In Conversation With: Turunesh
In 2015, when Bongo Flava was still mostly a melting pot of Tanzanian hip hop, dansi, taarab with influences from American hip hop, RnB and reggae, ‘Alternative Nights’ sought to introduce Dar natives to a new sound. The live music and poetry event featured a generation of young, independent artists, who were often gracing the stage for the very first time. Turunesh, one of those artists, speaks fondly of a 16-year-old version of herself getting her start at the event. “That was the first time I felt like a gig worthy musician and that I was important and had something to share,” she reveals, “and five years later there is more of a scene for alternative music.”
The singer/songwriter’s discography has also burgeoned in those five years, and with a number of accompanying live performances under her belt, it's curious that she only set her mind to pursuing music as a career in her 2nd year of university. “I wasn’t really passionate about anything other than music,” she says matter of factly, “I just realised, this is the one place where i can stay up all night long and plan and strategise and pour all my energy into.” There is so much zeal in her voice when she says, “I wanted to be around musical energy so bad!”
This isn’t the first time she has yearned to be around music. In fact, while she credits her first performance as her official start to music, the first time she realised she was in love with the art form is certainly a contender. At 7-years-old, Turunesh was not picked to sing at her school’s International Day ceremony, “I realised how much I loved it the first time I ever felt excluded from it.” She details penning a letter to her best friend (who was picked instead), opening up about how heartbroken being overlooked for the part left her. She pauses for a moment before heartily laughs at her younger self, “It was so melodramatic...I just made her feel shitty because I was feeling shitty.”
Turunesh maintains this level of vulnerability throughout our conversation. In many ways the generosity with which she shares her thoughts resembles that of her music. Over the span of 1 album, 2 EPs, and a number of singles, she has managed to cultivate a consistently bountiful vibe. Her music feels sincere, it feels intentional- “when i think about my sound i think you can hear the heart in my music,” she confirms. But despite agreeing that the feel of her music is now familiar, she still doesn’t think her sound is recognisable to the ear, “I don't even know what kind of music I make...I'm still figuring out what my sound is.” She playfully adds with a chuckle, “I mean I myself would like to know what my sound is honestly.”
To put it in under one genre would be doing it a disservice. Her music sounds like a conflation of alté, meets Jazz, meets indie RnB, meets taarab, with infusions of many more genres. Turunesh is experimental to say the least, and according to her, at times a little “too experimental.” “I think my 2nd (self-titled) EP was my most experimental stage...I was trying to make something that sounded wonderful but I had no sense of structure and cohesion.” By the time she dropped her first studio album, Coastal Cider, she felt like she had developed some kind of balance: “a lot of people have told me that ‘this album is just one continuous vibe,’ which was intentional. I feel like with Coastal Cider I learnt how to experiment while remaining thoughtful in that process.”
In many ways, Coastal Cider is an ode to growing up in Dar es Salaam. The singer/songwriter invites us to a musical world that explores a specific subculture of our generation. “The culture for us back home is going for chips-mayai and going to Mbudya, its not necessarily ngoma music- although that is a part of it and I do draw from those influences, but a bigger part of our generation’s culture is all that stupid shit we did”
In Peninsula Fantasy, (the fourth track off of Coastal Cider featuring AYLØ and Brian Simba), she sings “Masaki, maskani, jamani we grew up too quickly.” There is of course more to our generation than “going to Elements at 15years old” or “taking 1000shilling shots at Maganga’s,” but there is a freshness to Turunesh’s self awareness, that she delivers with enough sensitivity that it doesn’t sound self-deprecating. The song is a fan favourite from the album, likely because it holds up a mirror to our lives; it makes us feel seen. “I wrote for us you know. And it's not like we needed these songs because for the most part, we are a bunch of privileged brats but I wanted to capture that experience. And I feel like people who have had different experiences from the ones I describe can now listen and appreciate or criticise us, you know.”
Towards the end of the album Turunesh leans into elements of traditional Tanzanian music a little more. Possibly the most apparent example of the world conjuring ability that Turunesh wields, Asili Spirits is entrancing. Between the ngoma that serves as the backbone, the way she masterfully manipulates her own vocals to lure you in and hold you, and the presence of the legendary queen of taarab: Bi Kidude, it's nearly impossible not to feel spellbound.
Asili Spirits, is born out of inspiration from two very different African artists: “it was a beautiful marriage because Fatoumata Diawara was the person that pushed me to make the song and Bi Kidude is the person that was my influence with the sounds, textures and expressions.” Bi Kidude’s legacy is clearly present, from the very beginning (the song opens with her voiceover saying “Bismillah”) to the very end (the song incorporates drums from Bi Kidude’s Msondo throughout). On her second inspiration, Turunesh explains being blown away when she saw the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara perform in Vancouver. She is a little lost for words as she attempts to articulate the feeling, before concluding that the only way I’d understand is if I watched Fatoumata perform myself. “I went home after that and decided I wanted to make people feel how she made me feel.”
An unique amalgam of taarab and dansi, the sounds beckon a chorus of women gracefully moving, likely with khanga’s fastened around their waists. “I created a song that I could lose my mind to when performing, where my band can lose their shit, and the audience can lose their shit. I wanted to have everyone just wild the fuck out, especially women, which is why i say ‘haya wasichana njooni mbele, wasichana kata kiuno’”
For Turunesh, performing is very much a symbiotic relationship with the audience. She makes us lose our shit, and in turn we offer her our undivided attention. “When the audience is quietly watching you and they look like they are falling in love, all I’m thinking is how do I keep you here in this space. How do I make you fall in love with this moment even more?” It's as if she is flirting with the audience, “sometimes I feel pushed to really sing, not to show off but to drive that connection deeper,” and other times “I kind of draw myself and become smaller so the song can feel big.” There is a level of sensuality that she effortlessly taps into- her “trademark” she calls it.
The recently released music video for Afrodite (another track off of Coastal Cider) makes it her first ever visual project. The self-directed visual is minimally elegant. Turunesh dons a gold two-piece with matching jewellery, her hair is plaited in two lines at the front, and gathered away in a lush ponytail that hangs down her back. As she walks through the historical building, she waves around an incense burner to cleanse the space. The building she walks through is known as The Old Boma, and it is the first colonial statehouse in Tanzania. The act of cleansing the space is, as she articulates in the bio under her video, “repossession through spiritual possession.” Turunesh is not the one doing the repossessing however, Afrodite is. “I wanted to express who Afrodite was, what she looks like, how she moves, how sensitive she is, how powerful she is, how entrancing she is,” she goes on, “I needed to bring that song to life, present mama Africa in a very ethereal kind of way...she’s sexual, shy, and charming. She is a God.” In stark contrast to the colonial invasion the space endured, Afrodite uses love and divinity to reclaim.
Turunesh expresses her love for music (in our conversation and her releases alike) with such a deep level of intimacy, that would make anyone wonder how she makes space in her life for anything other than her art. “I can’t tell you that I have found that balance,” she confesses. She is brimming with excitement as she goes on to explain how she is constantly either thinking about writing music, or conceptualizing music videos in her head, or trying to figure out who to collaborate with- the list is endless. Finally she says, “at this point of my life, music is everything.”
You can watch Turunesh's recently released visual Afrodite here.