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Remmy Ongala: The Life, Death And Legacy of Legendary Musician

He is fondly remembered by many Tanzanians not only for his artistic prowess but also for his rich lyrics covering various themes.

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Thirteen years ago today, Tanzania lost an iconic voice and one of its absolute finest musicians by a long shot. The Tanzanian music fraternity said goodbye to the legendary Mungamba Ramazani Mtoro Ongala, popularly known as Dr Remmy, who bid adieu to the world at age 63.

Dr Remmy, whose music career spanned several decades and who belted out memorable hits touching on all aspects of life from romance and politics to culture like Kifo, Mambo kwa Soksi, Mrema, Lolango, Mwanza and Asili ya Muziki,  is a name mentioned alongside the likes of Salum Abdallah, Mbaraka Mwishehe, Juma Kilaza, Bi Kidude, Hemed Maneti, Muhidini ‘Gurumo’ Maalim and so many other great Tanzanian musicians to have ever lived.

In view thereof, I decided to pen this article in honour of Dr Remmy, whose music continues to inspire generations and thus invites all of you to look back at the extraordinary journey of this extraordinary creative soul who has left a monumental mark on the Tanzanian music industry.

Early life

Dr Remmy was born on Monday, February 10, 1947, in what was then the Belgium Congo, later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His birth story about where and how he was born is one of the most amazing stories! He exclusively divulged his unique story in 1990 to journalist Gary Stewart:

“One day, my mother became pregnant, but the child died. A second pregnancy also ended tragically. Thus, she enlisted the assistance of a traditional doctor. That doctor told my mother, ‘The next time you are pregnant, you must not go to a hospital, come to me.’ When the time came for her to give birth again, she strictly followed the traditional doctor’s instructions. She delivered a baby boy in the forest in the presence of that doctor. That baby is Dr Remmy. I was born feet first with two front teeth.”

As was the case with other children, Dr Remmy was enrolled at a nearby school when he reached compulsory school age. In that country, as in much of Africa, music permeated almost every facet of life, and Dr Remmy was immersed in it from birth.

Furthermore, his father was a talented musician; hence, becoming a musician was natural for him. Dr Remmy took to music like a duck to water, and no wonder thus, in one of his hit songs Lolango, he sings: Nitaimba, nitaimba, nitaimba.  Kuimba kwangu ni kuimba kwa ukoo. Baba aliyenizaa alikuwa anaimba … He had a passion for music from a young age!

Nothing can be as devastating as losing a father, the guide of your life. Hence, in 1952, when  Dr Remmy’s father passed on, the musician, who was only five, was devastated. As if that was not enough, in 1964, when Dr Remmy was 17, his mother also passed away as misfortunes do not come singly.

A troubled life

The singing legend came from a humble background and faced many difficulties in his initial years. Losing his father at the age of just five left a big scar on his mind, and the subsequent loss of his mother worsened the situation.

Being the eldest among his siblings, he had to bear financial responsibility early in life as the early death of both his parents left him not only penniless but also with younger brothers and sisters to support.

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Dr Remmy, after the death of his parents and with no jobs available, dropped out of school and ate leftovers from the dustbins. He spent many of his early years wandering through the ancient streets of his home town. 

He normally loitered at the traffic lights, begging for loose change and selling stuff to make ends meet. Food was a real problem, and he picked up bread others had thrown away. No wonder, when he became a singer, most of his songs resulted from the difficulties that he had in the past.

A new chapter

Dr Remmy then began making a living by playing music. He was a guitarist and singer. Together with his fellow children, they formed a band, Sikuss Band. The band used to perform nightly in nearby pubs. At least Dr Remmy was now able to make ends meet. Over the next decade, he would perform in Zaire and Uganda.

In 1978, Dr Remmy was invited by his uncle, Kitenzogu Makassy alias Mzee Makassy to join his Dar es Salaam-based band, Orchestra Makassy,  to replace one Mr Gobby, a famous singer, who had just been knifed to death. Dr Remmy joined Mzee Makassy on February 10, 1978.

