The taarab ensembles and orchestras of Swahili-speaking East Africa offer one of the more unexpected sounds in African pop: elegant, sensual compositions filled with poetic nuance and musical virtuosity. The root word of taarab, tariba, means "to be moved or agitated." Centered in the coastal cities of Tanzania and Kenya, taarab's fusion of Indian, Arabian and African elements has spread beyond local communities to become popular from Mozambique to the Arabian Gulf.
Like much of Swahili culture, taarab began in the Kenyan port of Lamu. After studying there early this century, blind singer and oud player Mbaruku helped move the music's creative center south to Mombasa. In the '30s, Mombasa's Jauharah and Morning Star Orchestras became taarab's first full-sized ensembles.
Swahili ngoma or drum-song styles like vugo, kumbwaya and the driving chakacha, with its sexual overtones, animate most forms of taarab. Egypt's firquah film orchestras provided an important model in the '50s, and more recently, Egyptian and Lebanese pop and especially Hindi film pop have influenced taarab melodies and vocal stylings.
Taarab groups range from small "parties" to orchestras that can include African drums, tablas, dumbek (hourglass drum), rika (tambourine), oud (fretless lute), qanun (trapeziform plucked zither), taishokoto (a banjolike instrument of Japanese origin with a typewriterlike keyboard used to pluck the strings) as well as organ and accordion. Guitar and bass typically play, but often get overwhelmed by clusters of violins and cellos. Right up front in the sound, male and female vocalists use high, clear-toned voices, Islamic in flavor, but cooler and less wailing than the Muslim singers of North and West Africa.
Taarab songs explore romance and marriage, though their stylized Swahili poetry can suggest political interpretations. During the wedding season in Mombasa, Kenya, people flood the streets coming and going to and from men's and especially women's taarab parties where musicians play styles of music especially suited to each day of the weeklong wedding ritual. Kenyan star Zein L'Abdin specializes in the old Lamu style of Swahili taarab. His languid rhythms and floating, world-weary vocals revolve around virtuoso oud flights. But Maulidi and Musical Party dominate the Mombasa scene. Formed in 1972 by singer/composer Maulidi Juma Iha, this group plays Hindi pop-oriented tunes and the older Swahili styles. Maulidi records top-selling cassettes with a variety of singers, including local female stars Malika and Zuhura Swaleh, but he shines brightest when singing at a kutoleza nje, the all-night prewedding blast at which women shed their buibui (black veils) to reveal elegant dresses, jewelry and henna-decorated hands and feet.
Down on the northern Tanzanian coast, the city of Tanga fostered an influential taarab scene in the '60s. By incorporating dance rhythms, guitars and local folklore, Tanga groups like Black Star Musical Club and its spin-off, Lucky Star, played a strain of taarab that spread to Burundi and Kenya. Further south, in Dar es Salaam, JKT Taarab's chakacha-oriented taarab has made it the top orchestra in East Africa. But in 1993, two new outfits, TOT Taarab and Muungano Taarab, shook things up with a modern, electric sound and provocative lyrics.
In the early 1900s, on the nearby spice island of Zanzibar, Sultan Ali bin Hamoud encouraged the formation of men's social clubs, some of which formed orchestras. Founded in 1905, Ikwhani Safaa still supports a 25- to 35-piece group. Then singer Siti bint Saad, called the most popular Swahili singer, broke the all-male convention by recording hits up until the 1940s. In the 1950s women singers came on strong as groups like Sahib El-Arry and Royal Air Force reacted against the staid male clubs singing mipasho (back-biters) songs. Competition grew so fierce among them that the government formed a national women's group to unite opposing singers. Zanzibar's most renowned orchestra, Culture Musical Club, formed in 1958 and received government largesse after the British left Zanzibar in 1964, the beginning of a general era of Africanization.
Taarab groups rarely tour, but an exceptional series of digital field recordings on the British GlobeStyle label presents taarab from Mombasa, Tanga and Zanzibar.
Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org