On the east coast of Africa, as is the case in much of the continent’s communities, women play a central role in the essential moments of public life: they are the protagonists of ceremonies related to births, weddings, and funerals; as well as mediators in negotiations, and an essential part of the community’s system of material and cultural production, with great importance as a labor force, but also as repositories of an immense cultural heritage. In the field of music, a paradigmatic example of the importance of women is the case of taarab.
Taarab is understood on the east coast of Africa as a type of music that is difficult to classify, sung today mainly in Kiswahili, where poems or mashairi are recited with instrumental accompaniment, and with special emphasis on the transmission of emotions and entertainment[i]. The areas where it has traditionally been most popular are the Tanzanian coast (Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Tanga…) and Kenya (Mombasa), although it is present throughout the Swahili coast (from Somalia to Mozambique) and inland reaches at least as far as Rwanda and eastern Congo[ii]. Etymologically, it comes from the Arabic ṭarab: to get excited, to have fun, to be ecstatic with music.
At first it was music for the elites, sung in Arabic with instruments imported from Egypt and the Middle East: it is said to have been imported by Sultan Saʿid Bargash ben Sa’id, a great lover of the luxuries and pleasures of the court, after a visit to the country of the Nile. The Egyptian influence is not the only one present in this style, whose syncretism also combines musical characteristics of India, the Indian Ocean, Europe, and the Americas along with purely African elements.
It was Siti Binti Saad, the pioneer of East African music, who after learning the ins and outs of taarab tore it from the palaces and brought it to the people: she began to sing also in Hindi and especially in Kiswahili, and set aside romantic themes to speak in her lyrics of the reality of the people of Zanzibar[iv], giving poetic and musical form to her sharp critiques of economic and political power. At a time when the musical landscape was eminently male, it was she who managed to make the first recording of East African African music intended for commercialization; it would be the first of many recordings whose popularity would spread across the Swahili coast and beyond.
Today, the sphere of influence of taarab is eminently feminine, and there is talk of taarab ya wanawake (women’s taarab)[vi]: artists and audiences are generally women, and they are therefore the undisputed protagonists of the Tanzanian music scene, where this style of music is one of the indispensable elements in celebrations of all classes and social conditions. Taarab is generally heard at large celebrations, especially at weddings and wedding-related events.
The lyrics, however, are not merely beautiful poetic compositions: they are largely social commentaries, critiques thrown by singers wrapped in kangas that express all sorts of feelings and opinions. In one performance, one can hear a song about the human crusade for control of the earth, another about the beauty of Swahili women, another about changes in economic policy, and another about the pain of the loss of a loved one”[vii] In this eclecticism lies to a large extent the power of this music to reach the masses and touch people’s sensibilities.