Dr Remmy’s arrival in Tanzania marked a turning point in his life. Cosmas Chidumule, a famous musician, once narrated, to quote him verbatim:

“Dr Remmy alipotoka Zaire, Mzee Makassy alikuwa akitumbuiza maeneo mengi kama vile Chimoka Bar, Magomeni.  Wengi tulipenda kwenda kumuona. Dr Remmy alikuwa akishika microphone na kupanda  juu ya Mnazi na kuanza kuimba huku akikata mauno. Kwa hakika, alituburudisha sana.”

One Saturday in March 1978, Orchestra Makassy performed in a pub at Ubungo, and one thing led to another.  Ms Toni Thomas, a British woman who would become Dr Remmy’s wife, once divulged, to quote her verbatim:

“Mimi ni mzaliwa wa Uingereza. Mwaka 1978 nilitoka Uingereza nikaja Tanzania kumtembelea dada yangu aliyekuwa anaishi na mmewe UDSM. Jumamosi moja, shemeji yangu akaniambia kuwa Mzee Makassy anapiga Hunters Pub, Ubungo na ameleta mwanamuziki mpya, Remmy. Tukaenda. Remmy akaja kwenye meza yetu akanitongoza. Toka hapo tukaanza mawasiliano.”

Dr Remmy’s courteous ‘Hi’ went on to become something more; they became lovers. It was love at first sight. Ms Toni concluded that she had found the love of her life. The two lovebirds were, since then, inseparable!

In 1979, a year after their first meeting, Dr Remmy married Ms Toni. A year later, in 1980, Ms Toni became a teacher at the  International School of Tanganyika (IST) in Dar es Salaam and was thus based in Tanzania.

Kifo: Dr Remmy’s first hit song

Dr Remmy made his mark with the hit song Kifo, which announced his entry into music in this region. However, many Tanzanians do not understand why Dr Remmy composed this emotional song, which was in remembrance of and tribute to Mr Thomas, Dr Remmy’s father-in-law and Ms Toni’s father, who had just died of brain cancer.

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In 1980, Dr Remmy and his wife were nearly expelled from Tanzania. Ms Toni once opened up about why they were nearly kicked out of Tanzania, to quote her verbatim:

“Iliamuliwa kuwa ili kulinda bendi za Tanzania, basi bendi zote za Zaire zifukuzwe. Mimi na mume wangu tulipanga kuhamia Malawi. Bahati nzuri, Rais [Julius] Nyerere  akazuia, nami siku hiyohiyo nikapata kazi ya kufundisha IST.”

In 1981, Dr Remmy joined Orchestra Super Matimila, a band owned by a businessman named Ambrose Mvula. The move proved a massive success, and Dr Remmy’s charismatic stage presence dominated the group. After the death of Mvula, he became the leader of the band.

Over the following decade, Dr Remmy became one of Tanzania’s most prolific songwriters. He concentrated on writing lyrics that addressed social concerns, including poverty, the rights of the downtrodden, etc. His message of hope for the underdog in the face of oppression did strike a chord with listeners of diverse backgrounds. The whole of East Africa loved his songs. In this regard, he once stated:

“I am successful in Tanzania because I write songs about serious topics. My music is about Bongo beat because in Kiswahili, ‘Bongo’ means brain, and my music is heavy thinking music.”

Dr Remmy was one of the first people to own plots in Sinza, a suburb of Dar es Salaam, in the early 1980s, where he built an ordinary bungalow. In his honour, a bus stop near the place where his house is located is named Sinza kwa Remmy.

Dr Remmy was not only famous in East Africa but also in Europe. The introduction of Dr Remmy’s music to a European audience began in a simple fashion. In the late 1980s, Dr Remmy gave a tape of his band to a British friend who was returning to the UK. 

