modern voice for Taarab
Ross reports from Zanzibar and Mombasa on how traditional
Taarab music is responding to the challenge of new influences.
In the 1930's the great Taarab singer, Siti Bint Saad,
was a prized performer at great ceremonies.
Whether at a wedding feast, or entertaining the Sultan
of Zanzibar, Siti was accompanied by a violin, Arabian
oud or lute, a drum and tambourine.
Musical Club violinist Khamis Shehe
teamed up with musicians and poets from Mombasa and
the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast, which was then
considered to be the home of Swahili culture.
But since the days of Siti Bint Saad how has the sound
of Taarab changed, and what role does it now play?
On my arrival in Zanzibar I was in for an immediate
treat. The Culture Musical club were performing an open-air
concert under the stars.
The twenty-strong Taarab orchestra was led by a row
of serious looking violinists, dressed in immaculate
I am slightly bemused to learn that tonight's performance
is to raise money for black giraffes - not an endangered
species, but a village football team.
The formality of the violinists was quite a contrast
with the colourful enjoyment of the audience on the
A shop shows the latest Taarab best sellers
times women performing a slow spinning dance would make
their way towards the singer and give her money in appreciation
for the music and lyrics.
Taarab poetry is taken very seriously.
More often than not the lyrics are about love and relationships
between people. But these days as people feel more free
to express themselves, some of the lyrics have become
extremely direct and often back-biting.
One poem compares a woman to a theatre chair - which
anyone can sit on if they pay - a lyric which is too
blunt for some tastes.
"I believe you cannot make a song a photocopy of social
reality", says Mohammed Ahmed, the chairman of the Culture
must have some sort of creativity. Most
of the songs are about jealousy or someone's
taken your lover. It can even end up
in a fight with people being injured
because they think the song's directed
Ahmed of the Culture Musical Club
who has written more than 200 songs, prefers an element
"Many songs today are too naked," he complains.
"For example I wrote a song about a pineapple, talking
about how sweet it is, but how it must be matured and
"You cannot take a young pineapple and eat it. You won't
enjoy it. The audience needs to do its homework on what
the pineapple represents and then someone might compose
another poem and say no, you are wrong."
following evening I dropped in on Culture Musical Club's
headquarters in Zanzibar's famous old stone town where
a rehearsal was in full swing.
I was keen to find out about the instruments that make
up the Taarab sound.
of the key elements is the Egyptian qanun - a 72-string
zither which lies flat and is plucked like a harp.
The beat is driven by African drums and tambourines
while a European influence was brought in by the accordion.
The string section includes the Arabian oud and has
been joined by the double bass, cello and of course
the violin which is believed to have reached Zanzibar
in the late nineteenth century when the Sultan invited
an Egyptian violinist to train his band.
Kidumbak player with a tea chest bass
weddings in Zanzibar are celebrated by the playing of
Taarab music, but paying for a musicians is now so expensive
that guests often have to make do with recorded music
off compact discs.
But those who still want a live performance can choose
a slightly cheaper option - a Kidumbak band.
Kidumbak is related to Taarab but features less of the
Arab-style instruments and more home-made varieties
such as a small clay drum called the dumbak and a bass
made from a tea-chest.
Many musicians double up by working in both Kidumbak
and Taarab bands, and while listening to a group called
Hakina Ubaguzi I found myself sitting next to one of
Zanzibar's most revered voices, Makame Faki.
Politics of Taarab
the past some Taarab bands were set up and funded by
the government or political parties.
Culture Musical Club, for example, began life as part
of the youth organisation of the Afro Shirazi Party
during Zanzibar's struggle for independence and after
the 1964 revolution became part of the Ministry of Culture.
Althought the Club is now independent, other bands still
find themselves entwined with politics.
Taarab is a newly formed group under the control of
the Zanzibari government.
"We have to send our poems to the government censor
board and if the songs are against the government then
they will not be allowed," says group member Salim Khamis.
"As the group is government owned, everything we do
has to be within the four walls of government wishes."
Such political involvement does not surprise the BBC
correspondent in Zanzibar, Ally Saleh.
"We are a former socialist state", he says
"And these are the remnants of socialism. I am sure
this band will be used for political campaigning."
can find people of different political
opinions, different religions and different
races in a Taarab club. Taarab is beyond
all these things so I think it has contributed
to the harmony of life in Zanzibar"
late Seif Salim
links between Taarab bands and political movements worried
the late Seif Salim - one of the most respected Taarab
artists who started performing on the arabic flute in
When I met him at his home two months before his death
he told me that for him Taarab was about unifying the
diverse groups that make up the population of the Swahili
Coast, not representing opposing opinions.
"Taarab and politics are two different things and they
don't go together," he said.
"The music should be appreciated by everybody."
After several days on Zanzibar, it was clear that despite
the differences in style and opinion of Taarab, people
are extremely proud of this music.
And when I mentioned that I was heading for Kenya to find
out what Taarab means there, Zanzibaris were united in
telling me that I would find nothing to rival their own
Once in Mombasa, I listened to some of the local radio
output - and found very little Taarab on air.
Eventually I tracked down the Maulidi Musical Party in
the Kisaoni Division of town.
"I make people dance," said Maulidi Juma the group's leader.
"This is what is happening to Taarab. People want to dance,
People used to sit down and listen to Taarab until morning,
but we don't do that now because the crowd does not appreciate
it any more.
"I think it's good news that Taarab has changed with the
generations, but traditional Taarab is long dead and there's
no-one to keep the old style of music alive."
What does get Mombasa going is Indian music. All over
town you can buy postcards of your favourite Hindi film
star or catch the latest Bollywood release at the cinema.
Yusuf Mohammed, whose Taarab name is Tenge, changes the
lyrics of Indian films into kisSwahili and reproduces
the melody on an electric keyboard.
While Tenge's band is clearly an extreme departure from
Taarab this trend of borrowing from Indian music is also
popular with more traditional Taarab musicians.
In fact it seems that there's almost nothing that musicians
won't do in order to gain popularity - I even heard a
Taarab-style version of Monica and Brandy's The Boy is
of an angel
when I heard Zein L'Abdin playing the oud I knew that
Mombasa had music that would satisfy even the most hardened
L'Abdin plays traditional Taarab to satisfy purists
from the Island of Lamu, Zein, has been playing the
oud since 1951 and since then he's preserved over 300
songs in a well thumbed songbook.
One song was called Macho - meaning 'eyes'.
"It's a love song," explained Zein.
"When I saw you with my eyes I thought you were an angel.
I loved you very much, but I didn't win you."
The oud was introduced by Kuwaiti traders when they
sailed to the north Kenyan coast during the 1920's and
During monsoon season they would have stayed for several
months so they brought their musicians with them to
provide entertainment on the boats.
So as we've heard Taarab in Mombasa as well as Zanzibar,
is always absorbing new influences like the people of
the Swahili Coast themselves.
But there are a number of dedicated musicians who are
determined to see that what they consider to be pure
Taarab lives on.
One of these was Seif Salim and it's sad for all admirers
of Taarab that his long musical life has now come to