Remmy Ongala: Heavy Thinking Music for AIDS Awareness

"I am successful in Tanzania because I write songs about serious topics… the lyrics are the most important part, all my songs have meaning" --Remmy Ongala

On March 14, 2000, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced a jarring statistic: between 1999 and 2000, more people died of AIDS in Africa than in all the wars on the continent (Brittain). After the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s, African countries have found themselves paying off mountainous debts that accumulated from previous corrupt regimes. Attempts to democratize instead resulted in military governments, one party states, or dictatorships.  These corrupt dictatorships embezzled billions of dollars from their own country into private savings, furthering the lack of action towards fighting and preventing HIV/AIDS by African leaders (Bates). Furthermore, of the 33 million people living with HIV, almost 23 million of them live in Africa (UNAIDS).

During this time when the AIDS epidemic was becoming more pervasive in Africa, the Tanzanian musician Remmy Ongala emerged as a prominent social and political symbol in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Through his music, he was able to speak out against and increase awareness of HIV/AIDS, as well as openly oppose certain actions of the Tanzanian government. His music had strong themes of poverty, corruption, mortality, faith and Tanzanian pride. Because of Remmy’s concern towards poverty and sexual health, his fans in Tanzania nicknamed him ‘Doctor Remmy’ (A. Ongala).

In 1990, Remmy Ongala released a lively dance track called “Mambo Kwa Soksi” (“Things With Socks”).  Its lyrics urged men to use “socks,” which is a reference to Tanzanian slang for condoms. He asked young men to help slow the spread of AIDS by practicing safe sex. This song uses very honest and open language and explicitly tells people how to use a condom (Kirkegaard 61). As a result, Radio Tanzania refused to play it. However, the song sill circulated widely in black-market cassette recordings and Remmy continued to perform the song at live events. It became one of Remmy Ongala’s best-known songs and later appeared on the AIDS awareness compilation Spirit of Africa and gained international attention in 2001. This version of the recording can be found here.

As the recording shows, Remmy Ongala’s music emanates his ideals. Every word that he sings is filled with passion for the issues that he so vehemently opposes: racism, social injustice, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. But beyond his blatant political commentary and intense lyrics, his music is made for dancing.  The rhythms in this song follow the principles of Congolese rumba style. Remmy Ongala was born in Congo and grew up very close to the Tanzanian border. He was heavily influenced by both Congolese and Tanzanian music; one of his largest influences was the fluid guitar rumba style of ‘Franco’ (François Luambo Makiadi), the founder of OK Jazz in Kinshasa (A. Ongala). This style is heard in the first half of “Mambo Kwa Soksi,” with most of the focus on the guitars. The instrumental section contains closely interwoven guitar lines in very close counterpoint, supported by a repetitive bass line that changes rhythmically to supplement the guitars and vocals. The repeating ostinatos creates a sense of tension in the music, being resolved later in the piece through the introduction of the brass section, which picks up the dance beat. In the song, Ongala begins by asking the audience to listen to him and understand the scope of the AIDS epidemic. He then uses a football metaphor that forces the audience to interpret his true message:

My dear brothers and sisters, please listen to me.
Listen to me, listen my song.
The world is at war between people and AIDS.
This plague is killing many people, there is no medicine
For it is up for us. 

National Geographic-- World Music

He dubbed his music “ubongo beat,” which translates into “heavy thinking music”—ubongo is Swahili for “brain” (Pareles). The use of a metaphor both puts his message into terms that can be easily understood, but his audience must also decipher his message. Ongola wanted his music to be appreciated on both a physical and mental level, further establishing music as a means of communication and attachment with his audience. This is supported by Kirkegaard who connects musicians and politics in a way that enhances the importance of the community aspect in Titon’s performance model:

“ Tanzania in particular, music has been a political means of communication used with much skill by the state and political leaders. Even in more traditional areas of life, the musicians are important actors and initiators within the social life of the community,” (Kirkegaard 61).

At the time, Ongala’s community was mostly Tanzania and Congo. His songs exhibited astute philosophical and political ideas, proving himself to be a symbol of awareness, education, and change. Additionally, Kirkegaard argues that Remmy Ongala’s use of musical performance to influence the masses is the result of the material culture in the country. Research into the material culture in Tanzania and Congo can help us understand their music cultures (Titon 29). Kirkegaard explains:

“Music in a poor country, traditionally based on the oral mode, has priority as a means of communication. It is cheap to distribute and it can reach a large number of people. Also, musicians…make use of a number of different media such as radio, phonograms, television and live concerts which relate the performer to fixed images and thus creates popularity,” (Kirkegaard 66).

His live performances contain direct talking and calling with the audience, which enhances the performance dynamics of communication and overall affect on the audience. As Titon explains, music’s affect is “its power to move” (Titon 15). Ongala is able to emphasize his message through “invoking this vigorous presence of the audience by highlighting the movements through the use of rhythmic melodic musical structure” (Kirkegaard 67). In other words, Remmy Ongala’s musical performances make his audience embody his music, taking action together as one entity. The power of music is manifested in the movement and presence of the audience– a truly beautiful way to change the world.

HIV/AIDS still remains an issue of great gravity. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV and nearly 30 million people have died of HIV-related cause (UNAIDS). Nonetheless, there has been increased efforts to spread awareness and raise funds for research and medicine. Through his musical gifts and global viability, Remmy Ongala was an influential musician who became the voice of the Tanzanian, writing songs that were both funky as well as a conscientious.

For further listening:
On Stage With Remmy Ongala and Orchestra Super Matimila 1988


Brittain, Victoria. “More Die of Aids than War in Africa Says Kofi Annan.” The Guardian. The Guardian. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <;.

Kirkegaard, Annemette. “Remmy Ongala– Moderating Through Music.” Sounds of Change: Social and Political Features of Music in Africa. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 2004. 57-69. Print.

Ongala, Aziza. “Dk. Remmy Ongala Foundation.” Dk. Remmy Ongala Foundation | Home. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <;.

Pareles, Jon. “Remmy Ongala, Tanzanian Musical Star, Dies at 63.” New York Times. 16 Jan. 2011. Web. <;

Thubauville, Sophia. “Remmy Ongala.” Journal of African Music and Popular Culture. 15 July 2003. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <;.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Chapter 1: The Music-Culture as a World of Music.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 1-32.

UN. UN AIDS Global Report Fact Sheet. Raw data. Geneva.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: