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.
Currently, two major taarab groups exist in Zanzibar: Nadi Ikhwan Safaa and Mila na Utamaduni (also called Culture Musical Club, or just Culture). Of the two, Culture is the more professional and has become quite well known internationally, not only through CD releases such as Spices of Zanzibar
or the more recent Bashraf
albums, but also because they have successfully toured Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Arab Emirates, Réunion and many other countries. Nadi Ikhwaan Safaa, affectionately known by local people as Malindi Music Club, is Zanzibar's oldest group, who trace their roots back to 1905. The group plays a style of taarab in which the distant Middle Eastern origins are still very much to the fore.
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.'