Music

Sounds of rich Zanzibar taarab music in Nairobi

rajab

Rajab Suleiman with his Kanun performing on stage during Taarab Vibes held during the monthly Showcase Wednesday held on July 22, 2021 at the Alliance Francaise Gardens. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Summary

  • The group is led by Rajab, a musician who has built a reputation for his expertise on the qanun, a multi-stringed traditional Middle Eastern instrument that is rarely played in modern times.
  • The group’s unique brand of taarab has taken Rajab and his group to concerts and festivals in the US, Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands, the UK and China.
  • The group was in Nairobi for a single performance along with Mombasa based taarab band Lelele Africa.

The lush orchestral sounds of coastal rhythms filtering through the night in the heart of Nairobi is an extreme rarity. But when one of the best taarab ensembles in East Africa is in town for a one-night performance, then it is no surprise to find a full house of fans.

Rajab Suleiman and Kithara may have been on stage for just one hour but they left the audience in no doubt why they have established a reputation in the last decade as one of the leading exponents of taarab music from Zanzibar.

The group is led by Rajab, a musician who has built a reputation for his expertise on the qanun, a multi-stringed traditional Middle Eastern instrument that is rarely played in modern times.

Due to the curfew restrictions, they could only perform a set of three songs from their repertoire “Chungu” “Kijitu” and an instrumental piece called “Asrakhan Café” during their concert .

The band ordinarily performs with nine musicians but they travelled to Nairobi as a four-piece with Rajab as band leader and qanun player, two instrumentalists, Foum Faki on dumbak (drums) and bongos and accordionist Mohammed Hassan. Saada Nassor showed just why she is the most in-demand taarab singer in Zanzibar with her seductive vocals and charming stage presence.

kithara

Rajab Suleiman and Kithara band performing on stage during Taarab Vibes held during the monthly Showcase Wednesday held on July 22, 2021 at the Alliance Francaise Gardens. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

The lineup may have been lean but the richness of the sound associated with taarab was not compromised.

The group was here for a single performance along with Mombasa based taarab band Lelele Africa and the climax of that concert was the two bands jointly performing the classic “Kasha Langu” along with an instrumental piece as an encore to the show.

“The combination of the two sets of musicians on stage was seamless because both groups subscribe to the same professional values and play a similar type of taarab based on the traditional format of the music,” says Rajab

Rajab Suleiman, the soft-spoken leader of the group, who established his career with the legendary Zanzibar outfit, Culture Music Club (CMC) is a virtuoso of the qanun. He has played the instrument for almost 15 years now and says he is mentoring a group of young musicians to follow in his footsteps.

He formed the band Kithara in 2011 along with some other younger members of CMC and recorded their first album, “Zanzibara 8: Chungu” in Germany, released worldwide in 2014, while the production of their latest album has just been completed.

This was the group’s first performance in Nairobi, even though they have performed in Mombasa on two other occasions.

“We have not played much music since the start of the pandemic and the trip to Nairobi was our first outside Zanzibar in almost three years,” says Rajab. “My band used to travel for international festivals and other engagements at least two or three times a year.”

The group’s unique brand of taarab has taken Rajab and his group to concerts and festivals in the US, Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands, the UK and China, which was their last international engagement two years ago.

He says all venues, including hotels and other establishments on the island of Zanzibar have closed for the last year and a half which has rendered musicians jobless. Last year the group applied for the 2021 edition of the island’s famous Sauti za Busara Festival but the organisers of the event scaled down the event due to budgetary constraints.

The trends of taarab music in recent years has been leaning towards the so called Modern Taarab, which is a contemporary form of the music that embraces electronic instruments like keyboards, beat machines, synthesisers and electronic guitars.

Rajab says his group has stuck to the traditional form of taarab despite the wave of change that has swept across the island. He explains that besides the distinctive acoustic sound of taarab rhythms, the messages have always been couched in Swahili sayings and proverbs but that has also changed in recent times

“The lyrics today are very explicit and the beauty of poetry is slowly disappearing from the music, which is now more commercial than it has ever been” he says.

He has vowed to stay true to the traditional values of taarab which has won him acclaim around the world rather than join the rat race with the modern taarab crowd.

Does he fear the traditional style will gradually be erased as fans embrace the newer format of the music? “The roots of taarab are what makes the music so appealing so there will always be a demand for the style that people know and love even with the wave of electronic influences,” he says