By Bethsheba Achitsa with Ogova Ondego
Published November 10, 2008
Poetry in Motion, a documentary film that celebrates the career of the 100-year Zanzibari popular Taarab orchestra, Nadi Ikhwan Safaa, has been shown in Nairobi, Kenya.
This 75-minute documentary directed by American Ron Mulvihill was screened on October 25, 2008 at Goethe-Institut, during the 3rd Kenya International Film Festival in the presence of Kelly Askew, an associate professor of anthropology and African studies who produced it. She introduced the film and fielded questions from the audience.
Taarab, normally sang in Kiswahili, is popular along the East African coast from Somalia to South Africa. This genre of music has influences from the Indian sub-continent, Africa, Middle East and Europe.
Also known as Culture Music Club and Malindi Taarab Orchestra, Nadi Ikhwan Safaa was founded in 1905 in Zanzibar. It was also in Zanzibar that Poetry in Motion was shot over a three-week period in 2005.
With the group having been held together for a century, ‘poetry in motion’ appears to be an apt title as the film is a journey into the life and time of this longest lasting taarab orchestra in the world. Bearing in mind that poetry in motion refers to poems coined in subways and on buses, it would reflect the entire life that Taarab has survived through colonialism, a violent revolution, autocratic rule and neo-liberal administration.
From Poetry in Motion one learns that earlier on Nadi Ikhwan Safaa, which means “True Brotherhood Club” in Arabic, was initially a male only organisation. This was due to the culture of the people of Zanzibar where any woman who sung in public was considered to be of loose morals.
As times changed the group saw the need to recruit women and Nihifadhi Saad became the first woman to join the group. But not without drama and living up to the self-fulfilling prophecy that ‘women are trouble': Saad unintentionally wrecked an engagement, briefly married the rejected partner, and stopped singing. Divorced, she went back to Taarab, the music whose dominant themes are religion and relationships and mainly targets women.
Like Western classical music, Taarab was a listen-to only music but modernity is changing all this with the audience beginning to dance to the modern beats from modern instruments.
Rather than adopt the traditional voicing over style, Poetry in Motion lets the musicians themselves to tell their own story. This is a piece of art which will in future inform and educate people as it has preserved the history of the group and that of Taarab, a genre of music introduced in Zanzibar by Sultan Barghash at the turn of the 19th century.
Kelly Askew serves as production manager and one of the three producers for this film. Associate professor of anthropology and African studies at the University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, Askew’s previous work in film includes serving as associate producer on Ron Mulvihill-directed Maangamizi: The Ancient One, and on the four-part documentary series, Rhythms from Africa: Taarab, An Ocean of Melodies, co-directed and co-produced by Bridget Thompson (Tomas Films) and Abdulkadir Ahmed Said (Acacia Entertainment).
German Werner Graebner, a former long time research fellow at the University of Bayreuth, serves as sound engineer and one of the three producers of Poetry in Motion alongside Mulvihill and Askew. Graebner, who continues to research on the history and styles of Taarab along the East African coast, has produced several Taarab albums for international release. The latest publication is Zanzibar: Soul & Rhythm, a 2CD panorama of the islands’ musics.