Taarab music takes on a catchy rhythm

Taarab group of Tausi women from Zanzibar. PHOTO | BOWL


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

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

Taarab, the soundtrack from the east coast of Africa, whose main influences are Arabic and Indian melodies and Swahili poetry, has adopted over the past three decades 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 bands in Mombasa, says there have been marked differences in the development of music in recent years.

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

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

“The classic multi-string string instrument, the qanun, has, for example, been largely replaced by the synthesizer. “

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

In an interview after his show in Nairobi, Rajab said his band has stuck with the traditional taarab format despite the wave of change that has swept through the island’s music.

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

For four days, the production team of Sing well recorded various groups including Nyota za Meremeta conducted by Professor Mohammed IIyas, multi-instrumentalist and singer who is also a music teacher at Dhow Country Music Academy,

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

Another notable female ensemble is the Unyago group whose name refers to a style of taarab which is a product of the Tanzanian msondo style based on traditional drums. The group is led by Amina Abdalla, who claims to have inherited the mantle of legendary Zanzibari singer Bi Kidude.

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

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

There are some interesting musical experiences in Zanzibar like the fusion of jazz with taarab by Tarajazz, a group of 5 musicians led by saxophonist Hassan Juma Mahenge who formed the group with graduates from Dhow Country Music Academy.

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

“To his amazement, we asked the player to step back into the background, which must have bothered someone so used to being the center of attraction,” he notes.

The recording sessions also brought the band to the rural branch of Dhow Country Music Academy in Mahonda whose resident band is Kizazi Kipya (despite their name meaning New Generation, the band actually includes an older generation of musicians led by Thabit Omar Ali)

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

“Their vigorous, sturdy and fiery frolic even made Tabu Osusa dance, and you know that when Tabu dances, the music must be uplifting,” says Kelemba.

The final recording was made with the famous Culture Musical Club, a group founded in the 1960s that has survived numerous personnel changes.

The group includes up to 45 members for their great concerts with instruments such as violins, oud, accordion, qanun, double bass and drums. Their performance format involves a heavy expenditure of instrumental segments before the ladies in the back row emerge one by one, by song, with their vocal solos. “Their arrangement looks affable without being overbearing,” says Kelemba.

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