The Role of Taarab Music in Swahili Culture

August 15, 2023 2 Comments
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In swahili culture Taarab music is beautifully alive and it combines many different genres from all over the world. With the help of Arab, European, Indian, and Persian influences, Taarab has become unique. The Swahili lyrics truly bring the music to life, making it similar to sung poetry. It focuses on themes like love and relationship, and it leverages imagery language, known as “Lugha ya majazi”, to avoid conflict within the community.

It’s the type of music that brings people together and it’s very moving, so it’s not a surprise it’s such a huge part . Today, we want to take a deep dive into Taarab music, what makes it so special, how it has evolved, and the role it has in swahili cultures to help you appreciate it with a bit more understanding.

History of Taarab Music, a Piece of Swahili Culture

Taarab music traces its origins back to Zanzibar Town, situated off the East coast of Africa, and it has deep-rooted connections. If you’d like to know more about Zanzibar, we have a whole article about that if you’d like to check it out. As mentioned before, many other cultures have left their mark on Taarab music. That’s because these cultures have passed through the Zanzibar Town trading area over the years and left some of their influence behind.

The Essentials of Taarab Music in Swahili Culture

As a regional form of art, Taarab music combines Arabic, Egyptian, and Swahili cultures, among others. The instruments that bring this beautiful music to life and make it sound unique include the qanunis, a string instrument popular in Central Asia, South-Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

Swahili Culture
To play this instrument, players have to place it on their laps and use two tortoiseshell picks or their fingers to pluck the strings. Taarab music also uses oud and dumdek, a Middle Eastern drum, the Indian tabla, the Japanese taishakoto, which is a banjo, and a Western electric keyboard. Taarab music’s rhythms combine Congolese and Cuban rumba, Indian film music, local chakacha grooves, and East African rhythms. The lyrics are Swahili poetry and they’re a literary tradition on their own.

The Beginning of the Story

According to the general understanding of the history of Taarab music, Sultan Said Barghash, who ruled from 1870 to 1888, was the one who brought it to Zanzibar. He loved music, so he brought Egyptian musicians with him and they started teaching Taarab to the locals. When they incorporated Swahili lyrics and traditional chakacha grooves, it transformed into something entirely different.

Then, the sultan sent one of the Zanzibari musicians, called Ibrahim Muhammed, to Cairo so he could study music. When he came back, he decided to found the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra. The orchestra consisted of Subeti Ambari with the oud, Buda bin Mwendo with the violin, Buda Swedi with the gambusi and violin, and Mwalimu Shaaban with tari and the vocals. By 1905, a second Taarab group called Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club had emerged, and it continues to thrive today in Zanzibar.

Swahili Culture

Taarab music became so popular that it invaded the entire Swahili coast, including Zanzibar, Kilwa, Tanga, Lamu, Kismayu, Mvita, Malindi, Pemba, Kismayu, and even the Seychelles. Taarab music reached even further, arriving in Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Arab traders helped spread the music and it was very well received because it integrated with Muslim culture.

In 1964, there was a significant change in Taarab music due to a political bid to erase all Arab influence from the region. This led Taarab singers to switch to the Swahili language, which became the common language of the island. This is how Taarab music was integrated into Swahili cultures and it has become a huge part of its identity.

The Influence of Female Artists in Taarab Music

We can discuss Taarab music without talking about the influence of female artists, particularly Siti binti Saad and Bi Kidude. So, we would like to discuss these female Taarab artists individually and examine the mark they’ve made. Not only in Taarab music but also in Swahili culture.  

The Legacy of Siti binti Saad

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Siti binti Saad was a Tanzanian musician and she’s considered by many as the mother of Taarab music. She revolutionized the genre in a way that ripples modern Taarab music. Saad was born in a Zanzibar village in 1880 in the midst of the Arab slave trade. Her family was very poor and relied on pottery and agriculture to survive.

When Siti came of age, she left for the city and she soon met Ali Muhsin of the Taarab group, NadiIkhwani Safa. Muhsin quickly realized that Saab had a gift and he taught her to become a singer for the group. Saab became the first woman to sing Taarab music in Swahili in a male-dominated space that sang predominantly in Arabic. It’s worth noting that, at the time, it was immoral for women to sing in public and join Taarab groups.

Saab helped change this mindset by helping demystify women’s involvement in music. This is how she paved the way for female Taarab musicians and singers, and now lead singers in Taarab music are predominantly female. Not only that, but she also helped Taarab music reach the East African mainland by singing in Swahili.

Saab’s talent will eventually reach beyond East Africa and she came to record 150 records between 1928 and 1950 with the Columbia Music Recording Company. She also helped introduce natiki, an Indian dance style, into Taarab music, making it more accessible in India. Then, she helped incorporate Egyptian influences. These are only a few reasons why Siti binti Saab’s mark on Taarab music will live on. She became synonymous with Taarab music and helped it evolve in more ways than one.

The Story of Bi Kidude

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Bi Kidude also has an incredible legacy in Taarab music and she’s another female pioneer who helped define the genre. She was inspired by Siti binti Saab and she has been dubbed the Queen of Taarab and Unyago music. Kidude was born in Kitumba village in the 1910s, but no one knows the exact date of her birth. In the 1920s, she was already a singer in local Taarab groups.

When she was 13 years old, she fled from Zanzibar to Tanzania to avoid a forced marriage. There, she joined the local Taarab group and performed with them across East Africa. In the 1930s, she fled again, this time from an unhappy marriage. At that point, she joined an Egyptian Taarab group and played with them until her return to Zanzibar in the 40s.

Bi Kidude also became a legendary figure in African music and is known as one of the greatest composers. In 2005, she received an award from the World Music Expo to honor the contributions she has made to music. A documentary was also made about her life in 2006, It’s called As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude, directed by Andy Jones.

Before we move on to the next section, we’d like to mention other female legends of Taarab music who left their own mark. Namely BI Malika, Ustadh Seif Salim Saleh, Zein L’Abdin, Ustadh Bakari Abeid, Zuhura Swaleh, and Ustadh Ali Mkali.  

Modern Taarab Music in Swahili Culture

Traditional Taarab music gave birth to modern Taarab and there are some key differences. It’s known as “RushaRoho” which literally means “make your spirit fly.” Modern Taarab lyrics are a lot more direct, lacking the subtlety of traditional Taarab. This music can be classified as pop and its main objective is to entertain, so it’s very easy to dance to modern Taarab music.

Modern Taarab music is mainly played on keyboards and band members don’t dress as formally as they used to back in the day. Due to these differences, a lot of critics consider modern Taarab to be inferior to its traditional counterpart. But why did Taarab music change so much? Well, it was mainly due to commercialization and mainstream media. Musicians and producers started adopting modern technology and influences from international countries.  

Role of Taarab Music in Swahili Culture

In conclusion, Taarab music stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of Swahili culture. To fully appreciate the beauty and depth of Taarab music, we encourage you to delve into the heart of its essence by learning Swahili. It will allow you to understand the poetic expressions a lot better and appreciate the metaphors, cultural context, and more.

In a world that celebrates diversity and cultural exchange, embracing the melodies of Taarab and the Swahili language can enrich your understanding of global artistic expressions. Consider this article, a guide to helpful strategies to learn Swahili faster and more efficiently! Or browse our blog for more free resources.    

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