Music

Taarab music gets a rousing rhythm

music-pic

Tausi Women’s Taarab Group from Zanzibar. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • The groups in Dar es Salaam do not use the violins or the oud, instead prefer keyboards and have also heavily adopted the rumba bassline.
  • The groups in Dar es Salaam do not use the violins or the oud, instead prefer keyboards and have also heavily adopted the rumba bassline.
  • The group Sekimbukwe plays an acoustic setup comprising an assortment of traditional drums and shakers.

When a genre of music that has changed very little of its original format over a period of almost a century begins to embrace contemporary influences, then its traditional fanbase is often stunned by the transformation.

Taarab, the soundtrack of the East Coast of Africa, whose core influences are Arabic and Indian melodies and Swahili poetry, has in the last three decades adopted a range of modern elements to survive against the onslaught of urban music that is popular with a younger generation.

Kenyan cartoonist and music researcher Paul “Maddo” Kelemba who grew up listening to traditional taarab groups in Mombasa says there are stark differences that have taken place in the development of the music in recent years.

During a trip to Zanzibar to record and film different taarab ensembles as part of the Singing Wells Music Project, a collaboration between Ketebul Music of Kenya and Abubilla Music of the UK, Kelemba says he was struck by the distinctive differences in the instrumentation, the lyrics and melody of taarab.

“Zanzibar taarab is highly distinctive, rich and customary,” he says.

“The classical multi-stringed stringed instrument, qanun has, for instance, largely been replaced with the synthesizer.”

The Qanun was imported from India and one of the masters on the island is Rajab Suleiman, leader of the Kithara Group, whose performance in Nairobi in July this year was reviewed in the BDLife.

During an interview after his show in Nairobi, Rajab said his group has stuck to the traditional format of taarab despite the wave of change that has swept across the music of the island.

The groups in Dar es Salaam do not use the violins or the oud, instead prefer keyboards and have also heavily adopted the rumba bassline and lead guitar similar to the Congolese rumba and soukous bands.

Over four days, the production team from Singing Well recorded various groups including Nyota za Meremeta led by Prof Mohammed IIyas, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who is also a music teacher at the Dhow Countries Music Academy,

The Tausi Women’s Taarab Group led by Mariam Hamdani backed by all-female background singers serenaded the visitors with melodies from an array of instruments, oud, violins, accordion, percussions and qanun

Another notable women’s ensemble is the Unyago Group whose name refers to a style of taarab that is a product of the Tanzanian msondo style based around traditional drums. The group is led by Amina Abdalla, who claims to have inherited the mantle from the legendary Zanzibari singer Bi Kidude.

She is a descendant of the Wagingo people who were shipped from Malawi during the slave trade. Her cheeky lyrics are accompanied by a dancer’s movement that leaves the audience in no doubt about the meaning of the song.

Some of the younger generations of Zanzibari musicians have embraced taarab such as the Uriithi Group with elaborate kaswida shows and Zam Zam an even younger group of artists who are much sought after for weddings performances.

There are some interesting musical experiments in Zanzibar like the fusion of jazz with taarab by the Tarajazz, a 5-piece band fronted by saxophonist Hassan Juma Mahenge who formed the band with graduates of the Dhow Countries Music Academy.

The group Sekimbukwe plays an acoustic setup comprising an assortment of traditional drums and shakers and a horn producing a blare that Kelemba compares to a ship’s foghorn.

“Much to his bewilderment, we asked the player to retreat into the background, which must have bothered one so used to being the center of attraction,” he notes.

The recording sessions also took the group to the countryside branch of Dhow Countries Music Academy in Mahonda whose resident band is Kizazi Kipya (despite their name which means New Generation, the band actually comprises an older generation of musicians led by Thabit Omar Ali)

At the neighbouring Matamwe, the group met a trio of energetic performers known as Kirundo who combine guitar, kalimba and percussion.

“Their vigorous, robust and spirited gambol even drove Tabu Osusa to dance, and you know that when Tabu dances then the music has got to be exalting,” says Kelemba.

The final recording was with the famous Culture Musical Club, a group that was founded in the 1960s and has survived through many personnel changes

The group comprises up to 45 members for their large concerts with instrumentation including violins, oud, accordion, qanun, double bass and drums. Their performance format involves large expenses of instrumental segments before the ladies in the back row emerge one by one, per song, with their vocal solos. “Their arrangement looks affable without being overbearing,” says Kelemba.