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Taarab music at Zanzibar’s music festival

Throw away the memory of a cassette jammed in the dusty player of a local taxi, the sound thin, whining like a mosquito ear bound. Instead, seat yourself comfortably on a terrace warm from the day’s sun, close to a soft broken ocean, open to the breeze of evening come. Now, I think, you are ready for the music.

Twelve players are arranged in two rows, their backs to the Indian Ocean. Their audience of one is made up of me and even I sit obliquely. Other hotel guests sit close enough to claim a presence, but maintain a distance that prevents obvious connection. Old couples, long hitched, sit together in a silence broken only by the clink of ice cubes filling cold glasses.

In the band, the men wear the long white shifts of the island, with the circular embroidered caps of Islam. Two women make up the group, one in a white hijab and matching close-cut suit; the other in a headdress of metallic plates stiched together over a long red gown, looking like a character from a tinted photograph brought to life. The men are not young, it is more accurate to say that just two can argue not to be old. But they sit straight-backed, the lines of their faces catching the shadows cast by faux kerosene lamps. Violins to the front, the accordion and double base to the rear catch me by surprise.

The lead violinist cuts the air with his bow and the taarab begins; the double bass, slow to rise, strikes a note just in time. Alone, and with nothing better to do, I sit back and open myself to the music.

The record is clear on the history of taarab. A former sultan of Zanzibar, happy with his new archipelago and the twin trade of slave and spice, but missing his Arabic heritage, sent a musician to Egypt to learn the classical rhythms of the desert. The musician did just this, in time returning to Zanzibar with a fiddle case of new tunes to both please the sultan and share with the musicians of the islands. And so taarab was born. After almost dying out in the late 20th century, the music was nutured by a few faithful adherents until its popularity returned, both locally and internationally thanks to events like Sauti za Busara (the Sounds of Wisdom), the Zanzibar Music Festival, which is held ever February in Stonetown.

So much, so factual, but I have known about taarab for years and never liked it. What was it about this night that changed my mind? Well, two bottles of Kilimanjaro beer helped, the cool draught lightening the touch of the humid night. Then there was the fact that I was content to sit still and experience the moment, to think not of tasks to come or the day past, but just be. That gave the music the space it needed to assume the life from which it was drawn and the band the respect it deserved.

That night I did not hear strained voices struggling to match the challenge of discordant fiddles and an often lonesome beat. Instead, each element of sound issued forth from its origin to combine as voices in a story, encompassing me in its narrative. They told of deserts spaces; of hot sands; of rivers dark with bankside life and of new lives savannah wide and ocean bound.

The beat was soft and regular – irregular – tapped on taught skins by strong fingers, gently, creating a sound that did not threaten. Rather, it lodged comfortably behind the membrane of my ears, like a heartbeat: reassuring, accompanying, essential. The fiddles alternated from rhythm to scream, creating a sound that has echoed through the raucous folk music of all Europe to be appreciated by my celtic soul. And always the voices sang, uncompromising, often flawed, but wholly human. They took their mark from the fiddles, rising in lament with their scream and dropping softly, confidently, into silence. Though more often than not the words were not mine to understand, the heart needed no translation.

In the world of taarab it is enough to obey the strictures of Islam through one’s dress, leaving one’s body free to act in a manner unfettered by man’s interpretation of the word of God.

When a woman is covered in gold she is difficult to forget. Of the two women in the band, the second had sat quietly in the back row shaking a tambourine softly since the performance began. In the half light it was impossible to tell her age: she sat straight, wearing a robe of red, her head and shoulders dressed with small golden plates stitched close together. With wide set almond eyes supported by prominent cheekbones, it was clear to me that over the past two hundred years it was not only music had that come south from Egyptian sands.

After a break in the repertoire, a gap was made in between two chairs in the front row. The music resumed, the rhythm stronger, deeper. The women in the gold headdress rose and made her way to the front of the band. Bowing briefly to me as the sole acknowledged member of the audience, she began to dance.

She kept her head still, looking straight ahead, but partially outstretched her arms, twisting her wrists in the Indian fashion. She swayed her hips, but kept her face unmoved, seemingly disdainful both of the gold that draped her shoulders and the audience before her. She sung that she was lost, that her heart was broken and pleaded for the return of her lover with an inherent confidence and sway of the hips that suggested she knew he could not stay away for long.

As she moved closer to the light I could see that she was not a young woman, yet she carried her age lightly, dancing in a manner that seemed not to recognise the heaviness of her body and the toll of years past. Indeed she seemed to view these with as much disdain as the gold. To me, carried away by the music and the moment, the woman in the golden headdress was now more than a dancer, she had become a cipher for the story and the human truth of taarab.

Taarab was – and is – the flow of a river; the steps of a journey; the constant of Swahili life. Taarab is the joy and the tragedy of human existence; the love between man and woman; the greed of acquisition and the pain of loss; all the drivers of human history. For the people of the East African coast, taarab is life and for that one night in Stonetown, this understanding brought me a keen joy.

But before you accuse me of getting misty eyed and moon struck, I am not. The scene lovingly described also included times when the soloist would be joined by another band member who coquettishly, then theatrically, would wave a pink 10,000 shilling note slowly across the eyeline of the audience before giving it to the vocalist, regarding the audience meaningfully and then retaking his or her seat. The message was clear: pay up please!

Initially annoyed by this commercial interruption to my cultural reverie, I soon settled, reflecting that musicians have been reliant upon the patronage of audiences since time immemorial and that is was just a shame my pink notes sat in my wallet three floors up.

In today’s language of few syllables, when it comes to taarab I am definitely a fan – at the right time and place. My affection derives from the story, the melody and the rhythms that connect me to an Africa I have always sought, but is also due to a wonderful Swahili stubbornness. During the performance, two separate groups of hotel guests attempted to establish what I guessed to be business meetings in chairs drawn up near to the band. Loud voices talked of wifi connection and targets, increasing volume with effort, only to break upon the strong notes of Swahili indifference and the pervasive beat of taarab music now very close to my heart.

These days Mark Gillies is a Tanzania specialist at Audley Travel. This means they get a link.

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