Nadunda by Swahili Ally: A Sweet Harmony of East and West African Music

What crazy energy this man has! That was one of the first thoughts I had watching Swahili Ally live for the first time. He danced in a frenzy while playing his humongous instrument at Ambasa Mandela’s Ona Sasa EP launch in December 2017, alongside Kenya’s Afro-fusion star Fadhilee Itulya.

I would later see Swahili at Fadhilee’s KWETU album launch in April 2018, also at Alliance Francaise.

But this man doesn't just play at album launch concerts. The Tanzanian musician is a touring artist who has performed in top East African music festivals. I'm talking Sauti za Busara Zanzibar, Doa Doa and Bayimba in Uganda. And that’s how I got a hold of his new album.

After the inaugural Ongala Music Festival 2018, my friends and I decided to stay one more day in Dar to cure any festival hangover. It was during this last evening when Swahili invited us to his humble abode in the beach city. After a hearty dinner and warm conversation, he blessed us each with copies of his two albums. I couldn't wait to go back to Nairobi just so I could listen to them.

I listened to them in order. He is no longer crying in his 2018 album, unlike the first one. Which is understandable as his debut album Mwanamuranda (poor child) is a story of the people. In 30 minutes, Swahili Ally cries for Africans who are under the constant oppression of hedonistic politicians. It's not hard to figure out why many don't explore their full potential in life.

Nadunda is a major upgrade as well. It comes with a quality album case and a booklet full of lyrics and credits, just like Fadhilee’s KWETU album. Even with the lyrics in my hand, I still don't understand everything he sings. It’s a mixture of his mother tongue kidigo and rich Kiswahili that is only spoken in Tanzania, and maybe the Kenyan coast. For example, chiza chishatanda in “Anita” should mean the darkness has spread if my Swahili lessons serve me right.

At least I now know shairi is verse and chorus is kiitikio.

The booklet is also decorated with photos of a smiling Swahili Ally and his kora. Yes, he has found a new baby since his debut album. When he's not rapping in a high pitched voice, he's deftly playing the West African instrument like a sexy harp. And in the background are sweet vocals by Kenyan singer Waithera Chege. Even without seeing her name in the credits, you can always recognize her distinct voice.

Nadunda is a proper live studio album. Every instrument in there is crisp and distinct: the saxophone, keyboard, soft drums, guitars, and of course the kora. The music oozes out soulful and jazzy, yet still has that African beat you can dance to. It almost feels like you're at one his live concerts.

One song everyone should listen to is “Mimi na wewe”. It's the second East African song I have ever heard using the endearing word Lazizi. Here, Ally promises to bring his lover glimmering gifts from his travels - in Swahili of course. “Chiku”, another favourite, introduces an infectious reggae beat, yet maintains the album’s Afro jazz feel.

This 2018 Afro-fusion album is a telling of modern African stories through rich instrumentation and traditional music. “Kabula” for instance, is the story of a distraught husband pleading with his wife to return to him and their children. She travelled to the city to visit family and promised to be back by sunset but never did. Meanwhile, the title track “Nadunda (Ali)” is a grandmother predicting his grandson’s glowing future. As our grandmothers would naturally do.

Swahili Ally proves the merger of East and West African music doesn’t have to be Afro beats. He reaches to his traditional Digo roots once again and enriches it with the West African kora. In an age where most contemporary music is made on a computer, Nadunda is a reminder of how sweet live albums taste.

I was particularly glad to see Nadunda available for download on Mookh. This signifies the online platform is not only for Kenyan but also East African content. Listen to the 2018 Afro-fusion album, and don't forget to dunda like Swahili on stage.