The tape was passed to World of Music, Arts & Dance (WOMAD) members. Thereafter, Dr Remmy was invited to participate in the 1988 WOMAD tour and took Europe and the US by storm. He performed in the UK, Norway, Yugoslavia, Finland, the US, Australia, Holland, Belgium, Canada, Spain and Germany.

Following Dr Remmy’s wonderful performances in 1988, he was invited again in 1989 to participate in the WOMAD tour. He stole the show and made a lot of money.

Back in Tanzania, Dr Remmy’s European tours were not universally praised. He was heavily criticised, particularly for what others described as performing “naked and rounded stomachs,” allegedly tarnishing the image of all  Tanzanians in the process.

Politically-sensitive songs

In his heyday, Dr Remmy was composing controversial and politically sensitive songs. This led to the censorship of his two hit songs, Mambo Kwa Soksi and Mrema.

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Mambo kwa Soksi, an ebullient dance track, was released in 1990. The song was a plea to young men to help slow the spread of AIDS by practising safe sex. Its lyrics called for men to use condoms. 

Nonetheless, it was banned as it was considered too immoral. Dr Remmy, however, continued to perform it at concerts. Live shows and black market tapes ensured his message was sent and delivered. The song catapulted him into the greater limelight.

The song Mrema was released in the early 1990s in honour of the late Augustine Mrema, the erstwhile Home Affairs Minister who served between 1990 and 1994, for waging war against society’s vices, including corruption. Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam (RTD) refused to give airtime to Mrema.

In the early 1990s, Dr Remmy competed in the inaugural ‘Tanzania’s Ugliest Man’ competition held at Buguruni, Dar es Salaam. One Masudi Ali Sultan was crowned the competition winner, with Dr Remmy as the first runner-up, followed by Bakari Mbelemba alias Mzee Jangala.

Dr Remmy was aggrieved by the decision of the judges to crown Masudi the title of ‘Tanzania’s Ugliest Man.’ Dr Remmy shocked the nation when he appealed against that decision, arguing that Masudi’s ugliness was not natural but a result of leprosy!

Dr Remmy’s decision shell-shocked many. His appeal was, however, unsuccessful.

Deportation threats

Dr Remmy was simultaneously adulated and loathed. As stated earlier, some of Dr Remmy’s songs did not endear him well with some government officials. His outspoken political views and advocacy of sexual promiscuity offended many. 

He distinguished himself from his peers through bravado, valiance and the courage to say overtly what many couldn’t. In the mid-1990s, Dr Remmy was threatened with deportation after performing one of his controversial songs, Kilio cha Samaki, in an audience that included the President as it was interpreted as critical of the Government. 

It was Dr Remmy’s lowest moment in his career. Fortunately, the matter was settled, and he was subsequently granted a Tanzanian passport.

However, Dr Remmy was not one to play with. He immediately composed a new controversial song, Sema, which advocated for a borderless and unified Africa.

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Dr Remmy’s health then started deteriorating. He was diagnosed with diabetes and also had a stroke in 2001, followed by two more strokes later on, but continued to perform from his wheelchair.

A born-again Christian

In 2004, Dr Remmy, who was hitherto neither a mosque-goer nor a church-goer, decided to be saved and follow Jesus. He ditched world music for gospel. To make a switch from secular to gospel music was surprising. 

Dr Remmy was formally baptised at the Indian Ocean, near Coco Beach. Despite his ill health, Dr Remmy continued performing gospel music. He recorded and released an album titled Kwa Yesu Kuna Furaha.

Dr Remmy passed on at the Regency Hospital, Dar es Salaam, on December 13, 2010. When his death was announced, the whole of Sinza stood still as many Sinzanians felt a personal attachment to him. 

His music was played nonstop on radio stations nationwide, and many Tanzanians were phoning in with tributes. It was a very sad day for the Tanzania music industry. The music fraternity had lost one of their own.

