Seif Salim Saleh & Abdullah Mussa Ahmed

Taarab 1: The Music of Zanzibar

Globestyle CDORBD 032

The first time I heard taarab, on the classic LP Songs The Swahili Sing (Original Music OMA 103), I didn’t like it.  Or rather, because taarab (or tarabu) sounded nothing like any African music I had heard, I was bewildered, and disposed to think that the fault was in the music, rather than in my understanding of it.  With a little reflection, however, it becomes apparent that to say, ‘African music sounds like…’ is as absurd as saying, ‘American (or European) music sounds like…’ as if Inuit music should be measured against Cajun, or Sami against Serbian.  Once I’d passed that hurdle, it didn’t take too long before I had attuned my ears, brain and heart to taarab, and grown to admire its frequent virtuosity, and to wish that I could understand the often complex and formal poetry of its lyrics.

Taarab is, to quote Ben Mandelson’s notes to this CD, ‘the music of the KiSwahili speaking, generally Muslim, peoples of East Africa and the Indian Ocean.  Cover pictureThe taarab belt stretches along the coastal strip from Mozambique and Burundi, via its strongholds of Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania, and Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, up to Somalia, with colonies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), the Comoros, and Muscat and Oman in the Arabian gulf.’ Not a minority or localised music in other words.  Given the historical cosmopolitanism of the Islamic world, the long Arab presence in Zanzibar and along the East African seaboard, and the history of trade across the Indian Ocean, into the Persian Gulf, and up the Red Sea, it’s not surprising that taarab partakes of many influences from Arabia, Egypt and the Lebanon.  Records and films have also played their part, and the sound of Indian film music is often evident.  More recently, racial politics have also made their mark; specifically in Zanzibar, after the revolution of 1964, Africanist triumphalism meant that Arabic language and culture were out of favour, and the music clubs which met to play taarab had to change their names, and the language of their songs, to KiSwahili.  Ben Mandelson speculates plausibly that it was at this time that Latin rhythms, often filtered through Zairean, Egyptian and Lebanese music, became more prominent.  (By the mid-eighties, the clubs were allowed to revert to their Arabic names, but the rumba stayed in the repertoire.)

play Sound ClipA number of these aspects of the music can be heard in Ua (which means ‘flower’) - (sound clip)  The only track on this CD with a vocal, by Munira Said Mohammed, it has, to my ears, some of the bouncy danceability, and the vocal intonations, of Bollywood filmi music, but the Latin rhythms also made me wonder briefly if the musicians were borrowing from Ravel’s BoleroUa may also demonstrate the distinction between men’s and women’s taarab in Zanzibar; the men’s music takes its traditions from the (all male, of course) Islamic social clubs encouraged by the Sultan at the beginning of this century, and its aesthetics are those of the gentleman amateur, playing cool and sophisticated art music for listening, and intellectual appreciation.  Women’s taarab, on the other hand, is always sung in KiSwahili, is more earthy, and is danced to; as such, it’s considered somewhat déclassé - by the men, I assume, although that doesn’t stop the gentleman amateurs from hiring themselves as professionals when playing for the women’s clubs!  That said, a better idea of the differences between men’s and women’s taarab is probably to be had from Globestyle’s other three CDs of Zanzibari taarab, and in particular from Music Clubs of the Island (Globestyle CDORBD 040).

It may be wondered why I’m reviewing Taarab 1; the reason is that it was originally released in 1989, on the cusp of the industry’s changeover from LP to CD, and never made it into the new format.  This 1999 re-release features three additional tracks, is remastered from the original DATs, and has updated and expanded notes.  Taarab 1 consists - the track already heard apart - of virtuoso instrumental music by Seif Salim Saleh (violin and ud, the ancestor of the European lute) and Abdullah Mussa Ahmed (ganoon, a trapeziform zither widespread in the Islamic world).  They are assisted on some tracks by percussionist Salif Mussa on duf (tambourine).  play Sound ClipSaleh and Ahmed are both among the most respected musicians in Zanzibar (or were at the time of recording in 1988 - Ahmed now lives in the Gulf States), and a snatch of Wawili Tunapendani (the two of us love one another) will make it clear why.  (sound clip)

Alongside the duets are a number of solo taqsim (improvisations) on ganoon, named, as is usual, after their modes.  (The ganoon’s 26 sets of strings in triple courses give a range of almost four octaves; they are tuned initially to the Western diatonic scale, but individual strings, or groups of them, can be readily retuned by the use of movable bridges, thus making it easy to shift from mode to mode.) This extract occurs towards the end of Taqsim in Hijaz Mode, play Sound Clipand illustrates the sonic beauty of the instrument’s crystalline treble and plangent bass ranges, Ahmed’s technical mastery, and the originality of his ideas - note how that tone cluster is both completely unexpected, and absolutely right in context.  (sound clip)

Taarab 1 is described on the back cover as ‘a characterful ambient recording’, and indeed it’s very easy, and a great pleasure, simply to luxuriate in the lushness of the violin, and the rippling sound of the plucked instruments.  If that kind of description sells records, fair enough - and I bet it will get a lot of play on Radio 3’s relentlessly touristic Late Junction - but as Globestyle know very well, Taarab 1 is more than just pleasant noises to soothe the jaded first worlder after a hard day at the office; somewhat shamefacedly, the publicity handout hastens to define it as ‘ambient recording in the real sense.  The sounds of the birds and the wind in the trees can be heard in the background.’ Well, if they say so, but this music deserves to be appreciated for what it is - a beautiful, complex, and endlessly inventive encounter between cultures at one of the world’s busiest musical crossroads.

Chris Smith - 12.12.99

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