Taarab, also called tarabu or tarab, is Zanzibar’s most popular music. Taarab is popularly known as Swahili wedding music, since taarab musicians and music are an essential part of these multi-day festivities. The east African coast has served as a center for trade with countries throughout the Middle East and Asia, and taarab music reflects many of the cultures which have passed through this region.
Through its years of development, taarabu has been an exceptionally inclusive art form, adapting and incorporating elements from Swahili, Arabic, Indian, Egyptian, and other cultures. This can be seen in the range of instruments used in taarab ensembles and orchestras which include Middle Eastern oud and dumbek, Indian tabla, western electric keyboards, and the Japanese taishokoto (described as a “banjo/typewriter-key hybrid”). Similarly, taarab rhythms reflect traditional ngoma dances like chakacha, Indian film scores, Cuban rumba, and various Zairean and East African dance music. Perhaps most importantly, taarab lyrics radiate with the allusive intricacies of Swahili poetry and showcase the beauty of this long, literary tradition.
The word taarab is of Arabic derivation and contains multi-layered meaning. Gilbert Rouget in Music and Trance explains taarab comes from “the verb tariba which means “‘to be moved, agitated’…also signifies ‘to excite, to want to move,’ and hence ‘to sing, to make music.” Historically, taarab was first introduced to Zanzibar in 1870 by the Sultan Seyyid Barghash who brought a group of Egyptian musicians to his court. Barghash sent a Zanzibari musician, Ibrahim Muhammed, to study in Cairo and upon his return he formed the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra. In 1905, Zanzibar’s second music society, Ikwhani Safaa Musical Club, was established and continues to thrive today with around 35 active members. Ikhwani Safaa and Culture Musical Club (founded in 1958) remain the leading Zanzibar taarab orchestras.
Taarab’s first modern superstar ascended in 1928 with the Swahili singer Siti bint Saad who appeared on hundreds of 78’s, many of them recorded in India. Unlike the majority of taarab which was sung in Arabic, Saad sang in Swahili and presaged a change in the direction of the music. After her death in 1950, taarab lyrics became prominently Swahili, and more female singers appeared with formerly all-male musical clubs. Another dramatic turn occurred with the revolution of 1964’s political push to de-arabacize the island and its cultural institutions. Some taarab clubs switched from Arabic to Swahili names, (although many have reverted back), and musical societies were fully opened to women members.