Why Jose Chameleone is the glue that holds East Africans together
Posted Thursday, October 31 2013 at 00:00
A friend recently invited me to drinks at a Nairobi hangout where a Congolese band was playing. The place was teeming with mostly Mzungus who were having a whale of a time, dancing only as Mzungus can to the Lingala beats.
I explained politely that I once could hold my own dancing Lingala but had not been able to do so in almost 10 years. “Was it banned in Uganda?” my friend, a foreign correspondent based in Nairobi, asked. I could see genuine concern in her eyes and, lurking close behind, follow-up questions about governance, rule of law, and tolerance towards those with dissenting music choices.
‘No,’ I answered, ‘Chameleone destroyed it.’ Over the loud music I explained that Congolese music had ruled the night scene in Uganda for years until the emergence of musicians like Chameleone and their genre of East African afro-pop. The genre is a fusion of Bongo-flava from Tanzania, ghetto hip-hop impressions, and street slang from across the region.
Today, Chameleone is easily the most popular musician in East and Central Africa yet he was not even the pioneer. He started his trade in Uganda, mastered it in Kenya, and turned it into a regional brand. He is only the most dramatic face of what is an East African genre, blending local and foreign musical influences into the sausage wrap of Kiswahili and rolling it out on pre-packaged high-tempo beats.
The success of East Africa’s musicians is important because the East African Community is going through a schizophrenic moment. Infrastructure deals between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have created momentum for closer integration while pushing the other EAC member states, Tanzania and Burundi, to the brink of divorce.
Why is the East African project facing collapse at the time it has shown the most tangible success? In many ways the EAC put the cart before the horse by putting the interests of the politicians ahead of those of the people. It approached integration from a technocratic mindset rather than from a position of logic and commonsense.
We shouldn’t take anything away from the work the EAC has done since its rebirth in Arusha in 1999 but it its decision-by-consensus and large, bureaucratic set up has given it the slow, tentative gait of a pregnant hippo where it should have been sprinting like a gazelle.
For instance, the EAC keeps meticulous details of the non-tariff barriers to trade across the region but to get Uganda to remove a roadblock at Mabira requires technical staff and ministers to meet and demand for some other concessions, like Kenya allowing it to import sugar, or Rwanda reducing the tax on cooking oil.
Many East Africans have found ways of navigating around this glacial progress. Ugandan mechanics thrive in Rwanda; Kenyan chefs sizzle and serve in Kampala; young smart Ugandans work the private equity scene in Nairobi, and so on. When Jose Chameleone wanted to learn how to make music he did not write a proposal to the Ministry of Culture or seek a cooperative framework with partner states; he got onto a bus and headed to the ghettos in Nairobi.
Integrating states may appear more complicated but in reality it is not. The current reforms we are seeing are simply the product of demand multiplied by supply. When Rwanda needed cheaper goods and better skills it opened its borders longer and made it easier for foreign workers to enter. Kenya smelt the opportunity and reciprocated. When the Chinese started talking of building a mega port at Bagamoyo the Kenyans suddenly found quick reforms to undertake at Mombasa and decided it could build a new railway into the interior.
These are commonsense decisions. To lay the blame at the feet of Tanzania is unfair; Dar es Salaam might not be the fastest decision-maker but all countries are guilty of putting up non-tariff barriers. It is that we are attempting to integrate through bureaucracy.
Regional leaders have done more in the last six months to bring down barriers between the two countries than the EAC has collectively done in the last six years. Some will see this as a sign of strong and visionary leadership; others will ask why it took so long to remove the barriers that East Africans have long known and tried to overcome.
Jose Chameleone would have never succeeded if he’d set out to recruit a band representing the interests of all East Africans; the daring by the small people and regional entrepreneurs like him will be the glue that holds the region together.