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Pambio: East African spirituality in song

Updated with new videos, June 2015.

The pambio is a popular style of song in East Africa, and it’s the music we’ve been singing here in Dodoma.

A pambio is a short chorus in call-and-response format. Sounds simple, right?

But these could be the sounds of revival: deceptively simple phrases combined with infectious tunes that get into your blood. Although each song has very few words, the practice of singing them repetitively gives them real emotional body — you find yourself not just singing the words but somehow beginning to live them.

This means pambios are not just easy to learn, but a powerful form of modern liturgy. See it for yourself below (and check out the fascinating article by Jenitha Abela Kameli in chapter 8 of this book).

The videos below show some of my favourite pambios (the lyrics are below each one). The first video is from Iringa, and this sort of church scene is pretty typical of our experience: the music is piped through keyboards, the leaders are improvising along the way, and it’s all accompanied by the ubiquitous two-step footwork!

Tunakushukuru kwa kuwa U mwema    We thank you for being good
Kwa maana fadhili zako za milele    Because of your never-ending kindnesses

Western church music is about everyone singing the melody together, but a pambio has a simpler three-chord structure that enables easy harmonising.

Viumbe vyote vinakutukuza    All creatures are honouring you
Ni wewe Masiya    It’s you Messiah

These pambios are all beautiful examples of the looping effect in which a very short phrase becomes infectiously repetitive.

Ainuliwe Bwana wa mabwana    Lift him up, the Lord of lords
Ainuliwe ametenda mema    Lift him up, he has done good things

Pambios can vary in speed and mood from fast and joyful, to slow and soulful. Their simplicity means they can be sung in any setting at any moment, with or without musical instruments.

Unastahili kuabudiwa    You are worthy to be worshipped
Unastahili ewe Bwana    You are worthy, you Lord
Unastahili kuabudiwa    You are worthy to be worshipped
Unastahili ee    You are worthy oh

These songs grow in grassroots ways. You can find heaps of them on Youtube, many are available on iTunes, and some are written down at African Gospel Lyrics.

To wrap up, here are some more I’ve transcribed:

Baba mbinguni, hakuna kama wewe

Father in heaven, there is none like you

Sayuni tumealikwa kwa Baba, tumealikwa

We’ve been invited to Zion by the Father, we’ve been invited

Tunaimba, tunacheza, tuko ndani ya Yesu ee
Tunaimba, tunacheza, tuko ndani ya Yesu ee

We are singing, we are dancing, we are in Jesus, oh
We are singing, we are dancing, we are in Jesus, oh

Categories: Tanzania Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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