Music: Taarab sounds stand the test of time
In Zanzibar, taarab music is finding new patrons, scholars and audiences.
I would sit beside him listening to the music, drumming on tables and anything else I could find
Musician Mohammed Issa Matona has been a driving force in the music’s continued popularity. He formed his first band when he was just seven years old. By then, he had already spent five years touring with his dad, himself a taarab legend.
“My father played in [legendary musician] Bi Kidude’s orchestra,” says Matona.
“I was his first son, born after six daughters. He would take me to weddings and festivals to show me off. I would sit beside him listening to the music, drumming on tables and anything else I could find.”
Taarab was born from a rich mosaic of Indian Ocean influences.
Listening to taarab means listening to the sounds of the Comoros, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Egypt, Oman, India and Iran, with instruments including violins, flutes, African drums and Middle Eastern ouds (lute).
In 2002, the desire to preserve this music led Matona and violinist Hildegard Kiel to create the Dhow Countries Music Academy, Zanzibar’s first music school.
Tucked in one of Stone Town’s old whitewashed buildings next to the port, the academy used to be the customs house.
From one of the many arched windows, one can see large cargo ships next to fragile-looking wooden dhows.
In just over a decade, more than a thousand students have passed through the school’s doors.
There are some 100 students currently enrolled there.
They have access to more than 60 different instruments, including a kora (harp) left by a passing Gambian musician and two karar (lyres) from Ethiopia.
At a free concert at Forodhani Gardens during the Sauti Za Busara festival in February, one of the academy’s students, 27-year-old Gora Mohamed, plucked the strings of a qanun (zither).
The young crowd was mesmerised. His musical partner Mariam, whose light-blue headscarf billowed in the sea breeze, joined him on stage.
Her voice rose and fell like the ocean tides, singing of long- ing and love.
Taarab is sung poetry, and the word taarab itself means to be moved by music. Gora says his parents at first disapproved of his playing.
They told him that in Islam, it was forbidden. That was until they, too, were moved by his music.
Some taarab groups are modernising the sound by incorporating electronic instruments, but Matona winces at this: “I would rather talk of fusion taarab, where we introduce new instruments, like the kora or the xylophone.”
At the academy, this experimentation is encouraged through exchange programmes.
Like Gora’s parents, taarab has had to redefine its boundaries. But this is not the first time.
Although traditionally sung by men, it is taarab godmothers Siti binti Saad and Bi Kidude who are most frequently cited as the genre’s stars.
From the years when every street in Stone Town had at least one taarab or kidumbak group (a smaller more dance-focused ensemble), it was replaced by a newer sound, rusha roho, in the 1990s.
But now there is a new generation of musicians who are determined to carry the tradition and have the skills to keep reinventing taarab. ●