Quick Overview of Taarab Music – History, Musicians & More

Quick Overview of Taarab Music – History, Musicians and More

Taarab is a popular music genre in Kenya and Tanzania. The musical practices of North Africa, the African Great Lakes, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East influenced the genre. Taarab became prominent in 1928, following the advent of its first superstar, Siti binti Saad.

Contribution to Taarab by a Sultan

Local legend says that Sultan Seyyid Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar, who ruled between 1870 and 1888, started the genre. The Sultan lived a life of luxury and enjoyed the pleasures of life. He was the ruler that pioneered taarab in Zanzibar before it later spread to the African Great Lakes area.

The Sultan brought in a taarab troupe from Egypt to perform in his Beit el-Ajab palace. Subsequently, he sent Mohamed Ibrahim to Egypt from Zanzibar to learn music and play the Kanun. Mohamed Ibrahim established the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra after he returned. Ikwhani Safaa Musical Club, Zanzibar’s second music club, was formed in 1905. The club is still thriving to date.

Culture Musical Club (established in 1958) and Ikwhani Safaa remain the foremost taarab orchestras in Zanzibar.

The term taarab is a borrowed word from Arabic. The word means “having joy with music.”

History of Taarab Music

Following the spread of taarab from the palace of the Sultan to Zanzibari weddings and other social events, the first influential female taarab

Siti Bint Saad
Siti Bint Saad

singer was Siti bint Saad. Siti and her group began making commercial recordings in 1928, making them the first to achieve the feat from the region.

Popular Taarab Bands and Musicians

In the decades that followed, bands and solo musicians like Culture Musical Club, Al-Watan Musical Club, Bi Kidude and Mzee Yusuph kept the music style at the forefront in the Tanzanian entertainment scene, making inroads across the globe. Also, Kidumbak groups, which played a similar style, became popular, particularly among the poor people of Zanzibar. The style features bass, violins, two small drums, and dancers using maracas and claves. A group known as the Black Star Musical Club from Tanga modernized the genre in the 1960s. They took taarab to audiences far and wide, especially Kenya and Burundi. East African Melody is an example of a contemporary taarab group that has emerged in recent times. They have created backbiting songs known as mipasho for women.

Features and Evolution of Taarab

Taarab music is a blend of pre-Islamic Swahili melodies sung in rhythmic, poetic style and Arab-style melodies. Taarab is a very lively art form. It is immensely popular, particularly with women. The music draws from traditional and new sources all the time. Taarab is a major component of the social life of the Swahili people along the coastal areas, particularly in Tanga, Zanzibar and even further along the Kenyan coast in Malindi and Mombasa. Swahili-speaking people carried the taarab culture wherever they travelled. The music has gone as far as Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda in the interior of Eastern Africa, where taarab bands challenge western-music-inspired bands in popularity.

Khadija Kopa
Khadija Kopa

Nowadays, there is a taarab revolution going on, and a much-heated debate persists about how the East African Melody sensation has changed the music drastically. Melody, as their majority female fans call them, play modern taarab. Modern taarab is regarded as ‘taarab to dance to.’ It features direct lyrics, circumventing the unwritten codes of lyrical subtlety of the earlier groups, where the meaning of lyrics is not directly inferred but only alluded to. Taarab songs are now explicit – even graphic sometimes – in sexual undertones, and much of the music of bands like Muungano and Melody is composed and performed on keyboards, increasing mobility for multiple venues. The groups are also smaller than traditional taarab orchestras and thus more readily available to travel and perform at shows throughout the area and beyond.

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