Modern Taarab music is being blamed for breeding social discord, embarrassing society through vulgarity, vilification of women and also for abandoning convention of the music that was ’till recently’ considered a unifying force of the Swahili coast, at the altar of money. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
It is a lovely evening and armies of music lovers have invaded the concert hall to unwind, shake a leg, gyrate and shed off a few pounds on the dance floor. The almost hypnotic chorus of the live taarab song reaches its climax and the patrons respond in unison with “Hoo utalia mwenzangu, jiji utalijua” to every line by lead singer, Afua Suleiman.
But unknown to these revelers dancing away the evening with abandon is that: every word of the song cuts through the heart of an unnamed ignorant wife whose husband has left her for a sophisticated and caring woman.
Wako nishamchukua kwako harudi tena we mwenzangu
Katamka waziwazi kuwa hakutaki tena we mwenzangu
Bwana kanipa nafasi nimuonyeshe ujuzi we mwenzangu
Nami sifanyi ajizi mpenzi ninamwenzi we mwenzangu
Nampikia maandazi na chai ya tangawizi we mwenzangu
Wali wa nazi kwa ndizi ma vituzi kama kazi we mwenzangu
Kisha ninatoa dozi impayo usinguizi we mwenzangu
But as the soloist’s seductive vocals tackle the next three lines:
Mwenzangu huna ujuzi rudi tena kajifunze we mwenzangu
Bibi acha upuuzi kuishi na mume kazi we mwenzangu
Mume ataka malezi siyo mambo ya kihuni we mwenzangu
Pepe na jeuri zako leo zimekuishia we mwenzangu
with the revelers hitting back with the ‘Hoo utalia mwenzangu, jiji utalijua’ mantra to each line, suddenly three well-dressed young women break into a fight, throwing fists, clawing, biting, wrestling, undoing one another’s hair and trying to undress one another as they scream and vomit epithets in fast-flowing Kiswahili. Fearing the worst, some people hastily leave the hall. However, the band, as if nothing has happened, continues to perform:
Hoo utalia mwenzangu jiji utalijua
Hoo utalia mwenzangu jiji utalijua
It later emerges that the three women fought as a result of one of them having taunted the other with the lyrics of the song while pointing a finger at the other woman whose boy friend she has taken. The sister of the aggrieved woman intervened and thus the fight broke out.
The words of the song that stang and drove the women into battle, loosely translated, are:
You are ignorant and need some training
Stop your nonsense; living with a man requires skill
A man needs love and care
Your arrogance has resulted in shame
I have taken away your man from you and he isn’t coming back
Asked why her East African Melody band did not stop during the fight, singer Suleiman (alias B52) whose Utalijua jiji was declared Best Taarab Single (song) at the Tanzania Music Awards in July 2005, simply says, “Many women have fought wherever we have performed Utalijua jiji. Many sing along with us, ridiculing their love rivals by pointing at them. The rivals fight back. Whenever I see this I am delighted because I realise that our message has hit home. It means what we are singing about is true otherwise people would not be fighting. Consequently, we just continue performing.”
Thus taarab, the genre of music introduced to Zanzibar by one of her ancient Arab rulers, Sultan Seyyid Barghash bin Said, almost two centuries ago for entertainment and that “till recently” was believed to unify the Swahili coast of East Africa from Somalia to South Africa, is being blamed for breeding social discord among the people of the Indian Ocean archipelago.
It is blamed for embarrassing society through vulgarity, vilification of women and for abandoning convention at the altar of commerce.
So serious is the matter that it was in July 2005 mentioned as getting out of control by the education, culture and sports minister, Haroun Ali Suleiman, who urged female singers against voicing offensive lyrics that undermine women.
“Any female singer who performs songs that belittle women or undermine the culture and traditions of Zanzibar has herself to blame,” he said in the last session before parliament was dissolved ahead of the October 2005 General Elections.
Among the songs that are said to belittle women include ‘Kinyago cha mpapure’ and ‘Zoa Zoa’ by East African Melody Modern Taarab and ‘Mwanamke Mambo’ and ‘Daktari’, both sang by popular singer, Khadija Omar Abdalla (popularly known as Khadija Kopa).
‘Daktari’, it is claimed, insults women by depicting a woman who, using her feminine charm, does not queue up in a clinic where the doctor “humshika mote mote”, i.e. massages or fondles her all over.
