The reel deal: Rare musical gems saved from oblivion in Tanzania

Story highlights

  • The Tanzania Heritage Project is digitizing 100,000 hours of audio
  • Dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, the collection spans music, news and plays
  • The collection is under threat from an adverse climate and old age

CNN's On the Road series brings you a greater insight into countries around the world. This time we travel to Tanzania to explore the places, the people and the passions unique to this African nation.

(CNN)"A country which lacks its own culture is no more than a collection of people without the spirit which makes them a nation."

These are the words of Julius K. Nyerere, Tanzania's first president and Baba wa Taifa ("Father of the Nation"), spoken to parliament on December 10, 1962.
It's a sentiment being preserved both literally and figuratively by the Tanzania Heritage Project, a non-profit initiative on a mission to protect and promote the country's rich aural culture.
    The organization has set itself the monumental task of digitizing 100,000 hours of rare audio recordings from the reel-to-reel archives of the country's public broadcaster. But far from being a monotonous task, what they've discovered is a vital source of Tanzanian history. From Swahili jazz to interviews with Mohammed Ali, there's a host of gems from the past waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed by the nation.

    Building a nation across the airwaves

    Tanzania Heritage Project
    "Storytelling and oral history are very important to Tanzanian culture," explains project co-founder and director Rebecca Corey. "Stories, myths, legends, even proverbs, rhymes and songs, all play a part in forming the identity of Tanzanian people and culture as a whole."
    Rebecca Corey
    Every aspect of this oral history was captured from the early 1960s onwards by the state-run Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation and their radio station, Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam.
    "[Nyerere] felt that radio was the best way to reach the people," says Corey. "It could reach far out into the villages, into the rural areas of the country, where people couldn't afford TVs at all or if people couldn't read."
    In its prime, Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam had the only professional recording studio in the country and was its sole legal radio station. Part of Nyerere's socialist experiment, much of its original content, spanning music and radio plays, was produced for the state and paid for by it.
    Afro-rhumba from the archives, a genre imported from West Africa via Cuba in the 1930s

    "Everything that was recorded during those times... [was] aimed at preserving the oral history of Tanzania," Corey explains. But it was also integral as a means of nation building.
    "Whether [it] was supporting Tanzania's struggle against the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda or supporting other movements for African independence around the continent... it was these songs and the stories in those songs that really compelled people to care and listen; to help form opinions and ideas about what Tanzania was about, both in the country and internationally."

    Inside the archives

    The Corporation's wealth of content required a considerable archive, and everything that was recorded from the early 1960s through to the mid-80s is still housed in the original broadcast site.
    Between the rows of well-ordered shelves, labeled numerically with track lists and even the accompanying dance steps, the Tanzania Heritage Project have been diligently poring over a gold mine of music, speeches and ethnographic recordings from over 100 tribes.
    Polyrhythmic music by the Wagogo tibe, recorded using portable microphones

    Captured on fragile reel-to-reel tapes are pivotal moments in the birth of a nation and vital documentation of the myriad cultures it contains. Recordings of political speeches sit next to traditional songs; news bulletins next to kitchen sink dramas.
    To listen to the tapes is a powerful experience for project coordinator Haijand Said. "It feels almost nostalgic, although I wasn't there at that particular time."

    Track lists from the archives
    But the recordings are fighting an uphill battle. The magnetic tapes have a limited lifespan and without digitization their contents could be lost for ever.
    "High heat and humidity here in Dar es Salaam [...] leads to rapid deterioration... sometimes to the extent that they become completely unplayable," Corey explains. "The tapes are also vulnerable to damage from dust, mold, insects and oils that are transferred from peoples' hands."
    Starting in February this year with 60 tapes in urgent need of preservation, the initiative hopes to eventually convert the full 100,000 hour collection. However Corey admits that "with our limited number of machines and resources, the project could take many years."

    Looking back to move forward

    Tanzania Heritage Project
    Some of the digitized recordings are currently available on the Heritage Project's website, with the long term plan for a complete public collection in the future.
    By bringing these memories of a dormant past into the public domain, Said hopes Tanzanians will "become more rounded persons."
    Corey agrees, arguing that "if we don't know where we are coming from, then how do we know where we are going? ...These stories and tales really give us a blueprint for going forward."
      The road ahead may be a long one, but for her it's clearly it's a labor of love.
      "The experience of hearing the old songs played -- sometimes for the first time in decades -- is well worth the struggle."