NY Times January 16, 2011
Remmy Ongala, Tanzanian Musical Star, Dies at 63
By JON PARELES
In 1990, as the AIDS epidemic was gathering strength in Africa, the Tanzanian songwriter, singer, guitarist and bandleader Remmy Ongala released an ebullient dance track called “Mambo Kwa Soksi” (“Things With Socks”). Its lyrics called for men to use condoms (“socks”) to prevent AIDS, and it stirred up controversy; Radio Tanzania refused to play it.
But it became one of Mr. Ongala’s best-known songs in a career as Tanzania’s most beloved and influential musician, on and off the dance floor, with songs that had both a groove and a conscience. He sang serious thoughts about poverty, corruption, mortality, faith and Tanzanian pride, and he called his music “ubongo beat” — “ubongo” is Swahili for “brain.”
Mr. Ongala died on Dec. 13 at his home in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. He was 63. His death was announced on the Web site of Real World Records, for which he recorded. No cause was specified.
He was a superstar in East Africa, and in the 1980s and 1990s he reached European and American audiences with albums for Real World, a label founded by Peter Gabriel, and international tours that included many appearances at Mr. Gabriel’s Womad (World of Music and Dance) festivals. He jokingly called himself “sura mbaya” (“ugly face”), but fans gave him the honorific “Doctor.”
Ramadhani Mtoro Ongala, nicknamed Remmy, was born in 1947 in what was then the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). His hometown, Kindu, is near the Tanzanian border. After both parents died, Mr. Ongala started working as a musician in his teens, playing drums and guitar in the Congolese style called soukous: dance music with intertwined guitar lines and an Afro-Cuban lilt. As he sang with bands in Zaire and Uganda, he was already writing songs with messages.
In 1978 he moved to Dar Es Salaam and began performing with Orchestra Makassy, a band led by his uncle. With that band, he wrote his first hit single, “Sika Ya Kufa” (“The Day I Die”).
Mr. Ongala is survived by his wife, Toni, an Englishwoman he married when she was teaching in Tanzania, and four children.
When Orchestra Makassy relocated to Kenya, Mr. Ongala remained in Tanzania, joining and then leading Orchestre Super Matimila, named after the patron who bought the band its equipment. That group mingled soukous with Tanzanian and Kenyan elements.
As Mr. Ongala’s popularity grew, his songs stayed forthright. At one point the government considered expelling him, but it later granted him Tanzanian citizenship, and a district of Dar Es Salaam was named after him.
A British friend brought one of Mr. Ongala’s cassette recordings back to England, where organizers of the Womad festival heard and admired it. They first booked Mr. Ongala and Orchestre Super Matimila for the 1988 Womad Festival in Reading, England. Mr. Ongala began making studio albums in England for Real World, which released “Songs for the Poor Man” in 1989 and “Mambo” (a Swahili word for observations or comments) in 1992; both albums contained songs in English as well as in Swahili. During the 1990s Mr. Ongala and his band toured Africa, Europe and the United States.
A stroke partly paralyzed Mr. Ongala in 2001, but he continued to perform as a singer from his wheelchair. In his last years he turned to gospel music. Following his mother’s wishes on the advice of her traditional healer, he never cut his hair during her lifetime. On her death he did cut it, then let it grown again until late in life, when he gave up secular music and cut off his locks.