Rocking the Swahili coast

If hot and sweaty nights of endless dancing are your thing, then Tanzania might just be your ideal holiday destination.

Its live music scene is dominated by two distinct genres. One is called muziki wa dansi (which is “dance music” in South African Sesotho) and was born in the 1950s and 1960s when musicians organised themselves into dance clubs and began to play music influenced by Congolese rumba, jazz and the music of Cuba.
The other originated on the Swahili coast, stretching from northern Mozambique to Somalia, and is called Taarab music.

Taarab’s origins can be traced back more than 100 years to Indian and Arabic music, which would have reached Zanzibar through trade. But there is also a distinct Swahili element to taarab, particularly the rhythms played out on traditional drums called dumbak.

Live music venues, which host bands from both genres, are generally open-air courtyard affairs, probably because of the heat and humidity, with plastic tables and chairs for punters scattered in front of a covered stage. A typical gig can last up to six hours, beginning some time between nine and 10 at night and ending near four in the morning.

The bands can have up to 40 musicians, who rotate as they get tired, allowing the band to perform with intensity for the full six hours, sometimes up to five times a week.

The bands hit the gigging circuit of Dar es Salaam. Residencies are booked for some nights, though they usually play what is deemed their home turf on a Saturday or Sunday night.

There are no gig listings in Dar es Salaam and the scene mostly runs on word of mouth. We discovered many awesome shows by talking to people, especially the bar staff in the city’s drinking haunts.

Muziki wa dansi
Muziki wa dansi is generally more laid-back than Congolese rumba but the guitar is still the principal instrument, with the music built around two or three guitarists, backed by bass guitar and percussion and often featuring a horn section.

In the late Sixties, as Tanzania was transformed into a socialist state, bands or orchestras, such as the Nuta (National Union of Tanzania) Jazz Band, became aligned with state institutions. The police, army, national service and youth wings all took their own bands on board.

The recording industry was virtually nonexistent and the main resource available to the bands was Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam, the state broadcaster that recorded most of the bands at least once a year for their broadcasts.

This makes it difficult to track down the music of the late Sixties and Seventies on the streets of Dar es Salaam. But the Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam office on Zanaki Street in the city centre has a large catalogue of recordings on cassette tapes that you can buy for 1 500 shillings (about R8). I bought some great recordings by the Atomic Jazz Band, Jamhuri Jazz Band, Vijana Jazz Band, Juwata Jazz Band and the Dar es Salaam Jazz Band.

For those interested, a great snapshot of the late Sixties and early Seventies muziki wa dansi scene can be acquired more easily—Buda Musique’s Zanzibara Vol 3: Ujama - The 1960s Sound of Tanzania.

This is the same label that brought the world the magnificent Ethiopiques Series and fans of that series can expect the same high production values. In the late 1970s and early 1980s a new breed of bands swept through Dar es Salaam—the Mlimani Park Orchestra was born out of the Dar es Salaam Jazz Band and Juwata Jazz was created by members of the Nuta Jazz Band. Both these bands can still be seen strutting the city’s stages every week. Buda Musique’s Zanzibara Vol. 5: Hot in Dar - The Sound of Tanzania presents a great overview of this era of muziki wa dansi.

We managed to catch the Mlimani Park Orchestra at the Sauti za Busara festival and their three-guitar attack and magnificent horn section were a real treat for the dancing crowd.

Although these bands remain very popular, a new wave of dance bands currently dominates the Dar es Salaam scene. African Stars, who are also known as Twanga Pepeta, are the most popular current band in Tanzania and their great rivals are the African Revolution.

We managed to catch the 40-member strong African Stars twice, once at Mango Gardens, a live music venue in Dar es Salaam, and the second time as the headline act at the Sauti za Busara festival. It’s not hard to see why they dominate the music scene in Dar es Salaam and their specific dance style from which they get their name had the crowds in ecstasy.

A taarab orchestra can have up to 50 musicians and the main instruments include cellos, violins, lutes, accordions and clarinets. A woman is usually the lead vocal and the lyrics are most often about love, jealousy and fidelity, and can include social commentary, which can be gossipy in nature.

The doyenne of Zanzibari taarab music is Bi Kidude, who is rumoured to be more than 100 years old, although her exact date of birth is not known and her penchant for stringing along journalists is legendary.

Bi Kidude began her career as a singer in the 1920s and was the first woman to broach controversial topics in her songs, such as the abuse of women. She was also the first woman to cast off her veil while singing, a rebellious act in Muslim-dominated Zanzibar.

Bi Kidude performed twice at the recent Sauti za Busara festival, joining Mohammed Ilyas and his orchestra on stage on the opening night and taking the stage again with Culture Musical Club, Zanzibar’s most well-known taraab orchestra.

It was clear from the response of the crowd that she is a deeply loved and treasured musician in Zanzibar, especially among the young Muslim women. Culture Musical Club was formed in 1958 and since 1988 have released five albums on the international market. Their latest, Shine, was released in 2008 on the World Village label and is a magnificent collection of recordings, also featuring some kidumbak arrangements. Kidumbak is played by a much smaller orchestra or band and features the more prominent use of drums in the music.

Makame Faki, a violinist with and chief songwriter for Culture Musical Club, is the main proponent of kidumbak music with his band, Sinachuki Kidumbak. Both Culture Musical Club and Sinachuki Kidumbak delivered stellar sets at the festival, but visitors to Zanzibar all year round should make an effort to catch a performance at the Culture Musical Club headquarters on Vuga Road in Stone Town.

For a great snapshot of taarab music you can turn to Buda Musique, whose Zanzibara Vol. 1: A Hundred Years of Taarab in Zanzibar and Zanzibara 2: Golden Years of Mombasa Taarab have highlights of the previous century, and Zanzibara Vol. 4: The Diva of Zanzibari Music gives the listener a taste of Bi Kidude’s 90-year career, although she began recording only in 1988.

I would also recommend tracking down two documentaries that focus on taarab music. As Old as My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude is a wonderful insight into the career of this legendary Zanzibari musician, and Zanzibar Musical Club is a look at the Culture Musical Club and a great window into Zanzibari life.

A more recent development is the formation of modern taarab bands. Their music uses guitar, bass, keyboards and synthesised drum beats and includes elements of Congolese rumba to make it more dance-oriented.

There are many successful modern taarab bands, such as Jahazi Modern Taarab and Zanzibar Stars, who we caught live at the Max Hotel in the Dar es Salaam suburb of Illala, which was battling with an intermittent electricity supply, something that most Tanzanians have been getting used to of late.

Lloyd Gedye


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