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African Legends

Hukwe Zawose

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published November 17, 2006

By the time of his death in December 2003, Dr. Hukwe Zawose had single-handedly revitalized the ancient traditional music of Tanzania’s Wagogo people.

He was born in Dodoma, a rural area of Tanzania, when the country was still a British territory. Zawose spent his youth as a cattle farmer with no formal education, attending the mission school in Dodoma for only a few days at the beginning of the 1940s. As he worked the fields he sang, and by the time Tanzania gained independence in 1961, Zawose, who possessed a five-octave vocal range, had built a reputation as a singer of great skill by traveling from village to village and leaving the locals slack-jawed in astonishment.

Zawose also began to write and perform his own compositions, both traditional and political songs.

It was Tanzania’s new prime minister, Julius Nyerere, who gave Zawose the boost that would send him on his way to legend-hood. Nyerere invited Zawose to perform at his residence in the capital of Dar-es-Salaam, and Zawose was henceforth considered a hero. Despite his lack of schooling, Zawose taught at the Bagamoyo College of Arts and received an honorary doctorate from the Finnish Sibelius Academy.

A colorful character who dressed in elaborate traditional costumes, Zawose recorded a number of albums, including the traditional Chibite and Spear To The Heart. He first appeared in Britain in the early-’80s with the Master Musicians of Tanzania and appeared often at WOMAD world music festivals. After signing to Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, Zawose’s name and music finally began to become recognized in the West in the 1990s.

One of his most critically acclaimed recordings was Assembly, his collaboration with Canadian producer/guitarist Michael Brook, released on Real World in 2002.

Recommended Recordings

Chibite (RealWorld)
The Art Of Hukwe Zawose (JVC)
Assembly (RealWorld) (with Michael Brook)