Dr Remmy was buried on Thursday, December 16, 2010, at Sinza cemetery near his house. The government was represented by Emmanuel Nchimbi, who then served as Tanzania’s Minister for Information and Culture.

Dr Remmy had an adorable little parrot who just loved to talk and entertain and also loved getting attention from Dr Remmy. Unfortunately, the parrot died soon after the death of Dr Remmy, as Ms Toni narrated, to quote her verbatim:

“Kasuku wa miaka mingi wa Dr. Remmy naye akafa siku tano tu baada Dr. Remmy kufariki, nadhani sababu ya uchungu.”

In 2012, the Tanzania Music Awards (TMA) posthumously awarded Dr Remmy the Hall of Fame trophy for his immense contribution to Tanzanian music.

A versatile personality

Dr Remmy was one of the most down-to-earth persons. His warm presence and infectious smile always brightened the lives of those around him.

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No wonder thus, Fredy Macha, a London-based veteran Tanzanian journalist and Dr Remmy’s friend, revealed after his death that sometimes he would be in Dr Remmy’s house and his wife, Toni, would cook a stew of meat while Dr Remmy made Ugali. 

This was unusual to most Tanzanians but was part of Dr Remmy’s versatile personality and progressive family lifestyle.

Dr Remmy, during his lifetime, owned a unique small car, Morris. Some used to laugh at him as a car is usually seen as a measure of a man’s standing in life. In response, Dr Remmy wrote on the back of the car, Babaako Analo, or does your father have it? The late Dr Remmy was, indeed, a very funny chap!

While performing outside Tanzania, Dr Remmy preferred to wear Maasai dress to appear different from musicians from other countries. The Maasai are the ones in Tanzania who are strongly committed to African culture and lifestyle.

When it comes to composing songs, Dr Remmy was bad news. No wonder, thus, Kipenda Roho, one of his hit songs, was used by Oliver Stone, the legendary American filmmaker, in his film Natural Born Killers.

Dr Remmy’s widow, Ms Toni, lives at Mbezi Beach, Dar es Salaam. She once narrated: “Nimeamua kuondoka Sinza na kuhamia huku Mbezi Beach. Kule Sinza ilikuwa nikiangalia kiti cha marehemu mume wangu Dr. Remmy na vitu vyake nilikuwa namkumbuka sana.”

Dr Remmy’s eldest daughter, Jessica, is a teacher who used to live in Dubai for many years. Kalimangonga, alias Kally, played for Young Africans, played in the Swedish Premier League, and then coached AZAM FC. 

Ms Aziza, Dr Remmy’s lookalike, lives in the UK  and is married to a Jamaican producer. She founded the Ongala Music Festival while Seame is a teacher. Tom, whose biological mom was a Tanzanian and not Toni, hence not a half-caste, is a musician. 

Ironically, Ms Toni gave Tom, though not her son, her late father’s name. Dr Remmy’s. two other children  passed away, as Ms Toni revealed: “Mtoto wetu mmoja aliyezaliwa kabla ya Aziza na mwingine aliyezaliwa baada ya Aziza walikufa.”

Ms Toni, who is very fluent in Kiswahili, is blessed with many grandchildren.

God’s gift to the world

Dr Remmy, the self-declared Ugliest Man of African music, was God’s gift to the world of music lovers. He was undeniably a unique music icon whose style of music wowed both the old and young. 

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He is fondly remembered by many Tanzanians not only for his artistic prowess but also for his rich lyrics covering various themes. He has left an indelible mark in the hearts of many people in Tanzania and beyond.

Dr Remmy’s life story is a good example of the ‘Rags to Riches’ stories. He was a poor ‘Forest’ African man who became a ‘Chokoraa’ but went on to marry a British woman! The hardships of his early life profoundly affected his later songwriting.

Dr Remmy had a huge East African fan base and helped popularise African music in Europe. He duly fulfilled his duty as a cosmopolitan citizen.

Mzee wa Atikali is a writer based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He’s available at +255 754 744 557. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further clarification. 

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