Taarab is played for entertainment at weddings and other festive occasions all along the Swahili coast. In Zanzibar music can be classified as one of three main types: muziki wa densi (electric dance band music, heavily influenced by Zairean rumba), ngoma (local performance styles) and taarab. In my experience muziki wa densi does not play a substantial role in the live musical environment of Zanzibar. The music is viewed as a definite importation from the mainland.
A much more significant distinction can be made between taarab and ngoma. Ngoma includes all indigenous musical events and styles from the mainland. Ngoma are largely characterised by spectator participation, while taarab, in its narrowest sense, is non-participatory: one would “sit and listen”. We shall see that this distinction between taarab and ngoma becomes less clear as we take into consideration a broader definition of taarab.
While evidence exists in oral history for concrete musical cross-over between peoples of the Middle East, India and Zanzibar, Zanzibaris generally agree that taarab was introduced to the mainland from Cairo during the reign of the third Omani sultan, Sultan Barghash bin Said (1870-1888). Around the turn of this century, then, Egyptian music, sung in Arabic, was played in Zanzibar for the entertainment of the sultan and his upper-class guests.
At this time, the music of the takht ensemble was most popular in Cairo. The musicians were specialised performers, playing for an audience in a situation similar to the western concert. Separate male and female takht ensembles operated side by side, but during the first decade of this century the music was standardised to feature female solo singers backed by male accompanists on an ensemble including male chorus, a qanun (trapezoidal board zither), ‘ud (short-necked plucked lute), nay (oblique-blown flute), violin and a riqq (tambourine). They performed taqtuqah, short songs with a strophic form and short refrain associated with female takt performance. These songs used colloquial Arabic texts and most often dealt with sentimental themes. Non-traditional influences around the time of World War I gave rise to the increased incorporation of western instruments. By the 1940’s western orchestral and electronic instruments were added. still playing compositions based on the taqtuqah, this music flooded the film and recording industry at least until the 1970’s.
The group Akhwani Safaa, formed in 1905, is the epitome of what I term “ideal” taarab. Akhwani Safaa sang exclusively in Arabic until as late as 1955 and has continually modelled its composition, instrumentation and performance practice on music from Cairo as described above. The songs adhere to a formula: instrumental introduction, 3 or 4 verses of 3 or 4 lines with short refrains and a single ‘typical’ taarab rhythm (waltz, rumba etc.) throughout. An Akhwani Safaa event is formal with the orchestra on a stage and the audience, mainly women, seated in rows. Dancing is frowned upon.
In 1911 Siti binti Saad, a woman who was set to become a taarab legend, arrived from her village of Fumba in the south of the island. Her remarkable voice is still highly acclaimed. By singing in Swahili, and about everyday life in Zanzibar, Siti binti Saad brought taarab out of the palace and to ordinary Swahili- speaking Zanzibaris. In so doing she broke with Arab-orientated, traditional ideas and models. For many of these people this is where taarab began. Small informal groups of Africans formed to play siti’s songs for recreation and for the entertainment of guests (mainly women) at wedding parties. Initially they accompanied themselves only on two home-made drums (kidumbuka) , but soon, following the expansion of ‘ideal’ orchestras, they came to include the two vindumbak, a sanduku (a single-string tea-chest bass instrument), a violin, a pair of cherewa (coconut shell maracas) and a pair of mkwasa (sticks either beaten together or on a table). Performances are informal and take place outdoors. One of the main criteria for success is the extent to which the musicians can excite the women to dance. Popular taarab songs are performed once from beginning to end. This is followed immediately by a swift change in tempo and an improved text is performed in a mchapuzo (fast section). Kidumbak is characterised by its stylistic and aesthetic associations with African forms.
Closely aligned to the kindumbak groups, and an important result of Siti binti Saad’ s inspiration, a large network of women’s taarab groups emerged during the late 1930’s. The first of these already existed as lelemama associations: selfhelp associations for women which also provided a forum for the public performance of song and dance characterised by the traditional Swahili activity of often violently expressed disputation.
Women brought to taarab this Swahili tradition and, not playing instruments, they hired kindumbak musicians to accompany them. The style moved further into the public domain and began to be influenced more by local practices than by developments in Egypt. The sentimental themes and romantic metaphors used in ‘ ideal’ taarab songs were replaced with hard-hitting and abusive language. These lyrics have been termed mipasho deriving from the verb kupasha (to cause to get) .
With these new lyrics the music was bound to change. Women started to draw on taarab music from Mombasa which was more “up beat”. Soon they began to draw on local ngoma and it is no surprise that the most commonly adopted rhythm is the one performed at unyago, an exclusively female ngoma associated with the instruction of girls during their puberty rites. The girls are taught to dance kiuno a sexually explicit, hip-gyrating dance. Unyago is also performed for recreation at weddings. In these contexts, older, married women dance kiuno in pairs competitively to demonstrate their sexual prowess. Women also dance kiuno in this way in the kindumbak context. Women’s groups are typically smaller than ‘ideal’ orchestras and the orientation is percussive. Women enjoy dancing in the kiuno style at these events, the dress is informal, and mipasho lyrics are prevalent.
The emergence of a network of women’s taarab clubs is significant considering that it is they who organise and attend the performances (weddings). Women are therefore in a position to determine the kind of entertainment they want, and they can pressurise musicians into making changes. Most of these changes are manifested through Akhwani Safaa’s current rival group Culture Musical Club (CMC) which was set up by the Department of Culture following the revolution in 1964. It was equipped with a full range of instruments employed in Akhwani Safaa thus entering it into the ‘ideal’ taarab category. Members were from outlying districts, many of whom played kindumbak and for women’s groups, and still do.
Due to these experiences CMC musicians have a clearer understanding of what changes women are demanding. The majority of their songs now use mpasho-style lyrics and local rhythms, usually unyango. Today even Akhwani Safaa is performing an increasing number of songs along these new lines. This completes the circle: the ‘Swahili-isations’ brought to early ‘ideal’ taarab by Siti binti Saad in the 1930’s and developed by kindumbak and women’s taarab have filtered back into the ‘ideal’ category.
In order to understand taarab music fully from both musical and social viewpoints, it is necessary to consider all forms of taarab including what I have called the ‘ideal’ kidumbak and the women’s network. If only the ‘ideal’ is considered it becomes impossible to explain, for example, how change has come about, or how taarab has become such an important element in the lives of all Zanzibaris. The development of ‘taarab’ over the past century suggests an autonomisation from Arab influences as the music has localised and become identifiable as Zanzibari and Swahili.
Janet Topp Fargion