Remembering Jagwa’s Electrifying Frontman, Jackie “Kazimoto” Simela
On 8 December 2018, Jack Simela, the forceful lead singer of Tanzania’s Jagwa Music, died in a car accident in Morogoro. He was rushing to the cemetery to attend the burial of his beloved aunt. A crude reminder that death has no patience, nor decorum.
On any day, this would have been devastating news, but it felt somehow more immediate, more piercing, because I had just seen Jackie three days before at a surprise birthday show.
For the March edition of Wikiendi Live, the one-day interdisciplinary arts festival we organise at Nafasi Art Space, we’d programmed Jagwa Music, who play a style called Mchiriku that evolved from traditional Zaramo dance and drumming. They were one of the first groups to be interviewed by Darragh Coward and Jesse Gerard for the Wikiendi Radio podcast. During recording, the hosts had asked how one finds out where and when Jagwa will next be playing. Kwame, Nafasi’s performing arts manager and long-time booker/tour manager for the group, replied that for their local shows, there aren’t really advance announcements, tickets, an entrance gate, any of the trappings of a typical concert. Jagwa shows up at a house or neighbourhood, presumably invited by someone involved in organising some post-wedding/event entertainment, then anyone in the vicinity may be drawn into orbit by the insane gravity of the performance once it gets going. Jagwa shows are notoriously rowdy, uninhibited affairs, and something about the spontaneity of their organisation reinforces their allure. We thought it was hilarious — the idea you could just be going about your regular business, unaware that your world was about to be turned upside down once you heard the first crackling of a megaphone and Jackie’s voice blaring out of it.
So for Darragh’s birthday on Thursday, 6 December, we organized for Jagwa to show up at her house and give an impromptu concert. People from the street outside the gate crowded around to listen. A woman came inside and started dancing with abandon. The guard of the apartment building went to change into his nicest shirt and trousers and joined the dance. People were filming on their cell phones. After the show, we chatted and Jackie invited me to his next gig. I was happy to hear that even with the recent craze of Singeli — the next iteration of the style with just the vocalist and a pre-produced backing track covering the parts of the instrumentation — Jagwa was still in high demand in the city.
Kwame Mchauru, who helped grow Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar in its early years and then co-founded the Maisha Music label in Dar es Salaam, can be credited with helping Jagwa find their international audience. He connected them with German producer Werner Graebner, who released their incredible debut album, Bongo Hotheads, on Crammed Discs in 2012. Their music was their ticket to the world; they’ve played everywhere from Borneo to Beirut, from hip and grungy Berlin clubs to the aseptic Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in the USA, to Roskilde Festival in Denmark. The band was internationally exposed and acclaimed, fuelled by a foreign fascination with their relentless energy, distorted sound, and natural connection with underground, post-punk urban scenes. But while most of the online content is of the band playing on global festival stages, it was in the neighbourhood streets of Dar es Salaam where they were hired to play weddings and block parties in the low-income areas of the city that Jagwa was truly at home and most fervently beloved.
Jackie was Jagwa’s driving force. Mchiriku is played by a group of around eight people, several percussionists beating out rhythms on traditional drums and a wooden stool, a tambourine player, and someone on a little casio keyboard, amplified through a megaphone. The barrage of sound comes from the collective energy of the group, and requires each person to play his part. But Jackie was always what set Jagwa apart. In the early years that I knew him, I noticed his intense aura, a sorrowful discontent that seemed to simmer under a brooding surface. In conversation, he was reserved, aloof, even surly. He saved his emotional release for the show, his voice and body and face open and expressive, words never shying away from a confrontation with life. Pambana na hali yako, the Swahili saying goes. Struggle against your condition. This is not the music of escape or avoidance, but of grappling and exertion. Jackie, gripping the mic and dripping with sweat as he paced and sang, personified the hustle and swagger and vitality of Dar es Salaam; no matter how reluctant he was to take the spotlight, your eyes could never help but stick to him.
In 2013 when I was working with Busara Promotions in Zanzibar, we partnered with Beirut and Beyond festival to send Jagwa to Lebanon for their first ever performance in the region. At the Dar es Salaam airport, we rushed to print visas and get the band and their gear through customs. Their DIY instruments, which included loose wires and chunks of metal, did not pass easily. The immigration officials that greeted us in Beirut seemed wary and disdainful of what appeared to be a ragtag group.
Jackie was dressed in shorts, flip flops, and a tank top, unconcerned about the chilly weather in Lebanon. He seemed generally unexcited for the trip. Once we were in the city, he chain-smoked and talked about how much he missed food from home, especially chapati and ugali. The band spent a good deal of their free time wandering the streets looking for food they would like and browsing kitschy cell phone cases.
But later, on stage, Jagwa transformed their restless discomfort into unrestrained power, bringing all of the intensity of their Dar es Salaam street shows to the cosmopolitan Beirut club.
It was a sight to see— these outsiders exercising their magic over the crowd with a leverage that the current world power system tries so hard to deny to large swaths of people from similar backgrounds. Jagwa — without saying it — seemed to represent them, demand space for them, insist on them. They embodied cultural defiance, the resistance to structural racism and class prejudice, injustices that sometimes only music from the so-called margins can manage to transcend.
Beyond platitudes about ‘cultural exchange’, this is where I first came to really believe in the radical power of art to disrupt our illusions and, even if only for the span of a sixty-minute performance, to level the playing field. Jagwa was the catalyst, the living proof.
It’s difficult to accept that I’ll never see Jackie perform with Jagwa again. I remember with remarkable clarity the many times I saw him sing over the past six years. Twice at Sauti za Busara festival in Stone Town. A New Year’s Eve show on the eastern coast of Zanzibar where I danced barefoot for so long that I got awful blisters and couldn’t walk properly for almost a week. A wedding party on a hill in Kimara on the outskirts of Dar. At their “home” space in Mwananyamala where the band got its start.
And then, just a few days ago, for the last time, when Jagwa rolled up in a car park, propped a megaphone against a few stones, and Jackie’s fierce and persistent voice filled us with the most searing and exquisite feeling of being terribly, joyfully alive.
Rest in Power, Jackie ‘Kazimoto’ Simela (b. 22 Feb 1985 – d. 8 Dec 2018)
Written by Rebecca Corey, Director of Nafasi Art Space, co-founder of the Tanzania Heritage Project, Director of Busara Promotions (2012-14)
*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the car accident occurred after the burial of Jackie Simela’s aunt. The accident was actually on the way to the burial.