“This marijuana is really strong!”

It’s the kind of thing you expect to hear on a Grateful Dead tape, not on a Sublime Frequencies recording. The label’s dedicated junkies (I’m one of them) always look forward to the next release of music from a faraway place, like the excellent Folk Music of the Sahel Vol.1: Niger. You can hear satisfied audience members on Music of Tanzania, but for the most part the music is better suited to cultural study than listening pleasure, the claims of the enthusiastic toker aside.

Not to be confused with the kind of Kenyan-recorded pop music collected on anthologies like Original Music’s The Tanzania Sound, these field recordings made by Laurent Jeanneau document the music of the Hadza, Datoga and Makonde people, three of the over 120 ethnic groups in Tanzania. The label’s promo copy sounds fantastic: “stoned ecstatic dancing in a Hadza encampment; a drunken celebration of preteen sexual initiation from a Makonde fishing village; baboon imitations performed on the malimba;” what’s not to like?

The album starts beautifully with several tracks from the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer tribe that, as of 1999, numbered only 1,000 people. Their music is performed on malimba, a wooden box with metal keys, or on a single-stringed fiddle called the zeze. The gorgeous “Sitoti Plays Malimba 1” is meant to suggest human footsteps, but with the instrument’s rich timbres and minimal melodies, it’s hypnotic. You can hear birds singing along to the melody, and the instrument buzzes lightly as the keys are plucked. Sitoti’s second malimba track is an imitation of a baboon walking, and it’s a more rhythmic track with lyrics that complain of a thorn stuck in the singer’s foot. It’s at the end of this song that someone says, “this man really plays well” and “this marijuana is really strong,” but you don’t need to partake of the latter to agree with the former.

On “Malimba and Song” the instrument is augmented with a metal chain that creates a buzzing texture as it accompanies a children’s hiding game: “There’s nothing here, my friend/ There’s nothing there/ Keep looking till you find it/ Ah, you found it.” There’s something chilling about the lyric, a plea coming from a people whose numbers are dwindling.

Two tracks document a Hadza ceremony called the Epeme. Performed on moonless nights, the ritual induces a trance among attendees, and in the five to ten hours that this trance lasts, performers communicate with their ancestors. The track begins with group harmonizing but falls into something more conversational. The album notes hold a translation that includes the warning, “Children, go to sleep/ This dance is only for adults to see.”

Music of Tanzania is a two-LP set in vinyl form, and the album’s first disc includes Northern Tanzania songs of the Hadza and the Datoga. The set’s second disc documents ceremonies in Southern Tanzania, including the sexual initiation ceremony of the Makonde people. Older women take a group of 12-year old girls to a remote area and teach them about sex, the ceremony fueled by fermented corn alcohol. This sounds more interesting, if a little disturbing, than the music, which consists of chanting, metallic percussion and plastic drums. The album’s final side records a Muslim ceremony in the Mtwara region that induces trances without alcohol or sexual frenzy. My only context for these recordings comes from the notes provided by Sublime Frequencies, but the sensationalism of the promo copy makes me wonder if that’s the whole story. Music of Tanzania sounds more fun on paper than on disc, but that’s not the fault of the ethnic minorities whose culture it preserves.

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