A socio-historical and contextual analysis of popular musical performance among the Swahili of Mombasa, Kenya.

Author:Ntarangwi, Mwenda


This paper discusses a genre of Swahili popular music--taarab--by focusing on its historical development, context of performance, and relation to gender and religion. Using case studies and interviews with musicians and audience members at taarab performances, I analyze the structure and organization of taarab music performance. These performances reveal that the gender divide assumed by many scholars is in fact far from characteristic of Swahili musical performance. By examining the context and meanings of producing and consuming taarab, I demonstrate that, rather than occupying two distinct worlds of men and women, Swahili musical practices engender both competitive and complementary realities, thereby fostering a complexity that would be easily missed if the meanings of gendered interaction and behavior were to be taken at face value. Consequently, I highlight how the analysis of popular musical expression can contribute to an understanding of socio-cultural practices, reproduction and change of cultural norms, and local units of self-assessment among the Swahili in particular and other communities in general.


Taarab is the Swahili equivalent of the Arabic word tarab, which implies the concept(s) of entertainment, enchantment, emotion-filled movement, and delight (Anthony 1983; Askew 1992; Topp 1992). As used among the Swahili, taarab denotes the performance and singing of mashairi (poems) with instrumental accompaniment (Campbell 1983; Knappert 1979) and also carries the connotations of entertainment and expression of emotions. The Swahili are an African people of mixed descent living along the East African coast as well as in the interior. They are mainly Muslim and lead an urban lifestyle characterized by a mercantile economy. With a language that has become world-known, the Swahili have an elaborate cultural practice that draws from Arab, African, Indian, and European cultures. Taarab music is indeed a reflection of this complexity with its characteristics reflecting influences from Arabia, Africa, India, Europe, and the Americas. However, when one speaks of Swahili music, there is no doubt that taarab is a major part of that music.

Although taarab is often performed at Swahili weddings, the performance itself has very little to do with the bride and groom at the specific wedding. Rather, taarab performance is a social space in which local values, concerns, and relations are mobilized, discussed, evaluated, and reconfigured. Thus, apart from a song or two advising the groom and bride on how to live harmoniously in marriage, most taarab songs performed at a wedding will touch on different topics of life relevant to social contexts outside of the wedding. Some songs will touch on the concerns of humans in general, while other songs will touch on specific social issues of the local community. For instance, in one performance, one can hear a song about the human quest for control over the earth, a song about the beauty of Swahili women, a song about a changed political economy, or a song about the pain of losing a loved one. Whatever theme each taarab song represents, however, no performance is identical to another. At each performance, a song's meaning expands or changes depending on the images it expresses or the inferences the audience members may make from it. Given the use of metaphor and other symbolic tropes in song texts, a single taarab song may elicit numerous meanings and interpretations.

Taarab is unique among Swahili musical genres in that it is the only genre in which men and women now perform music together in public. In the words of Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany, (1) "these changes [of men and women performing together] come due to contexts. You will find women teaming up with men to sing but this is not Swahili culture or tradition. Indeed, it is against the teachings of Islam. These performers know it but still ignore it." (2) Sitara Bute, one of the prominent women taarab musicians in Mombasa, shared the same sentiments raised by Nabhany about Islam and gendered practices but saw the practice as part of a process of development. Thus in answer to the same question that I had posed to Nabhany on women and men performing together, she stated, "When we look at women's participation in singing, we find that if we strictly follow customs or religious practice, a woman is not allowed to sing. But now due to certain advancements or changes in social relations, we can now sing. In the past men did not mix with women publicly as they do nowadays. These days we see that just as the man has a job in the office so does the woman. So you see there are changes and I expect that they will continue in the days to come." (3)

Many Swahili people in the community have noted the social changes that Sitara mentions. In June 1997, I talked to one of the caretakers at the Muslim Women's Institute at the Islamic Center in Mombasa about the use of their large hall for social events. She mentioned that the hall is often hired out to individual families who use it for wedding receptions instead of holding them in the makeshift sheds made of canvas that are quite common in Mombasa. One of the reasons that she gave for many families choosing the hall (besides the fact that they could afford it) was that it enabled them to monitor who would come into the function. When asked if there were taarab performances that occurred in the hall, Sitara said that they do not allow taarab bands to come into the hall because they include both men and women performing together, which was contrary to what the center was promoting. Instead, the Institute may invite a female taarab musician who will lip-synch to her recorded music played on a cassette player. This is one way of trying to deal with the now common practice at Swahili performances in which men and women participate.

