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All about Burundian Bongo Flava star A.T.M Jeff’s rise to the top, relationship with Wasafi Records (exclusive)

Music is universal. It speaks a language that many can deeply resonate with despite it being in various dialects. Whether the lyrics are in a familiar tongue or an unfamiliar dialect, the emotions and stories conveyed through music have the power to connect us on a profound level. The rhythm, melody and harmony blend together to create a shared experience; allowing listeners to feel understood and united despite their linguistic differences.

This is what Burundian native A.T.M Jeff, born Etienne Baheza, continues to be able to achieve with his Afro Pop music and the various languages he speaks. Born in Burundi but raised in Tanzania since infancy after his parents migrated to Kigoma, A.T.M Jeff has been churning out captivating and immersive Bongo Flava music as well as making forays into the Burundian entertainment industry scene with music sung in Kirundi. Among his top hits are Mine, Heart of Africa, Asante, Ohoo, Naoa, Energy and Ananipenda among many other singles.

In a conversation with Nairobi News, Mr Eddie Khalikawe, a Tanzanian-born-Burundian who migrated to Australia spoke to us about A.T.M Jeff’s music journey, his rise to success and his relationships with some of Tanzania’s biggest Bongo Flava musicians including Harmonize and Diamond Platinumz. According to Mr Khalikawe, his path crossed with Jeff’s in 2018 while they were both in Australia where their parents eventually sought permanent refuge following the conflicts of Burundi. At this time, A.T.M Jeff had been singing with a choir and in events; and by virtue of attending the same school, their paths eventually crossed.

“Professionally, Jeff broke out in 2019. That is when he took his music to be more professional but before this, there was a time he was singing and he had a different manager and he had been singing locally just for the community- weddings and events. In 2019 when he appeared at the Burundian Music Award, that was the first time he actually performed his unreleased songs and I saw that this guy had something- he was different. He wasn’t doing the church music or the community; he was now doing music that is for everyone. He then reached out to me about joining forces to build his brand since I was already managing another artiste. The good thing about Jeff is that he knows how to appear as an artiste in terms of looks, how he carries himself. The image was already there and it was very easy for me to say yes,” said Mr Khalikawe, A.T.M Jeff’s official Manager.

A.T.M Jeff’s musical goal then became refined as he sought to conquer various music markets including back at his home in Tanzania and Burundi despite residing in Australia. This pushed him to diversify his catalogue with intentions of also making forage into the Burundian music industry.

“Jeff’s parents are Burundian and this is the only thing that links him to Burundi but when it comes to his childhood, it is all based in Tanzania which means the only sound he understands is Bongo Flava and Afro beats and everything else. If we were to do a research on Burundi, you will find they are also influenced by Bongo Flava, there is no Afro flava. They don’t have their own sound. The only thing that makes a difference is that they use Kirundi,” explained Mr Khalikawe.

He also mentioned that Jeff knows the Kirundi language and intends on producing music in his native dialect.

So far, A.T.M Jeff’s music continues to be well received across Eastern Africa, and this has seen him tuck a number of outstanding achievements in his belt. Prior to signing up with Mr Khalikawe, he won the 2014 Song of The Year award at the Afro-Australia Music and Movies Award with the song Where is My Daddy- a song his Manager said resonated with many of his diaspora audiences in light of the Burundian conflict and the passing of his father.

In 2016, as his star continued to rise, A.T.M Jeff was tapped to curtain raise for Tanzanian superstar singer and Wasafi Records CEO, Diamond Platinumz, who was in Perth, Australia on tour. He was later also tapped to perform for Harmonize- another A-list Tanzanian musician and former Wasafi Records signee but due to unavoidable circumstances, A.T.M Jeff was unable to perform. However, this turned out to be a silver lining for him as he was accorded the opportunity of hosting Harmonize in Australia and spend time with him touring the country and chilling out. This relationship later afforded A.T.M Jeff an invite to Harmonize’s May 2024 album launch that saw President Samia Suluhu in attendance. However, due to timing constraints, Jeff was unable to attend.

“With Diamond, there is a solid contact. Same thing with Harmonize. They are the A-list of Tanzania and our goals are to approach them (for collaborations). At the moment there is a relationship and we are proud of it,” said Mr Khalikawe on the prospects of Jeff collaborating with Tanzania’s- quite possibly Africa’s- biggest music stars.

Recently, A.T.M Jeff also just won the East Africa Arts Entertainment Awards’ Best EP, Diaspora, with his The African Melanin extended play in June 2024.

“2023-2024 has been really active for him. It is very hard to do music for a country that you are not currently living in. We also live in a western country and Afro beats is rare over here. It’s a lot of Western African music. This is the challenge,” added Mr Khalikawe.

But despite these challenges, A.T.M Jeff has a goal to achieve and would go to great lengths to accomplish them. Among these strategies are using technology to make music production easier as well as churning out as much content as possible before flying back to Africa to have them produced and released.

“Living in Australia, as a manager, I have to think long term. If I make a trip in July, I have to make sure we are doing projects that will last us until the next trip. For the quality of the music that we want, we can only get it in Tanzania or somewhere in Africa. This will keep everyone, including fans, to see that this artiste is active, consistent with his music. We have to make sure we have enough content until the next travel date.

When it comes to recording, some of it gets done here in Australia but majority of them; we work with producers in Tanzania. We all love technology so we have producers- if you maintain a good relationship with producers, you will end up in a situation where they send you the beats then as an artiste, you find time to record demos on the beats and when you travel, you simply go to the studio and record your vocals on them,” said Mr Khalikawe.

A.T.M Jeff, for all the countries he has resided in, continues to dominate with his Bongo Flava sound. One can never tell he is of a different nationality from his lyrics and articulation in his songs. Among his latest collaborations are with Kusah (Tanzania), D-ONE (Burundi) and Kayumba (Tanzania).