Zanzibar has been at the crossroads of trade routes for thousands of years as peoples of Africa, India, Iran, China and other parts of Asia and the Arab world have all played their parts in influencing the music, architecture, food and culture of the region. In its origins, taarab was court music, played in the palace of Sultan Barghash. The sounds of Arabic musical traditions, India, Indonesia and other countries of the 'Dhow region' (the Indian Ocean basin) are clearly distinguishable even today, mingling to form a unique flavour and providing the frame for the Swahili poetry which makes up the heart of taarab music.
Different theories abound about the real origins of taarab in Zanzibar. Legend has it that in the 1870s Sultan Bargash sent a Zanzibari to Cairo to learn to play the qanun, a kind of zither, common to the Arab-speaking world. Among the first singers to record taarab music in Swahili language was the legendary Siti binti Saad, who was taken to India by a film director. Siti stopped performing in the 1940s, but her records – solo and in duet with Sheikh Mbaruk – continued to be issued on 78rpm throughout the 1950s and are still much in demand. Besides the qanun, other instruments that came to feature in the taarab groups (or orchestras) include the oud, violins, ney, accordion, cello and a variety of percussion. Hence much of the traditional taarab music sounds like a more africanised version of some of the great Egyptian popular classical orchestras that played alongside singers like Oum Kulthoum, who is still played on Radio Zanzibar to this day.
The best way to experience taarab is at a local concert, but visitors to Zanzibar are also welcome at the orchestras' rehearsals in Malindi or at Vuga Clubhouse in the evening. What Andy Morgan (Roots magazine) says in an article on Zanzibari music definitely holds true: 'There's hardly anything in the whole of Africa as uplifting as the swelling sounds of a full taarab orchestra in full sail.'
This music style, which is less refined and more upbeat than taarab, could be located musically somewhere between Stonetown big-orchestra taarab and the rural ngoma music. It is most often performed at Zanzibar weddings and other celebrations and is closely related to taarab. In fact, contemporary kidumbak often makes use of the latest taarab hit songs and is sometimes called 'kitaarab', which means 'a diminutive type of taarab' or 'derived from taarab'. Historical evidence suggests that Swahili taarab was originally performed in a very similar way to kidumbak and only later changed to resemble court orchestra music.
The kidumbak ensemble consists of a single melodic instrument, customarily a violin (played in frantic fiddle-style), a sanduku, or tea-chest-bass, two small clay drums (ki-dumbakv), which form the rhythmic core of every such ensemble, and other rhythm instruments, such as cherewa, a kind of maracas manufactured from coconut shells filled with seeds, or mkwasa, short wooden sticks played like claves. In contrast to taarab, kidumbak is much more rhythmic and the lyrics more drastic than the poetic settings of the taarab songs, often criticising other people's social behaviour. At wedding performances, the singer has to be able to string together a well-timed medley of ngoma songs, and she or he must have the ability to compose lyrics on the spot. At a wedding in Zanzibar, one kidumbak set usually lasts for an hour; as one song joins the next, the intensity heats up, with the main attraction being the interplay between the music and song of the players and the dancing and chorus response of the wedding guests.
This brass band music originated around the end the 19th century as a mockery of colonial style military bands. It was soon incorporated in the competitive song-and-dance exchanges so popular on the Swahili coast and spread from there all over east Africa. Beni (from English 'band') is a popular entertainment for weddings in Zanzibar with a strong focus on rhythm and dance, and audience participation.
Beni borrows choruses from the latest taarab hits and arranges them in extended medleys with the female wedding audience joining in for the chorus and as dancers. It is funny music, vivacious, raucous and lively. If you can imagine a deranged military marching band playing as loud as possible on half-broken trumpets, trombones, drums – only vaguely in tune with each other, but having a great time – then you will get the idea!
Beni is performed both as a street parade and, stationary, for a wedding dance. The band Beni ya Kingi usually kicks off the opening parade for the Festival of the Dhow Countries, which winds its way slowly through the narrow streets of Stone Town before reaching Forodhani Gardens at the waterfront with a great crowd which then turns into a wild and lively party.
Undoubtedly a pop-phenomenon (and therefore ephemeral) is a modern style of taarab, called rusha roho, which translates literally 'to make the spirit fly' and has some untranslatable meaning approximating to 'upsetting someone' or 'making the other one jealous'. Modern taarab is also the first style of taarab that's designed to be danced to, and features direct lyrics, bypassing the unwritten laws of lyrical subtlety of the older groups.
Much of modern taarab music is composed and played on keyboards, increasing portability; hence the group is much smaller in number than 'real taarab' orchestras and therefore more readily available to tour and play shows throughout the region. This fact has led to enormous popularity in Zanzibar, boosted by the prolific output of cassette recordings, which, though not up to European studio quality standards, still outsell tapes by any other artist local or international.