For Zuhura Swaleh, another prominent taarab musician based in Mombasa, these social changes are directly linked to taarab music, since she feels that "taarab lyrics give advice and encouragement to do things. They encourage [women] to believe that they can do that which another person can do." (4) To see this music genre in these terms is to associate expressive culture with the social change that competes with the established tradition of expecting gender separation at Swahili weddings. Throughout my fieldwork I gathered information from men and women who, although agreeing that taarab performance was going against the expected gender practice, saw it as indicative of the changes the society was undergoing. To many, these changes were unstoppable, although some felt that there was a need for things to go back to the "good old days." I thus saw a dichotomy between culture as stated and culture as practiced. In this paper I try to foreground the importance of taarab not only as a forum wherein social practices are crafted, represented, and challenged but also as a way of interrogating the social processes of using music as an arena to understand a community's cultural and historical realities.

The Structure and Organization of Taarab

Performance of poetry among the Swahili has a long history dating as far back as the sixteenth century when written historical records for Swahili literary practices first appear (Allen 1981). That poetry is an important component of Swahili cultural identity and practices has been well documented (e.g., Allen 1981; Anthony 1983; Harries 1962; Knappert 1972, 1977; Mulokozi 1982; Mazrui and Shariff 1994; Shariff 1983). Indeed, much of Swahili's expressive culture is centered on this poetry. The Swahili divide their poetry into three categories- the shairi (a poem that has four lines in each verse), the utenzi (a long poem of three or four lines in each verse and mainly composed as an epic) and the wimbo (a three-versed poem composed to be sung).

However, these categories are not entirely distinct, as there are many overlaps between categories; indeed, if we heed the thoughts of earlier Swahili scholars, then we agree that Swahili poetry is composed to be sung (Abedi 1965; Harries 1962), and hence place all Swahili poetry under the wimbo genre. It is only after we include notions of the content of poems, where they are performed, and their length, that we are able to group them into various categories. Nevertheless, taarab technically falls under the third category of wimbo, with three lines in each verse and a fourth one that is usually the refrain (locally referred to as kiitikio, kipokeo, or kibwagizo). The composition of taarab texts adheres to the tradition of rhyme and meter that is followed in other forms of Swahili poetry. Here is an example of a taarab song that follows rhyme and meter that is present in much of Swahili poetry. The first verse of the song, "Singetema" by Zuhura Swaleh is as follows:

Takusema takusema tasema sitonyamaza Na lawama na lawama waja mnganilemeza Singetema singetema yamenishinda kumiza The first line of this verse can be divided into 16 syllables of two hemistiches of 8 syllables each:

  1. Ta ku se ma ta ku se ma 2. ta se ma si to nya ma za

Also note that all the end syllables in each hemistich have a rhyming sound (ma in the first and za in the last).

When sung, taarab may fit into the larger realm of African music through its performance and musical style despite the aforementioned influences from other cultures. The singing of many taarab songs does, however, betray its Arabic influence. Thus the majority of taarab singers have what Lomax calls "the bardic style of the orient" (1961, 443). Their voices oscillate between the spectrum of rubato, melisma, and tremulo with a clear emphasis on nasal singing, which is also present in Indian songs.

Overall, the four major qualities cited in definitions of African music can be equally useful in analyzing taarab. These are: a) call and response, b) percussiveness, c) syllabic singing, and d) short musical units that are...

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