ARNOLD CHIWALALA (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1963–)
Arnold Chiwalala with Topi Korhonen (front) and Ricardo Padilla (back( in 2008.

Photo by Riika Hiltunen

Written by Elina Seye (University of Tampere, Finland)

Arnold Chiwalala was born in 1963 in Dar es Salaam. His parents came originally from Southwestern Tanzania, but due to his father’s service in the army, the family lived in various places. In 1974 the family moved back to the town of Sumbawanga, where Arnold Chiwalala received most of his schooling. In his family there was a lot of interest for music, and already as a young boy he performed with his school’s performing arts group and was a bandmaster for the school’s marching band. After completing primary school in 1978, Chiwalala studied for two years at the Sumbawanga Technical School.

In 1981 Chiwalala was accepted to study at the Bagamoyo College of Arts (Chuo cha Sanaa Bagamoyo, in 2007 renamed to Taasisi ya Sanaa na Utamaduni Bagamoyo), still the only major arts college in Tanzania. The four-year study program in Bagamoyo included a range of courses in music, dance, acting, acrobatics and choreography, as well as more theoretical subjects such as music theory, pedagogical skills and art promotion. Giving performances was required to pass exams, but the students of the College also performed regularly for the public at festivals and other events. The College hosted quest teachers from abroad, who gave workshops e.g. in contemporary dance and community theatre, but most of the practical arts courses concentrated on the different ethnic traditions in Tanzania.

After his graduation in 1985, Chiwalala was appointed to work as an instructor and artist at the Bagamoyo College of Arts. He was also assigned to work on other tasks outside the College, such as giving training to local artists and choreographing performances for groups travelling abroad to represent Tanzania. Together with other teachers and students Chiwalala performed for various audiences both inside and outside Tanzania. His first trip abroad was to England with the College’s group in 1984. Next year he travelled alone to the USA to take part in an international choreographers’ workshop. In 1987 he toured with the College’s group in the Nordic countries and the former Yugoslavia. This tour brought him also to Finland. The experiences of travelling abroad motivated Chiwalala further to continue his artistic career.

Already on his first visit to Finland in 1987, Chiwalala had the possibility to try playing the Finnish folk music instrument kantele that later became a central instrument in his artistic work. He found kantele similar in sound to the Tanzanian zeze that he had studied playing in Bagamoyo. As a result of contacts gained during this first visit, Chiwalala was invited by the Finnish Youth Association (Suomen Nuorisoseurojen Liitto) to return to teach Tanzanian dances in 1989. In the years 1991–94 the Finnish Youth Association invited him to teach and give workshops every year during the vacation of the Bagamoyo College of Arts. This way he could also continue his work in Tanzania, where he received the award of ‘Work Quality Excellence’ (Cheti cha ‘Mfanya Kazi Bora’) of the Organization of Tanzania Trade Unions (OTTU) in Tanzania in 1991.

During his yearly visits to Finland, Chiwalala taught in many places, such as various dance schools and the University of Helsinki. With each visit he made new contacts and was again offered new opportunities to work in Finland, and the working opportunities expanded from teaching also to artistic work. These included among others a performance in collaboration with the Avanti! chamber orchestra and the Raatikko dance theatre in 1993.

In 1995 Chiwalala moved to Finland due to employment in an opera production called Frieda (composed by Kari Tikka) that was commissioned by the Finnish Evangelic Lutheran Church and performed at the National Opera of Finland. The same year he also participated in another opera production by the Opera Association of Turku. The next year Chiwalala was involved in a music theatre production called Silta (‘Bridge’) in the Theatre of Espoo, working together with composer Jukka Linkola and other Finnish musicians. He also participated in a joint theatre production of the Finnish Theatre Academy and the University of Dar es Salaam called Simba Karatasi (‘The Lion Paper’), with performances in Helsinki and Tampere.

After settling in Finland, Chiwalala started studying at the Folk Music Department of Sibelius Academy, where he learned to play the five-string and later the ten-string kantele with Arja Kastinen and Sinikka Kontio, who encouraged him to compose for the kantele. He started developing his own style of playing the kantele by transferring his zeze-playing skills to the kantele. Chiwalala’s compositions for the kantele are mostly songs in Swahili language, but some songs have sections with Finnish lyrics. The song texts tell about his own personal experiences and observations about his environment. He uses the kantele for accompaniment in a way that is closer to Tanzanian musical traditions than Finnish kantele music, especially in the use of rhythm. Since 1997 Chiwalala has been performing as a solo kantele player at Finnish folk music festivals and other events and also in schools. He was even invited to play at the presidential residence during the presidency of Martti Ahtisaari. In 2008 Chiwalala received the title “Kantele Player of the Year” (Vuoden Kantele) given by the Finnish Kantele Union.

