Like much of the Islands’ culture, the music of Zanzibar is a mosaic of different influences and styles, borrowed from Africa, all over the Indian Ocean and beyond. The best example of this creative blending of traditions is taarab music, the national sound of Zanzibar. Taarab music has flourished since the first decades of the 20th century, becoming the region’s first mass mediated music. Drawing in influences from the Arab world, India, Indonesia and the West, taarab blended these with the classical traditions of Swahili poetry, local rhythm and melody.
With the release of international recordings, the traditional sound of Zanzibar has won enthusiastic admirers from all over the world. Taarab orchestras resemble closely the classical Egyptian orchestras, with full violin section, cello and bass, but also accordion, oud, qanun, rhythm section, keyboards and ney flute. Taarab is the most common style of music performed at weddings on the Islands of Zanzibar. It is a unique blend of musical elements from the Middle East, India and the West, combined to varying degrees with local African music practices. It is an essential ingredient of most local celebrations.
Taarab Music – The Soul of Zanzibar
It is said that nothing tells you more about the soul of a nation’s people than its music. If ever you have the good fortune to visit Zanzibar, you will find that the peoples’ souls are very rich. Between calls to prayer from the many mosques, as you wander around town like in so many countries you will also hear the sounds of urban hip hop, dancehall music and reggae. But around the next corner you will be as likely to hear filmi music from India or the latest chart toppers from Egypt and the Gulf States. Thankfully too, the people of Zanzibar still value their own cultural traditions, so equally popular with people of all ages are the local musical forms, in particular the style known as modern taarab. The major disco in town has special nights Tuesday and Friday every week for this local music, also called rusha roho, which translates from Swahili as ‘something to make your heart fly’. The place is never busier than these nights, probably the only occasions at the disco where it is the women who outnumber the men.
Zanzibari acoustic orchestral taarab music (tarabu ya kiasili) is more known internationally, and the Big Two taarab groups, ‘Culture’ and ‘Malindi’ (see below) are constantly in demand to perform locally as well as often being called to play at shows and festivals throughout East Africa, Oman, Yemen, Europe and parts of Asia.
The word taarab comes from tariba, ‘to be moved, agitated’. Like record company manager Andy Morgan says in his article on Zanzibari music in UK’s Roots magazine, “there’s hardly anything in the whole of Africa as uplifting as the swelling sounds of a full taarab orchestra in full sail.”
Nadi Ikhwaan Safaa, affectionately known by local people as Malindi Music Club is Zanzibar’s oldest group, who trace their roots back to 1905. The orchestra plays a style of taarab in which the distant middle eastern origins are still very much to the fore. Different theories abound about the real origins of taarab in Zanzibar. Legend has it that in the 1870s Sultan Bargash sent a Zanzibari to Cairo to learn to play the qanun, a kind of zither, common to the Arab-speaking world. Among the first singers to record taarab music in Swahili language was the legendary Siti bint Saad, who travelled to India to do so. Siti stopped performing in the 1940s, but her records – solo and in duet with Sheikh Mbaruk – continued to be issued on 78rpm throughout the 1950s and is still very much sought after and can fetch a lot of money.
Besides qanun (zither/santoor), other instruments that came to feature in taarab orchestras include the oud (arabic lute), violins, ney, accordion, cello and a variety of percussion. Hence much of the traditional taarab music sounds like a more Africanised version of some of the great Egyptian popular classical orchestras that played alongside singers like Oum Kalthoum, who is still played on Radio Zanzibar to this day. Smaller amalgamations of the groups sometimes come together to play variations on the music, the most popular form with local people in the suburbs is a more percussive style called kidumbak.
All the major taarab artists perform at Zanzibar’s major cultural festivals, including the annual ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries and Sauti za Busara. These are probably the best times to see the groups as they try to outdo one another with the finest singers and most pertinent lyrics. You would also be able to see these groups perform if you are in Zanzibar around the times of Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Hajj, the two major Muslim festivals. Otherwise you would be very fortunate if you are invited to a local wedding, the best of which nearly always feature taarab or ngoma musicians. Musicians can earn mind-boggling amounts of money in tips, which are usually placed in a bowl or basket in front of the lead singer.
These days a taarab revolution is taking place and much heated debate continues about the music which has been changed drastically by the rusha roho (‘modern taarab’ phenomenon). Groups like Zanzibar Stars and East African Melody are at the forefront in popularity for these more recent offspring of the traditional styles, which, for the first time, is ‘taarab to dance to’ and features direct lyrics, bypassing the unwritten laws of lyrical subtlety of the older groups. Much of their music is composed and played on keyboards, increasing portability, hence the groups are smaller in number than ‘real taarab’ orchestras and therefore more readily available to tour and play shows throughout the region. This fact has led to enormous popularity in Zanzibar, boosted by the prolific output of cassette recordings, which though not up to European studio quality standards, still outsell tapes by other artists local or international. Other recordings that are very much recommended are listed below. As well as enjoying the music for many years to come, you will be touched by the soul of a culture which is indeed rich.
Mila na Utamaduni – Spices of Zanzibar, 1996 Network Medien GmbH
Kidumbak Kalcha – Ng’ambo: The Other Side of Zanzibar, 1998, dizim 4501-2
Culture Musical Club – Bashraf: Taarab Instrumentals from Zanzibar, dizim 2000
The Music of Zanzibar, Vols. 1- 4 (Globestyle Recordings, 1988):
Taarab 1: Seif Salim Saleh & Abdullah Mussa Ahmed, CDORBD 032
Taarab 2: Ikhwaani Safaa Musical Club, CDORB 033
Taarab 3: Various Artists – Music Clubs of the Island, CDORBD 040
Taarab 4: Culture Musical Club, CDORBD 041
Article by: Yusuf Mahmoud
Yusuf Mahmoud, originally from UK, is Director of the Zanzibar-based cultural NGO Busara Promotions.
Ben Mandelson, Globestyle Records and Werner Graebner, Andy Morgan for source material in Roots Magazine and sleevenotes of above CDs.
click here for history of Taarab –