The Music of East Africa

Nov 17, 2021

Over the last few months, we’ve been focusing a lot of our attention on exploring the wider world of music. We’ve been around the Caribbean, to places like Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago. We’ve explored parts of South America, with musical visits to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. We’ve looked at Spanish influences in Mexican music, and how music in Spain itself has evolved. Lately, we’ve been exploring the music of Africa, first with a stop in West Africa, South Africa, and Morocco. Let’s continue our journey this week, with a look at the music of East Africa.

“East Africa” is a rather large region, so to make things a little easier on us in this limited forum, we’re going to focus on three countries with a common colonial history, and with close cultural and linguistic relationships: Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Popular musicians in these countries have shared their talents across their borders and helped evolve the music in the region from more traditional genres to modern Afro-urban music.

In fact, musicians in the early 1990s began to combine Western influences with East Africa’s traditional popular music to create something new. At first, local radio stations were hesitant to play this experimental music, but by the year 2000, these musical groups had developed local followings and had begun to tour abroad. Let’s dive into a few genres from East Africa.


Ngoma, also called engoma, ng’oma, or ingoma, are traditional musical instruments, specifically drums, used by several peoples of Africa. But the term actually extends well beyond the drum itself. Ngoma, present throughout both Eastern and Southern Africa, refers to the tradition of expressing oneself through music, drumming, dance, and storytelling. It has been used to convey history, values, education, and even identity across generations.


Taarab is a popular form of music in Tanzania and Kenya. This more traditional form of music is influenced by the traditions of the African Great Lakes, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.

A fusion of pre-Islamic Swahili songs sung in a rhythmic, poetic style, mixed with Arab-style melodies, Taarab is an extremely lively musical form, and is incredibly popular, especially among East African women. In fact, Taarab is a major part of the social life of the Swahili people, especially along the coastal areas, like Zanzibar, Tanga, Mombasa, and Malindi. Wherever the Swahili people travelled, Taarab was brought with them.


Genge is a genre of hip hop with origins in Nairobi, Kenya. With additional influences from dancehall music, the name “genge” appropriately means “a group of a mass of people” in sheng, a slang language that is made up of a combination of Swahili and English. The style is easily recognized by its rapping style and the conversational rhythm of its lyrics. The genre is often described as a casual conversation in sheng.

The content of genge often involves the struggles of the ghetto, with most songs taking on the form of a story format. The singer often relives or shares an event they witnessed with their friends, and the lesson they learned from it.


Another popular form of hip hop found in East Africa is called boomba. Also originating from Kenya, boomba incorporates elements of hip hop, reggae, and traditional African musical styles. Like genge, the lyrics tend to be in Swahili, Sheng, or a local dialect. Also getting its start in the late 1990s, boomba became immensely popular, dominating the East African airwaves, especially in Kenya and Uganda.

Bongo Flava

Generally speaking, Bongo Flava is a nickname for Tanzanian music. Another genre that saw a rise in popularity throughout the 1990s, this style is made up of a mixture of American hip hop influences with traditional Tanzanian styles like taarab and dansi. Reggae, R&B, and afrobeats also play important roles in influencing the genre. Once again, the lyrics tend to be in Swahili or English, although lately, thanks to the afrobeat influence, more Nigerian has begun to appear.

Although Bongo Flava is somewhat similar to American hip hop, it is also clearly different. s the website puts it, “these guys don’t need to copy their brothers in America, but have a sure clear sense of who they are and what sound it is they’re making”. The sound “has its roots in the rap, R&B and hip hop coming from America, but from the beginning, these styles have been pulled apart and put back together with African hands.”

Following in the tradition of Western hip hop, Bongo Flava lyrics usually involve social and political issues such as poverty, political corruption, superstition, and HIV/AIDS, often with a more or less explicit educational intent, an approach that is sometimes referred to as “edutainment.”

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