As the world celebrated the first ever World Kiswahili Language Day on 7 July, a musical showcase was taking place in Lamu honouring a signature feature of the Swahili culture.
The traditional form of taarab music was given a contemporary edge through a collaboration of the island’s only taarab ensemble and guitarist, producer, composer, and recording artist, Eddie Grey who was the music director for the project.
The occasion was also the inauguration of Lamu’s first ever multipurpose performance venue, The Utamaduni Hall, a product of the Creative Spaces in Kenya (CASIK) project supported by the French Embassy.
“We decided to make the music a little more palatable with the addition of guitar, bass, and drum set, which is unlike the traditional taarab set up and we have had fun creating the music together with this group,” said Eddie Grey.
According to Said Ali Hassan, a member of the group known as An Noor (Arabic for the Light), they were using traditional instruments like harmonium and the tabla (drums) but they now have modern drum set guitars.
“This will empower the artistic community in Lamu playing guitar, and keyboard because we didn’t have such equipment before,” said Hassan.
Earnings for artists have also improved, from Sh300 per performance a decade ago to an average of Sh2,000, which they hope to raise to at least Sh10,000 for every performance in the next five years.
The repertoire for the concert was a selection of seven popular Swahili taarab songs with a modern twist to mark the day that recognises the role Kiswahili plays in promoting cultural diversity. “We focused on the Swahili classics and included elements that broaden their appeal to a larger audience,” said Grey.
“When I travel, I discover that many people only know Kiswahili as a language, and are not aware of Swahili as an art form,” he observed.
The rehearsals started with 30 musicians and the final performance featured 18 musicians and vocalists. “I was impressed by their work ethic because every member on stage knew their role and performed diligently from the rehearsals to the performance,” said Grey. “They were very professional.”
Two years ago, when he first met the group, they performed ‘quietly’ outside the Mkunguni Square at the centre of Lamu Old Town, but now they have a venue where they can invite people to a show and they also have instruments to enable them deliver a quality performance
“There is a lot of talent outside Nairobi but many artists do not have access to quality instruments and venue,” noted Grey.
In fact, the CASIK project is supporting artists in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, and Lamu with performance venues, equipment, and technical training
“We aim to make these cultural centres economically viable,” said Serge Noukoue, Regional Audio-Visual Attaché at the French Embassy in Nairobi.
One of the musicians already leveraging the new facilities is Osama Athman, a self-taught violinist, originally from Lamu.
Osama, an undergraduate student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology started playing the violin, by watching YouTube tutorials, during the pandemic when he would borrow the instrument from a friend.
He developed a passion for playing it and eventually convinced his friend to sell him the instrument.
He now records videos while playing and uploads them on YouTube. It was one of these videos that was seen by the organisers of the event who then invited him to perform an opening set on the night.
Osama claims to be the only professional violin player in the whole Lamu island and hopes to be an inspiration to his peers so that many more people can play the instrument which is a major component of both classical and modern music arrangements.
His main interest is in Arabic classical music and his ambition is to perform with the big orchestras renowned for such music.
“We didn’t have a place to practice and perform for audiences but now that this venue has been opened, we now have the perfect platform to showcase our talents.”
Meanwhile, The An Noor taarab group has already started rehearsals for their September tour dates in Mombasa and Nairobi.