‘Ngoma’ literally translated means ‘drum’ and is a term used to encompass all local traditional forms of dancing, drumming and singing. There are literally hundreds of different ngoma styles throughout Tanzania, variations often being so slight that untrained eyes and ears can hardly notice the difference. A number of these originate from Zanzibar and Pemba and all are spectacular to watch.
The often elaborate native costumes emphasize the unity of the dancers’ steps and the rhythm section which usually consists of several locally hand made drums and percussion instruments (such as oil tins beaten with a stick). “Ngoma ya kibati” for example, consists of a very rapid declamatory style of singing which is an improvised dialogue to drum accompaniment with singers/dancers coming in for a chorus every so often. Another example is “msewe”, named after the material which is strapped to the ankles of the male dancers, supporting the rhythm section. The aforementioned are styles originating in Zanzibar’s sister island of Pemba, both featuring the eerie and powerful zumari – a locally made horn instrument that is blown using circular breathing and is comparable to the Jajouka music from Morocco which uses a similar instrument.
Each ngoma style has its own special costume: in “kyaso”, men dance dressed in shirts and kikois (special woven cloth from the Kenyan coast) with a long, narrow stick in their hand, all movements beautifully coordinated. In “ndege” women in colourful dresses all hold bright umbrellas in their hands, moving forwards with slightly rotating steps and movements of the hips.
pic: Borafya Kilua Group by Yusuf Mahmoud
Before 1900, this ngoma was popular originally in Congo (now DRC) where it was used mainly for occasions such as marriage, traditional religious ceremonies and during other festivities. Later on it spread and became popular into other countries such as Tanzania, where in the first place it mainly gained roots in regions such as Kigoma, Tabora and Dar es Salaam. In Zanzibar, Kilua is now an important part of any major festivity, not least because of the impact the dancers make with their white face paint and headfeathers.
pic: Bi Kidude by Herb Fenstein
Unyago is a very special form of Ngoma, which is performed at a highly secluded private female initiation ritual for young women about to be married. This ceremony can last anywhere from one day to three months and it involves all aspects of education on ‘how to be a woman’: detailed sexual education as well as other aspects such as clothing, hygiene, make-up, cooking, how to treat your husband’s parents, your neighbours etc.
The most famous of the female initiators is Bi Kidude who usually performs the unyago ceremony together with two other drummers and several dancers. The drums played in unyago are vumi (bass drum), msondo and kinganga (taller upright drums with a higher pitch) and songs that are related to the subject accompany the drumming. Even though these rituals are performed much less frequently than in former times, they still continue to be held throughout Unguja and Pemba (as well as the mainland where similar ceremonies exist under different names).
pic: Beni band in procession by Herb Fenstein
Beni (from English ‘band’) is a popular wedding entertainment with a strong focus on rhythm & dance, and audience participation. Beni borrows choruses from the latest taarab hits and arranges them in extended medleys with the female wedding audience joining in for the chorus and as dancers. In Zanzibar Beni is performed both as a street parade and stationary for a wedding dance. Beni originated around the turn of the century as a mockery of colonial style military bands. It was soon incorporated in the competitive song and dance exchanges so popular on the Swahili Coast and spread from here all over East Africa.
Yusuf Mahmoud, Busara Promotions
Hildegard Kiel, Dhow Countries Music Academy
Ben Mandelson, Globestyle Records
Werner Graebner, Jahazi Media