The sun sinks into the warm tropical waters of the Indian Ocean as the growing flow of traffic slowly creeps through bustling downtown Dar es Salaam. Bedraggled side streets start to clear of mama-lishes, roughly translated as “the mothers who feed”, who sell chapattis, maize cobs and mandazi (sweet, fired doughnuts sold in small plastic sachets).
The jam-packed dala dalas (colourful minibuses) create extra lanes beside the sidewalks, hooting and honking to announce their presence as they vie for passengers.
Nestled in a natural harbour, what was once a tiny town scattered with casuarina trees has grown into a jumble of vibrant neighbourhoods in what is now considered Africa’s fastest-growing urban centre. The name Dar es Salaam means “abode of peace”, but in the evenings, as the road leading to its centre fills with people and cars, and the noise begins to escalate, it’s anything but peaceful.
The city’s high-rises light up the skyline as I make my way downtown against the steady flow of Friday traffic heading north and south. As the sun begins to sink, the main objective of many residents and visitors is to find the best viewpoint from which to ring in the weekend, and I’m no exception.
Families head to the Slipway along the Msasani Peninsula, which offers bars and restaurants with ice-cream parlours and kiddie-friendly play areas overlooking the bay. Glitzier folk make their way across town to Level 8 at the Hyatt Regency with its panoramic views and sleek furnishings. Me? I opt for the High Spirit Lounge Bar. Although it’s not too busy this evening, the happy hour offers great value and nothing beats the fantastic views over the harbour as night draws in and the lights of the boats reflect off the water. Diamond Platnumz popular song Kidogo plays more than once as I wind my way through some ice-cold cocktails as the bar’s lights turn the furniture a luminous pink and purple. It’s a gaudy mix of decor – ever so cheesy, but in a strange way also unpretentious and welcoming in typical Dar es Salaam style.
The city’s vibrant music scene is very loosely organised, with artists performing at clubs, open-air music venues, neighbourhood parties, bars, festivals and private functions. There’s a wide variety of genres to choose from. Traditional and modern takes on taarab – fast-paced tribal music with Arabic influences and lyrical sung poetry, backed by infectious percussion – will instantly get your feet tapping. The jazzier, rumba sounds of muziki wa dansi with its big-band dance music is a treat for aficionados, but my favourite is the recognisable sound of bongo flava. A mix of hip-hop with influences of reggae, rap, Afro-fusion and traditional Tanzanian music, it’s incredibly popular with the younger crowd.
Info about who’s playing where and when spreads by word of mouth and on social media. Block, beach and dance parties are held at a myriad of venues range from the fancier clubs to an open stage encircled with plastic chairs.
The staff at the High Spirit are a great source of information on the events around town, especially on a Saturday, the busiest night of the week, and I ask them for recommendations. On their advice, I head out into the night, flagging down the nearest tuk-tuk, otherwise known as a bajaj. My bajaj driver swerves and skates through the traffic over Selander Bridge. These nifty taxis are the easiest way to get around the city if you don’t have a car.
This evening, the drivers are ready for the weekend rush as things begin to hot up and queues start to form outside popular venues.
I’m heading for Triniti Bar. There are rumours that Vee Money, also known as Vanessa Mdee, is playing tonight and I’d never miss an opportunity to dance to the music of the country’s hottest young songstress.
I arrive a little earlier than expected. Dancing in Dar only gets started once everyone’s had their fill of fabulous food. If you arrive anywhere before 11pm, expect to be the only person jiggling on the dance floor. Eventually, Ali Kiba’s Aja begins to blast from the DJ booth as a few people begin to get up and dance around tables covered with Tusker and Kilimanjaro beer quarts. Everyone’s dressed to impress in the uniforms of the young, cool and fabulous: sunglasses and low-slung baseball caps, with stylish hair and nails on point. If you think rocking up in your tourist khakis is a good idea, think again. Swahili and Zanzibar Fashion Weeks are testament to the fact that this is not a city where sloppy sandals will do for a night on the town.
I’m grateful that the courtyard of Trinitis’ leafy garden area has plenty of benches and tables. This is one of the reasons this has become my favourite spot for relaxing and people-watching before the night really gets started. The party eventually gets going as the crowds gather and the music volume rises.
Fortifying skewers of mishkaki are grilled on open flames, either in club kitchens or along the streets, and the party vibe reaches fever pitch at around 2am.
But there’s only so much one can take before the heat and the crowds become too much. Several hours later, sweaty and exhausted, with my legs feeling like jelly after hours of non-stop dancing, and my ears ringing from the loud reverb from speakers that tower over the dance floor, I leave and creep into bed as the sun breaks the skyline.
This city’s filled with a rhythmic style all its own and there’s no doubt that Tanzanians are devoted to music. Whether a resident, expat or tourist, as soon as the lights dim and the volume’s turned up, you’ll want to join the party. While the nightlife might not be as varied as in other African cities, it does pack an alluring punch. There’s nowhere quite like Dar es Salaam, and once you’ve partied here you may well find yourself wanting to extend your stay.
South African Airways flies direct to Dar es Salaam twice daily. Visit: www.flysaa.com