Subscribe to Mambo Magazine
The beating heart of Zanzibar
According to legend, two centuries ago, traders travelling by dhow on the monsoon tradewinds grew bored during their long journeys and so started taking musicians on board for entertainment. One such group of musicians was so talented that while the dhow was still anchored in the harbour, people passing were drawn to it, like moths to a flame.
The news of this group spread like wildfire and when the news reached the sultan, Barghash, he invited them to his court to perform for him. The sultan was so pleased that he decided to send a Zanzibari by the name of Mohammed Abrahim to Egypt to study violin and quanun (zitar).
When he returned he founded a group that played exclusively for the sultan and at that time the main repertoire was mainly Egyptian-influenced. This type of music became known as ‘taarab’, derived from the Arabic word ‘tariba’, meaning to be moved or agitated.
In 1905, a social club launched in Stone Town, but Mohammed was actually teaching taarab music to his fellow musicians, unbeknownst to the sultan who wanted taarab musicians to play exclusively for him. This group, today known as Nadi Ikwan Safaa, is the main taarab group in Zanzibar, but at that time this kind of music was only for the aristocracy and upper classes to learn, not normal people.
But in the 1920s, a girl called Siti Binti Saad took the conservative world of taarab by storm. Siti came from a lower class family in the southern coastal village of Kizimkazi, and sold earthernware pots to support herself and her relatives. To attract the attention of potential customers, she sang in the streets, and her voice was good and true, because she had learnt ‘kasida’ in the madrasah (religious school).
Meanwhile, in the shamba (countryside), there were also some wonderful musicians like the famous violinist Buddhaswet and his friends. Fortuitously, this group and Siti were brought together and as a result the first taarab songs in Kiswahili were composed.
What characterized this new kind of music was the combination of the Arabic scales (maquam) with Zanzibari themes. The new songs were often about love and employed many metaphors to get their messages across. Social and political subjects were also covered. One very famous song was called "Kijiti", and in this one Siti Binti Saad sang about the injustice done to a raped and murdered girl. The melody of this song is cheerful, but the lyrics are poignant. At trial, the wrong party was sentenced and the real culprit went free.
Around the 1940s and 1950s, many taarab groups emerged. Many did not even have their own musicians but composed tunes and then hired musicians to play them. By this time, each street or suburb had its own taarab group. Now women started to be more active in taarab and established their own groups such as Royal Airforce, Nurluyyun, Swahilbulary, Navy and Snowwhite. These groups were banned during the Revolution as they used politics in their lyrics, so they continued working in secret.
After the Revolution, Nadi Ikwan Safaa still remained, mainly to perform for the president, who banned all other taarab groups except for Shimemkokwana, now known as Culture Music Club. Other groups still played in secret for the ordinary people, but it became very tricky for these groups to continue playing the same music that they had always played, because so many of the components of taarab were Arabic, and frowned upon after the Revolution. This meant that groups had to stick mainly to a less Arabic sounding scale, still used predominantly by Culture Music Club, the second-biggest taarab group.
In the 1990s, the traditional taarab music scene started to fall apart because of politics, jealousy and social conflict. The younger generation started modern taarab. Almost all the traditional groups vanished and only two big ones remain - Nadi Ikwan Safaa and Culture Music Club – the former more Arabic in style and the latter more African.
In 2002 the Dhow Countries Music Academy was opened in Zanzibar’s Stone Town to preserve and promote taarab and other traditional Zanzibari music. Perhaps one day you will be drawn to the sweet sounds of the old taarab instruments wafting from a moored dhow in a Zanzibar harbour and want to feel more of this music yourself…