Due to a strange and wonderful series of circumstances that there sadly isn’t the space to discuss here, NY Conversation has diversified of late into Frantically Globetrotting Conversation, and as this month’s column draws near, I find myself in Dar Es Salaam, the gloriously chaotic Tanzanian port city that divides Lonely Planet’s peanut gallery into a vocal “It’s a noisy, crazy, dirty shithole” majority and a quietly insistent “No, it’s actually an awesome friendly fascinating city if you just give it a chance” minority.
After a few days in town, Frantically Globetrotting Conversation is squarely in the latter camp. Apart from its beaches, Dar has little in the way of aesthetic appeal – it is noisy, it is crazy and it is dirty. But it is also an awesome friendly fascinating city if you give it a chance, and it also rewards the adventurous (or, possibly, foolhardy.)
According to all the stuff I read before arriving in town, it’s inadvisable to go out after dark as a foreigner, due to the possibility of getting mugged etc. But fuck it, because as well as being noisy, crazy and dirty, Dar is also the home of bongo flava, the thoroughly excellent Tanzanian take on hip hop, and FG Conversation will be damned if it’s going home without hearing some Swahili rap.
And so, after a lengthy discussion with the crew at the hotel, I’m hooked up with a “taxi” – ie. the guy behind the reception desk’s mate – and packed off to the Maisha Club, which is on the other side of town and has what I need. Sitting in the car, speeding off into the night, I’m frankly terrified, a sensation that persists for about the first 15 minutes or so after we arrive at the place, which is set off an empty road on a big carpark and looks more like a by-the-hour motel than a rockin’ club.
Its interior doesn’t do a whole lot to change this impression – in the UV-lit VIP area (which is free tonight – result!) there’s a stripper’s pole taking pride of place next to one of those “Disco 2000” video type backlit dancefloors. The place is empty when I arrive – it’s only midnight, after all – but the guy behind the decks is dropping some most excellent beats. He gives me a big smile as I mooch around looking generally uncomfortable. It appears I’m in the right place.
For want of a better idea, I eventually grab a beer, hole up in a corner opposite the stripper’s pole and try to look as non-white as possible. Clearly, this doesn’t work, as it’s barely five minutes before one of the, um, local ladies plonks herself at my table and asks (nicely) what on Earth I’m doing here. This is a pattern that will be repeated for the rest of the evening. Life isn’t all bad, etc etc.
From what I can gather, there’s a real pan-African flavour to the evening – my new friend points out that this tune is from Uganda, this one from Nigeria, this one Tanzania… It’s hard to appreciate the subtle differences, but the uniting feature is that the tunes are all thoroughly banging – there’s a real old school vibe to the music, a rawness that’s long since vanished from the AutoTuned world of American commercial hip hop. By about 2.30am the place is pumping, and the warm-up DJ gives way to another guy, who’s brought along a couple of hype men.
Some sort of dancing competition begins shortly afterward – the ins and outs of it are related in Swahili and thus lost on FG Conversation, but the result involves unfeasibly attractive Tanzanians gyrating in a way to which the word “suggestive” doesn’t begin to do justice. And then the lights go down and a birthday cake appears. The birthday girl and a friend are marched onto the dance floor to blow out the candles, then doused with champagne as the DJ drops a filthy beat and the hype men bellow their rhymes.
Your correspondent sticks around for about an hour longer, embarrassing himself on the dance floor (if anything’s ever gonna make you feel thoroughly inadequate about your dancing skillz, it’s a visit to a Tanzanian hip hop club), drinking Kilimanjaro beer and generally having a whale of a time. It’s only when the local ladies start to argue about just whose “boyfriend” I actually am – I swear I’m not making this up – that I decide it might be time to absent myself from proceedings. I make my excuses, and slip downstairs, where the guy from the hotel has waited for me. I’m back at the hotel by 4am. I lie down and feel like Wiley Wiggins at the end of Dazed and Confused. Some nights, everything just turns out all right.