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Bringing bongo flava north

The sound is optimistic and uplifting. African melodies are infused with western hip-hop beats to create a modern sound while still being rooted in tradition.

The sound is optimistic and uplifting. African melodies are infused with western hip-hop beats to create a modern sound while still being rooted in tradition. Simple and catchy, the songs get feet shuffling and hips moving. This is bongo flava at its finest.

Originating on the streets of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, the infectious music will land in Whitehorse this Saturday featuring in the Yukon African Music Festival. Held at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, the one-day event will feature musicians from east and west Africa, as well as the Caribbean.

Now in its third year, the festival is the initiative of Leonard Boniface, a native Tanzanian who moved to Canada a decade ago and made his way north in 2010. Holding the festival is a great way to bring cultures together, Boniface says.

“One of the powerful tools in life is just sharing what you have to others,” he says, “because we learn from each other.”

Forging understanding between cultures is important, says Boniface. By meeting together, sharing food, music, and culture, new connections are made and gaps between groups grow smaller. “We all need to understand so many cultures as people,” he says.

These lofty goals stem from Boniface’s previous experience at the Oxfam International Youth Parliament in 2004, a cohort of 300 young people from around the globe who were actively working for positive social change in their countries. Part of the Tanzanian delegation, Boniface travelled to Australia to meet and share ideas with other like-minded youth from all corners of the map.

When he arrived in Whitehorse five years ago, he founded Teenage Life & Young Adults International, a group that encourages young people’s leadership skills. While officially organized by TELIYA, the music festival isn’t a fundraiser or awareness night - it’s just part of Boniface’s natural enthusiasm for getting different cultures into the community spotlight.

The festival’s headliner this year is Ghanaian Brian Quaye, a talented musician and producer, adept with any instrument put before him. Currently residing in Calgary, Quaye plays traditional Ghanaian music with a modern flair.

Trinidadian-born Becky Law brings her smooth, soulful voice to the stage along with her husband Brent’s talent on guitar and keys. With music resting somewhere on the spectrum between smooth jazz and soulful gospel, the duo performs with an understated strength that is typical of traditional African spirituals. Local singer/songwriter Roxx Hunter will join the group, adding his wide range of musical talents to the mix.

In addition to organizing the event, Boniface is also performing in it alongside his occasional musical partner Ssasi Traore, who is originally from Mali. The two will team up to get the crowd moving to the sounds of bongo flava. With the music sung mostly in Swahili, the artists will be sharing the messages of the songs. “There is a lot of meaning with our music. You may not understand the language… but we explain.”

Bongo flava, which has often been compared to American R&B or hip hop, has both meaning and rhythm.

“You can feel the beats,” says Boniface. “It’s easy to dance, easy to follow the music.”

And while music is front and centre, food will play a big part at the festival, with African dinner being served for an extra five dollars. Cuisines from across Africa as well as the Caribbean will feature in the feast. One dish, pilau, a fragrant rice casserole that appears on Kenyan and Tanzanian tables whenever a celebration comes around, is an East African favourite.

Boniface points out that a meal like this one only comes to the Yukon every so often, so rather than taking in a meal at a typical Whitehorse establishment, he recommends trying out something new.

“We’re going to make food which has a really fresh taste,” Boniface says. “It’s different than the food that people eat every day.”

Hoping to boost numbers from the previous events, Boniface decided to move the venue to the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre from the 2-0-2 Motor Inn. Not only does the cultural centre have a larger area (more room to shimmy!), but it’s also more family-friendly which is a key switch, says Boniface. The bigger hall will also hold a craft market with beadwork, ethnic jewelry, and other curios imported from Africa.

The cost of renting a flashier venue and flying in musicians takes its financial toll, but Boniface managed to secure government funding for the event from the City of Whitehorse and the Yukon Arts Fund. Boniface thinks the cost will be worth it, and hopes to build on the moderate success of previous years.

“Always people enjoy the food, the music, the connection. That’s why we keep doing it.”

Contact Joel Krahn at