‘Kinyago cha mpapure’, on the other hand, is said to portray women as inferior to men. ‘Kinyago’ is a mask while ‘Mpapure’ is a weak piece of wood; thus a mask made from Mpapure would imply a temporal or ephemeral object.
Critics claim ‘Zoa Zoa’ portray a woman as a scavenger that does not discriminate on the men she beds: she sleeps with any man who comes her way, be it a chief executive officer, an office messenger, a member of parliament, a taxi driver, a hawker, or a fishmonger.
Mohamed ILyas, a veteran taarab singer in Zanzibar, opines that it is not wrong to perform modern taarab but that its lyrics should not be “too open” and thus incite women to fight over contentious lyrics during concerts and shows.
Another singer, Khadija Baramia, says during her active days she could not bring herself to sing lyrics that insult or demean women. She regrets that women singers all too often insult one another in modern taarab.
She says traditional taarab talked about women in symbols like a fruit. For instance, songs like ‘Asiyekula Nanasi Hajala kitu kitamu’ (whoever hasn’t eaten a pineapple hasn’t tasted anything sweet), and ‘Tufaa la Kiunguja Ukila hushibi moja’ (One is not satisfied by just one fruit), she says, praised and empowered women, showing society’s reliance on them.
Artists, says ‘mshairi’ (poet) Gora Haji Gora, should guide society and not divide it through corrosive and poisonous poetry.
Abdallah Mwinyi, Regional Commissioner for Unguja Mjini Magharibi, rebukes the Censorship Board for failing in its duty to society, claiming that it has been compromised through bribes to pass even poetry of questionable values to be broadcast in Zanzibar.
Saying that Nadi Ikhwani Safaa (that is marking 100 years in taarab in 2005) should educate younger musicians and poets against what he terms vulgar poetry, Mwinyi says the board had done its work well between 1961 and 1969.
Singling out ‘Zoa Zoa’ as being offensive, Mwinyi blames the older generation of musicians and poets of letting the music sector out of control.
Rashid Suleiman Khamis, chairman of Nadi Ikhwani Safaa (aka Culture Musical Club), stresses the need to improve the standards of traditional taarab and cautions composers and singers of modern taarab against using “naked language” and “forcing it onto the dance arena”.
“In traditional taarab we do not dance. If a listener is impressed by the song being played, he or she is required to stand up from one’s seat and go to the performer who has impressed him or her, tips him or her, and then returns to one’s seat without dancing and thus stealing the attention from the performers,” he says, adding, “Nowadays people dance to the extent that the performers on stage are eclipsed.”
Khamis opines that composers should use the “accepted African mode of communication” with symbolism, imagery, riddles, and proverbs.
Having listened to the numerous accusations against modern taarab in Zanzibar, the home of traditional taarab, we head to Dar es Salaam, the base of modern taarab.
The first person we speak to is Khadija Kopa, the Zanzibar-born artist who now works with the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s Tanzania One Theatre (TOT) orchestra as composer, singer and deputy director in charge of administration.
Kopa, who started her career in 1990 with Culture Musical Club (Nadi Ikhwan Safaa) of Zanzibar, feels that taarab is growing and changing, moving away from Arabic traditions and adopting traditional Tanzanian drums like kidumbak and lizombe.
“In the past taarab was purely a cultural piece for entertainment but nowadays it is a commercial product dictated by market forces. Modern people enjoy listening to music that tackles contemporary social issues while passing on information (Mipasho) that enlightens society,” she says.
Asked how true the assertion that modern taarab undermines women is, Mzee Yusuf Mwinyi, founding director of Zanzibar Stars Modern Taarab, says it is false.
He says the only people who hold this view are jealous of modern performers who are more successful than their predecessors.
Then why do women fight during taarab concerts?
“People fight even in hip-hop concerts and disco halls and not just during taarab performances,” Kopa says. “If it was modern taarab that was causing fights, then we, the artists, should have been the ones fighting and not listeners.”
Yusuf says the message in taarab has not changed and that a person listening to traditional taarab lyrics like ‘Kidege changu kimenitoroka jamani nitafutieni’ (My little bad has escaped. Please assist me to get it back) could use them to ridicule another person whose wife has deserted him and therefore lead to conflict.
As to what she sings about in ‘Daktari’, Kopa says, “I sing about my private doctor. I just sing about my own doctor.”
She adds that Daktari “that she sang while still with Culture Musical Club” was approved by the Censor Board. “You could not have sung any song in Zanzibar without it being approved by the board,” she says.
