Long before Somali became synonymous with African, African music in Minnesota had one name: Shalita. It was Loketo, Kanda Bongo Man, Prince Nico meet Kassav in Jamaica. It was African music with no continental borders. It would be years before I realized Shalita was not only the name of that band I first heard at the Blue Nile Restaurant and Lounge many years back, but actually the name of one man in particular: Joe Shalita, lead vocal and guitar. Joe Shalita’s history in the Twin Cities shares some of the same chapters with the history of African music in the Twin Cities.
After moving from The University of Wisconsin at Platteville and working in Dubuque Iowa, Joe moved to Minneapolis in 1979. While looking for a job, he took the lead guitar position with the then only Afro (reggae, soca, and African vibes) band in the Twin Cities area, Sweet Taste of Africa. The rest, as they say, is history!
That is where Shalita started. But Joe started long before that, an ocean away. “I started performing music at a very early stage,” he says, “in my village where I was born in southern Tanzania, near the Mozambique Malawi Border. I had the privilege of being a student of Tanzania’s most famous percussionist and cultural icon, the late Mzee Morris Nyakyusa and his 10 Drums.” But it was not until young Joe moved to Uganda to live with his mother and step father when cement settled in his musical foundation. It was in Uganda where he first picked up the guitar and learned to play the instrument by ear, listening and watching local musicians.
In Kenya, listening to the music coming out of then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Joe’s musical sensibility started to take shape. And when he moved to America with the help of a “high school exchange scholarship in 1972 and wound up in Wisconsin in a small town called Darlington,” and got introduced to the Blues, Funk and other American musical forms, a star was born!
It should come as no surprise therefore, when Sweet Taste of Africa disbanded few years later in 1982, Joe relied on his diverse musical background to play with many different types of bands in the Twin Cities. Bands such as Ipso Facto, Caribas and Shangoya, to name a few.
After these stops, Joe eventually got together with some friends to form the band that bore his name. Though it has seen many members come and go, the inaugural band had Joe as lead vocal and guitar, Brain Boma on bass, Paul Mcgee on drums, and Peter Tiedman on keyboards. Shalita will be the face of African music in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota (and beyond) for some 15 years before disbanding in 1999. In those 15 years, Joe and his band will be the familiar sound to many new Africans in the Twin Cities; the warm welcoming sound in cold Minnesota, the escape from America in America.
Today, Shalita the band is no more, but Shalita the man is still LIVE and kicking. Shortly after Shalita, in 2000, Joe became enthralled in managing Kanda Bongo Man’s North America tour. After that he joined Marimba Africa, an offshoot of the Mila Band, which is itself an offshoot of Shalita. At the same time, he continues to perform solo gigs as Shalita, and working on his next solo album due next year on MR Records. Like many artists in the business for the love, he still maintains his day job as a 20 year veteran working for State of Minnesota and the Federal Government.
If music is an important part of a culture, Joe Shalita was (still is) a vital part of the growing African community in Minnesota. Beyond Joe’s hope “that traditional African art will not get lost and perhaps our own communities will give them more support to enable them to survive as artist and performers” this recognition, according to Petros Haile, Executive Director of African Global Roots, “is an opportunity for us as a community to say thank you.”
The recognition event will be held on December 26, 2008 at 7pm at 1st Cup Café. For more information, please visit African Global Roots’ website at www.AGRMN.com.