Kidumbak | Ngoma | Religious Music | Taarab | Zanzibar Taarab Groups

pic: Sina Chuki Kidumbak by Ian Anderson

Kidumbak is a music style closely related to taarab. Contemporary Kidumbak often makes use of the latest taarab hit song. Many youngsters hone their musical skills in kidumbak groups before being admitted into a taarab musical club. Kidumbak is therefore sometimes called kitaarab, ‘a diminuitive kind of taarab’. Against this view of taarab as the great tradition, musicians like Makame Faki (leader of Sina Chuki Kidumbak group) hold that the most celebrated model for swahili taarab in earlier decades of this century, the group of Siti bint Saad, was not much different even from today’s Kidumbaki.

“In the times of Siti bint Saad, the musicians used to squat on the floor, their instruments were two small drums, a tambourine, violin and oud. The audience danced. Thus, this old-time taarab is much more similar to today‚Äôs Kidumbak than Taarab with its big orchestras and the aloof character of taarab reception.”

Even further back in history, photographs and oral traditions from around the turn of the century lead us to earlier Swahili musical forms which feature just two small maruwasi drums and the gambusi stringed lute, a precursor to today’s oud. Others therefore consider a kidumbak type of music to be at the roots of taarab, rather than the other way round!

The kidumbak ensemble consists of a single melodic instrument, customarily a violin (played in frantic fiddle-style), a sanduku, or tea-chest-bass, two small clay drums (ki-dumbak), which form the rhythmic core of every such ensemble and other rhythm instruments, such as cherewa, a kind of maracas manufactured from coconut shells filled with seeds or mkwasa, short wooden sticks, played like claves. In contrast to taarab, kidumbak is much more rhythmic and the lyrics more drastic than the poetic settings of the taarab songs, often criticizing other peoples social behaviour. At wedding performances the singer has to be able to string together a well-timed medley of ngoma songs, and have the ability to compose lyrics on the spot. At a Zanzibar wedding, one kidumbak set usually lasts for an hour and as one song joins the next, the intensity heats up, with the main attraction being the interplay between the players and the dancing and chorus response by the wedding guests.