His father, Henry Mkanyia, is a veteran guitarist and vocalist who played with the famous Tanzanian dansi band, DDC Mlimani Park. He didn’t really approve of his son joining music, but young Leo nonetheless devised a way to teach himself on his father’s guitar at age 8, with the help of his mother. Four years later when the old man returned home unusually early to the sound of perfect guitar-strumming from his then twelve-year-old son in their living room, he was not only pleasantly surprised but reluctantly agreed to tutor him. Twenty one years on and the roles have literally reversed, with the older Mkanyia now backing his son in his Swahili Blues band.
“My father wanted me to pursue something else other than music for reasons that didn’t really make sense to me at the time,” said Leo in an interview. “In my youthful rebelliousness at the time, I was wondering why he was trying to stop me and yet he was doing it himself. If it was bad for me then it should be bad for him as well! It is only much later when I understood why. In their time, music really wasn’t a career you could raise a family on. He was trying to steer me to a career with a guaranteed regular pay.”
Young Leo persisted in his determination to learn the craft and his efforts eventually resulted in the Swahili Blues band. Swahili Blues is a 6-piece band comprising Leo on lead vocals, solo and rhythm guitar, bass, percussions, xylophone and harmonica. The others are Henry Mkanyia on vocals, solo and rhythm guitar, bass and percussions; Juma Setumbi on percussions, xylophone, vocals; Felix Kijana on bass and vocals; Yahaya Rajabu on drums and Kasembe Ungani on saxophone, percussions and vocals. Leo, Henry, Felix and Kasembe trade places on the stage show. They have been playing for 8 years now, maintaining the same style, Swahili blues, since inception.
“Swahili blues is Tanzanian music with elements of blues music,” said Leo. “Our music, the way it is constructed, is very similar to the music made in Tanzania in the 60s and 70s. Most of our songs have two sections. The first section is the verse section where we tell the story of the song and the second is the dance section, where we encourage our listeners to let loose on the dance-floor. Our music is very similar to older bands like DDC Mlimani Park, Kilwa Jazz, Jamuhuri Jazz, NUTA Jazz (currently Msondo Ngoma band), Dar Jazz …all of them had a similar style. Usually they reached a stage in the song where the rhythm changed into Afro beat. Similarly when our music changes it goes into the Afro beat but retaining elements of blues. That’s why we call it Swahili blues.”
“The reason we decided to carry on with the dance music of the older bands is because we are promoting our culture and traditional values. Even in this age, we still play that style but with modern elements in it. Most of our fans are young people, and they like the music a lot. At no time do they feel like we are transporting them back into the past. In addition to the teachings we pass on in the music we always make sure that we entertain our fans. That is why our music is hugely popular.”
Although some live bands in Tanzania have increasingly been adopting the Congolese style, Swahili Blues insist on rooting their music in traditional Tanzanian styles, which they say are rich and diverse.
So far they have two albums, Dunia Hii, recorded in 2011 with Soundcraft Studios in Kemeke, Dar and Magic Records in Sinza. They also have a second album, Jasho Langu, released in 2012. They have already completed a third album with Sofia Records in Dar under the experienced hands of sound engineer Babu Mwana wa Zanzibar, and are looking forward to the launch. Unlike most modern bands, they maintain a horn section with saxophonist Kasembe who plays both the tenor and alto sax.
Some of the challenges they have encountered so far are in composition. “Composing is one of the areas where we encounter most of our problems. There isn’t that much freedom to say exactly what we want to say. For instance I as a composer could be touched by something I have observed in the society. But then if I compose about it in my song I will be perceived as a betrayer in my society. I will give the example of a religious leader who may be well-known in society, but who may have some shortcomings. If I address these shortcomings in my song I will naturally be seen to be attacking the church. Although no one censors you directly, you can feel the pressure from the society not to expose these shortcomings in your music. Most of the time we have to resort to artistic language, at the risk of being misconstrued since people will now interpret what you are saying in their own different ways.”
They have likewise not been spared the challenges of distributing their music in the marketplace and getting paid when their records sell. But all these shortcomings are not really on Leo’s mind. Instead he urges musicians to stop creating excuses and bottlenecks and instead concentrate on making quality music, thereafter everything else will fall in place.
Other than in Tanzania, they have since toured Uganda and the UK. In September 2011, Leo made his international debut, performing at the prestigious Southbank at the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London at the London African Music Festival. He was in Nottingham in October 2014 in a performance to raise awareness on the Ebola epidemic at the invite of the University of Nottingham. In the Atrium of Jubilee Campus of the University, Leo led a choir of 70 pupils of Nottingham Academy to play together his newly composed song, ‘Pamoja’. The accompanying instruments were played by the University Professors. The pupils sang the chorus in Swahili. During the tour he featured on BBC London’s English, Swahili and French services.
In his musical sojourn Leo draws moral support and inspiration from his paternal grandmother, a Makua tribeswoman from southern Tanzania, near the border with Mozambique. His grandmother often sang to him whenever he visited her in the village. Even though she vehemently denied any musical linkage of her tribal music to the western blues style, it is these tribal Makua songs which inspired Swahili blues music.
Alliance Francaise Dar Es Salaam also came in very handy when he was making his baby steps in live music by not only providing him with a venue to showcase his skills, but also funding his first recording.
When the time came for working with his more experienced father, they reached a tacit agreement that the old man switches to the bass guitar and leaves the lead guitar to Leo. “We realized that if the old man retained his place on the lead there would be a misunderstanding since it was I creating the music, and it was important that I retain the steering wheel. I was crafting my own style and I needed to be in control.” Jeff Tibenda, his long-time friend and manager was also at hand to offer support and guidance.
“There is one thing I’d like people to know about my music. You can craft good music without necessarily drawing inspiration from foreign music. I’d also like them to understand that music is a science. There is engineering in there that enables music to be crafted the way it is. If you craft music without understanding this you may end up reproducing music you heard elsewhere and not necessarily something new,” he says. “This understanding is what enables people to craft lasting music.”
Leo, who sings in English, Swahili, French, Kimakua and Kiyao, among other languages, is set to perform with Swahili Blues at the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar in February, next year. Meanwhile they are lining up other shows in the region.