In addition to his solo career, Chiwalala has also continued collaborating with different artists in Finland: In the years 1997–99 he gave percussion concerts as a duo with Senegalese percussionist Yamar Thiam. In 1999–2000 he performed together with nine Finnish musicians, actors and dancers in an experimental but very popular theatre production called Gekko by Q-teatteri and Zodiak (Centre for New Dance).

In 1999 Chiwalala formed a duo called PolePole (‘slow but sure’) with Finnish guitarist Topi Korhonen. The reason was that Chiwalala wanted to develop his own style of kantele playing further but it would require more than one performer. He was happy to find Korhonen, who was a professional folk musician and who was ready to take the challenge of learning to play a new style of music. Since then the PolePole duo has performed in schools, festivals and other events e.g. in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Germany and Tanzania.

When Chiwalala finished his master’s degree at the Sibelius Academy in 2000, professor Heikki Laitinen recommended him to continue studying in the artistic doctoral degree program. In this program the individually designed artistic development project is presented in five concerts and a written work, each of which are evaluated by a jury. Chiwalala started to plan an artistic work, later titled “Holistic and Intercultural Artistry”, which would be based on ngoma, a Tanzanian art form that includes music, dancing, storytelling, acting and acrobatic elements but would also transfer this idea of an integrated unity of arts into Finnish folk traditions.

The first concert Maisha (‘Life’) in 2000 was a solo performance, where storytelling, songs, music and dance expression were combined and used to express feelings and thoughts. The next one called Njia Panda (‘Crossroads’) in 2001 included three other artists. The theme of the performance was the confusion that a traveler has at the crossroads when the signs are not clear. Similarly to Maisha, the second performance integrated dance, music and theatrical elements.

The third performance BanduBandu (‘Piece by piece’) in 2003 included six musicians and the aim was to show how the performers could use all elements of ngoma at the same time. The challenge for the performers was to integrate singing, playing and dancing. The idea was to show the player, instrument and sound as one unity, especially by using Tanzanian drums.

In the next performance SiSi (‘We and our similarities’) in 2004 Chiwalala combined Finnish and Tanzanian folk music and dance, using pieces that he found to have similarities, either in rhythm or melodies or in the pieces’ social functions. Each performer had to sing, dance and play the different instruments. The Tanzanian performers had to learn Finnish songs and dances, and the Finnish performers Tanzanian ones.

In the fifth performance Hodi in 2006 the kantele was again in a more central position, being played in all pieces throughout the concert, together with different types of instruments. Some songs had been performed in previous concerts, but now they were developed further with a bigger group of musicians. The title Hodi is a word that people say in Tanzania when knocking at the door to go in and visit someone.

In Chiwalala’s doctoral concerts the performers involved were for the most part Finnish folk musicians who were studying or had studied at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, like Topi Korhonen and Ricardo Padilla, but they also included Tanzanian artists Menard Mponda and Aliko Mwakanjuki, both of whom have studied at the Bagamoyo College of Arts before settling in Finland.

In 2009 Chiwalala completed his artistic doctorate in the Folk Music Department of the Sibelius Academy with the written work called “Chizentele: My Path to Original Artistry and Creative Fusion of Ngoma with Finnish Folk Music and Dance”. There he explains his artistic style as a kantele player to have developed in three stages, the first one being solo kantele playing, the second one blending kantele with acoustic guitar (in PolePole) and the third one performing kantele mixed with other musical instruments and also with dance expression. Chiwalala calls his own style of music Chizentele: ‘Chi’ comes from his own last name, ‘ze’ has a connection with zeze and ‘ntele’ comes from kantele – a hybrid name representing his hybrid style of music.

Chiwalala’s strongest influence is still most likely through his work as a teacher, which he has continued alongside performing. His teaching has reached various groups of people from school children to students in the fields of music, dance and theatre, but also special groups such as disabled children and prisoners.

  • Various Artists: Kantele Continuum – 12 small mysteries (2008), Inkoon Musiikki. IMUCD 081.
  • Johanna Juhola: Miette (2006), Texicalli Records. TEXCD070.
  • Arnold Chiwalala Band: Wito (2012), Global Music Centre. GMCD 1223.


Chiwalala, Arnold: Chizentele: My Path to Original Artistry and Creative Fusion of Ngoma with Finnish Folk Music and Dance.Publication 17 of the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department. Helsinki, 2009.