancestors, [is that] it is very political as well. And the history of Zimbabwe is very sad and you can feel the sorrow in the lyrics…and the power in the political message and that’s also what moved me.
[She] is another contemporary singer that I am listening to right now, from Nairobi. Wawesh, [her producer], is a good friend of mine…[So] before Dela released even, I’ve jam[ed] with her in Nairobi when I’ve visited Wawesh. I know Sauti Sol, Just A Band, and all those guys. But Dela has a very unique sound and it’s both contemporary African and it’s also contemporary, mainstream American. It…has a big, I would say, potential…across the board. What I like about her style…she is very emotional the way she sings…and then also the production of the album, Wawesh does a very good job. She has some very contemporary beats as well…she has some nice up tempo…and its very mixed, you know? It’s very loungy, you can put it on and it can be in the background while you are having dinner. And it can also be something that you could play in a club. So, it’s very diverse and I like that about it.
I have also been listening to FID Q’s new album, which I also have a track on. It’s called ‘Hey Lord.’ It’s a song where I sing in English. I wasn’t so involved in the production, I would have liked to have been more involved. But it’s good. The song that I really like on his album is the song featuring Bi Kidude, [‘Juhudi kwa Wasiojiweza’] which is very experimental and very kind of new in Bongo Flava…He has done a lot of nice tracks on that album and he’s got a lot of featuring artists and he’s done really well.
It’s not that contemporary. It came out when I was at university. I think I was doing my masters in 2005 [at SOAS]…I got a hold of this album to review, as part of school work. I did a review of it. And I was very critical…It had TY, and…he did, a collaboration with the drummer of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, which is really nice, a really nice track. It has a Tanzanian track, Hard Blasters, on it, [who] are old school, very, very early. And they have…the old school way of Tanzanian rapping, which is just different from what you hear now…The rhythm of it is very different. It is unique to Tanzania, because they hadn’t managed to copy the American way of rapping, so it’s like it’s similar to the way Xblasterz…rap, those two young guys…It’s just different, the rhythm of it. [The album] also introduced me to a number of Senegalese rappers and some of the West African rappers, which is a very interesting area…The West Africans are very far ahead, I would say, compared to Tanzanian rappers in that they are able to reach the European market and the international scene and that’s mainly through France because they are French speaking. And then also [that] has made them…able to play with live bands. I guess cause they go to international festivals and stuff. But I was very critical of it in the beginning. [However] I listened to it recently again and it’s quite a nice little thing.
I studied the whole movement of Rumba and how it was created and, being a guitarist, that was kind of my influence from African guitar styles, this Rumba and Soukous and all that… So, it traveled from Cuba…under a disguised name, it was actually Cuban Son that traveled to Congo Brazzaville, in the ‘50s, may be late ‘40s even, under the name Rumba. Because Cuban Rumba is something different. But they just changed the name of Cuban Son and put in on an album, I think it was Victor and His Master’s voice. Victor, I think, were the ones who started it off. And the albums, they are 78 RPMs, before 45 and 33 RPMs, so those old, really thick ones that had the gramophone with the big head, the big trumpet. And the purpose of the albums was to sell the gramophones, to sell the hardware. That’s where they earned money. They just had to find something that people would like. And they gave it a chance and people loved Cuban Son, disguised as Rumba…And people thought it was amazing and Franco was one of the firsts to take Cuban Son…They sang in Spanish in the beginning and then they started singing in Lingalla and changing it and then fusing it with local rhythms and creating their own African Rumba. So that whole process is very, very interesting. What happened…I guess…in year 2000, a lot of these old musicians, or this genre, from way back there became revived somehow. And people started looking at it for influence and people started listening to it, buying the records again, re-releasing [stuff] especially in Europe, in the world music industry. So, a lot of artists now started going back to their roots, and trying to do the old, original Rumba, from the ‘60s. And Sam Mwangwana did a really nice album. What he did [was], he actually went to Cuba, and played with Cuban musicians. He had the tres, which is a Cuban guitar, a very special instrument and had all these guys who play…contemporary Cuban Son today, fuse with his musicians who are playing African Rumba, because that’s where it came from…and the result was amazing…A really, really nice album. Very nice.
(Photo: Mzungu Kichaa performing at the Sauti za Busara Music Festival in Zanzibar in February 2010 by Pernille Bærendtsen)