By Ogova Ondego
Republished December 16, 2010
It is one bright Sunday afternoon in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A middle-aged man in a light-brown suit and black polo neck T-shirt is helped up the stage at Vatican City Hotel, Sinza, where a gospel concert to raise school fees for five orphans who have been sent home for lack of school fees and to introduce Tanzania Gospel Music Star Search winners to the wider Christian community is taking place. The man is holding a Bible with a black cover and “Jesus Saves” badge is pinned to his lapel.
As soon as he gets on stage, the DJ runs a playback track from the sound track and the man, with his more agile companion, starts singing:
Naenda kwa Yesu
Sina shaka tena
Naitwa na Yesu
(Good bye to the secular world. I am going to Jesus. I have no doubt any more. Jesus is calling me. Good-bye to the secular world)
Looking at the frail man, one cannot easily tell this is Remmy Ongala, the man whose majestic stage presence and distinct rich and soulful voice soared above the tilting rhythms of Super Matimila as he belted out ever green hits like Kifo and Kilio cha mnyonge to the backdrop of the rolling melodic drive of Congolese soukous, traditional Tanzanian rhythms and hints of Latin and soul.
A pale shadow of himself, Ongala has replaced his popular allegorical lyrics that articulated the concerns of ordinary people with sacred ones.
Ongala, the Tanzania-based Congolese founder of “Bongo Beat” who once said, “I write songs about serious topics…my music is heavy thinking music,” is now a new man. He has since crossed over from secular to “spiritual” music and has recently recorded an 8-song album with Morgan Modest, the stronger man he has just performed Dunia kwaheri to an enthusiastic Christian audience in Dar.
Speaking to ArtMatters.Info in a halting voice after the show, Ongala said, “I have decided to turn to God for Him to forgive me as I have done many things that can be considered evil. Having ailed for a long time, I sought God’s intervention in the hope of being healed and made holy by God who has cured me of illness. I am now OK.”
Now that he is saved and turned to Christian music, what does he think about his popular secular hits like Kifo?
“As I sang these songs, I am sure God was preparing me for salvation. They are God’s songs,” says the man who was in 2001 honoured with the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to music in Tanzania.
“I took this award while still serving the world. Consequently, there is little to be proud of about it as I was still serving in the flesh. I am now waiting for an eternal award from God now that I am saved,” he says, adding that the biggest miracle in his life was getting saved and cured of ill health in 2003.
“I am now determined to continue singing for Jesus Christ,” says Ramadhani Mtoro Ongala-Mungambi, the man who was born in the rainforests of the Kindu region of northeastern Congo-Kinshasa in 1947.
The son of a traditional master drummer, the predetermined career of the man who was to later get popularly known in music circles as Sura Mbaya (the ugly one), was interrupted by the early death of his father and his obligation to provide for his family, and, later, by military service against the Simba rebels during the late 1960s.
However Ongala’s uncle, Mzee Makassy, came to the rescue when he invited him to Tanzania in 1978 to join his Orchestra Makassy band.
It was while here that Sura Mbaya established himself as a force to reckon with on the music scene in Tanzania and East Africa.
When Orchestra Makassy folded in the 1980s, Ongala became the leader of a little known band from Songea, Orchestra Super Matimila. The new outfit was named after the businessman who owned and bankrolled it.
Super Matimila developed from a provincial outfit with limited repertoire and reputation to become one of Tanzania (and East Africa’s) best-known bands, the transformation being primarily due to Ongala’s charisma and the power and passion of his lyrics.
A string of hits whose concerns for the poor and disenfranchised not only gained him a huge following but his powerful stage presence and popularity amongst the people of Tanzania established him as the leading songwriter in East Africa.His unrivalled reputation as singer, songwriter and performer preceded him in the Kiswahili-speaking eastern and central African region.
Ongala’s personality and outspoken lyrics created a magnetic appeal that led to his being adopted by W.O.M.A.D, the worldwide music festival touring circuit under the protective wings of Peter Gabriel in 1987.
Unfortunately, however, the rigours of touring gradually destroyed the original line-up of Super Matimila and the economics of playing at dances around Dar es Salaam did not generate enough income to support more than one star in the band.
Ongala’s sharp comments on the ills of Dar es Salaam life or politics always came with his own typical slant and language. Especially popular are his long raps ‘half an hour and longer’ commentary on day-to-day matters, revealing corruption among government circles or delivering lectures on AIDS and the use of condoms as in Mambo kwa Soksi, whose frank lyrics, outraged many in this largely conservative region.
But Ongala defended his right to expression saying, “Music is like any other work; it demands all your energy and a lot of curiosity. It is like education, and as the proverb says, education has no end. We musicians may face many challenges. Our work demands courage; music is research into the essence of being.”
Lyrics, critics say, were always a crucial part of Ongala’s secular music and often contained the highly valued word play and illusions in Kiswahili.
Now, Ongala is no more. He passed away on December 12, 2010 and was buried in his adopted country, Tanzania, four days later, on December 16.