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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We want to take you to East Africa now - to Tanzania - and some recordings from a unique audio library. For four decades, Radio Tanzania was the sound of the nation. The music, poetry, drama and speeches that tell Tanzania's history from independence are stacked in a moldering archive that few people know about. But now, as NPR's John Burnett reports, a group is trying to rescue the Radio Tanzania archives to save this sound for the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Zilipendwa music literally translates: the ones that were loved. Golden Oldies is a looser translation. It's a style of music that was popular in Tanzania from the 1960s to the '80s, then it dropped off. But older Tanzanians still love it, as I learned driving around Dar es Salaam with my taxi driver, Hashem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED BAND #1: (Singing in foreign language)

HASHEM: Old music nice in Tanzania.

BURNETT: More than 15,000 reel-to-reel tapes are stacked in floor-to-ceiling shelves -each band, band member, and recording date painstakingly notated. They reside inside three musty rooms of the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation, which occupies the old brick-and-concrete BBC building in Dar es Salaam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Radio Tanzania was the country's only station from its birth in 1951 until the mid-1990s when competing stations came on the air and state-controlled radio became irrelevant.

UNIDENTIFIED BAND #2: (Singing in foreign language)

REBECCA COREY: When you hear this music, you don't have to know Swahili to be moved by it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED BAND #2: (Singing in foreign language)

COREY: I'm Rebecca Corey and I'm co-founder of Tanzania Heritage Project.

BURNETT: Corey is a 25-year-old music lover from Athens, Georgia who fell in love with Tanzania when she came here to volunteer at an orphanage when she was 18. She came back to enroll at Dar es Salaam University, and two years ago she learned about the radio archive. Today, Corey produces the Zanzibar Music Festival, and she's spearheading the effort to save the Radio Tanzania tapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COREY: During the '60s, '70s, and '80s, Tanzania had one of the most lively musical scenes in East Africa. There was only one radio station at the time, it was Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam. So, everything that Tanzanians heard, everything was Radio Tanzania.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Swahili spoken)

BURNETT: Radio Tanzania was to be the soundtrack of African socialism under the country's first president, Julius Nyerere. This was Tanzanian music, not imperialist American, not colonial European, but music sung by and for Tanzanians in Swahili. This country's musical forms are as varied and unique as wildlife on the Serengeti plains. Because the arts were state-supported, institutions, such as the police, prisons and electric company all sponsored their own choral groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED BAND #3: (Singing in Swahili)

BURNETT: From the Spice Islands on the Swahili coast, there came Arab-influenced taarab music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: From the tribal interior, came the insistent drums and flutes of ngoma music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: But above all else, the archive of Radio Tanzania is a treasury of Zilipendwa music. The Tabora Jazz Band and the Urafiki Jazz Band, the Kilimanjaro, the Conga and the Merry Blackbird Jazz Bands, and dozens more. None of them actually played jazz. The term was appropriated to give bands currency and cache. One of the greatest singers and bandleaders of them all was Kikumbi Mpango, known as King Kiki.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING KIKI: (Singing in Swahili)

(Swahili spoken)

BURNETT: Zilipendwa is a fusion of melodies from the Congo, Cuba, Angola and Mozambique. And when I play it, people still love it, says Kiki, who, at 65, gigs four nights a week. The graying, regal songsmith sits at a friend's kitchen table and ruminates. This music, he says, had a purpose.

KIKI: (Swahili spoken)

BURNETT: Zilipendwa sang about unity, love and building a nation, he continues. It gave a message to the public to support the government's goals. It was music to unite the people. President Nyerere wanted Radio Tanzania to be the voice of his revolutionary nation. He delivered this speech at the opening of the University of Dar es Salaam in 1964, three years after independence. It's filed the archive, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

JULIUS NYERERE: A revolution in underdeveloped countries like the United Republic means an economic revolution if it is to mean anything. All young countries have to be revolutionary in their policies if they have to survive.

BURNETT: Tanzania's revolution, based on Nyerere's treasured ideal of Ujamaa, or familyhood, did not survive. The collectivized farms of tobacco and tea, the nationalized industries, the corrupt one-party system all collapsed in the mid-1980s, a victim of poor governance and economic pressures. The state media monopoly ended. Radio Tanzania became just another signal on the dial, which it remains today. And Swahili hip-hop shoved aside Zilipendwa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED BAND #4: (Singing in Swahili)

BURNETT: In the rooms containing the forgotten tapes, the soft-spoken 57-year-old archivist, Bruno Nanguka, keeps the A/C running to fend off the coastal humidity, and waits for the day when they can start duplicating them.

BRUNO NANGUKA: This is a change from the analog type of library to a digital system.

BURNETT: Nanguka says they need to buy the equipment to convert the tapes from analog to digital. One person working at one workstation could dub all the recordings real-time in, say, about 30 years. With the help of Kickstarter, they're raising the money for ten duplicating workstations. Again, Rebecca Corey, director of the Tanzania Heritage Project.

COREY: It's the entire musical history of Tanzania in one place. And these tapes are absolutely unique. They can't be found anywhere else. It would be a true tragedy for the tapes to be lost. They're at great risk to fire, heat, humidity and just time.

BURNETT: And if they go, so goes an audio time capsule of East African history. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

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