‘Mwanamke mambo’, she says, is “about the woman’s multiple roles: caring for her husband, children, cooking.”
Although she admits that both songs were composed by men, she nevertheless says Taarab songs are not composed by men only.
“Even us, women, compose music according to how we view life. The Censor Board cannot stop us from singing what pays us. Our fans enjoy this kind of music as it is; it is drawn from the behaviour of humanity. Who will direct society and advise the wrongdoer to reform if we are forbidden to do so? If our music decides which political candidate gets elected and who does not, why are we being barred from rebuking women who steal other people’s husbands, those who don’t clean themselves, or care for children?”
Like Yusuf, she says the themes of Taarab have been the same throughout the ages “only that taarab is now much more open.”
Sure, some of the dominant themes of taarab, whether it be classical or modern, include politics, religion, and relationships. But then one does not have to look far to realise that most taarab songs target women “those who do not care for husbands and children, those who do not know how to dress or prepare meals, those who are arrogant and selfish, and those who snatch men from others!” Kopa, Yusuf and Afua Suleiman deny that taarab targets women.
“Although men are also targeted, we have to live up to the expectation of our customers, audiences, and fans, most of who are women. These women enjoy it when we rebuke husband-snatchers,” says Kopa.
“Taarab also addresses men,” Yusuf says, illustrating his assertion with the lyrics of a song in which a man who has taken away another’s wife boasts:
Ukichungua usichungue utayajua
Kama unaweza mtie kamba mkeo
Umtie kamba umzuie
Nishamsomba nishamchukua naringa naye kama wangu mie
Afua Suleiman cites East African Melody’s song, ‘Zilipendwa’ as targeting men. This song is by a woman telling another that she has taken the man the former had been through with.
Suleiman contends that far from insulting women, ‘Mwanamke mambo’, ‘Zoa zoa’, and ‘Kinyago cha mpapure’ teach them how to avoid bad behaviour.
Kopa clarifies that in Kiswahili, “simangana or shushuana” -which is relished in taarab – is not synonymous with insulting or demeaning others but giving direction to society.
“Telling an unnamed woman in music that she does not know how to dress, cook, care for her husband and children is educating women and not belittling them. Society revolves around women and if they are not aware of their roles, then what kind of families and societies shall we have?” she poses, adding that taarab is a tool that empowers and delivers the woman from ignoranc.
As to whether symbolism should be used in modern taarab, Kopa says, “Wakati huu ni wa uwazi na si wa kufumbafumba kama zamani. Nyimbo za mafumbo hazitafanya vizuri kibiashara. Zamani tukitumia mafumbo lakini nyimbo zetu hazikuwa za biashara bali za kuwahamasisha watu katika kampeni au kuburudisha tu. Lakini biashara inahitaji uwazi.” (Symbolism is not for today that is characterized by openness. Songs couched in symbols aren’t commercially viable. Traditional taarab, that was purely for entertainment, could afford to use symbols but today’s commercial songs cannot).
On censorship, Suleiman of the ‘Utalijua jiji’ fame, says “It could work against commercial interests, and standardise and make music monotonous, taking it to the days of traditional taarab that has little commercial appeal.”
Although taarab informs, educates and entertains with the aim of building society, Yusuf says some taarab (and not just the modern variety) could insults women:
Akiniambia nigeuke namgeukia
Akiniambia lala chali nalala
Akisema niongezee naongeza
But if taarab has been sang for centuries, one may ask, why are its shortcomings starting to be seen only now?
Kopa says this is due to the growing media interest in taarab. The mass media -radio, television, newspapers, magazines- are starting to put taarab on the public agenda by highlighting it.
But then why is this interest in modern and not traditional Taarab?
Because the former has greater social appeal than the latter and supports its artists, Yusuf and Kopa contend.
Modern technology and commerce are re-defining taarab.
One keyboard takes care of instruments like the violin, ganun, accordion, piano, organ, and Oud, reducing the number of a taarab orchestra from 40-50 people to about 15.
Instead of using about 10 people to play various drums like ngoma, cherewa, mdundo, one person using a rhythm box can replace them and go on to produce better quality sound. And with a minimal number of players. The Double Bass has replaced the Bass guitar in modern taarab.
This enables the lean number of musicians to earn well from their craft as few people can afford to hire an orchestra of, say, 50 people.
Yusuf, who says his mother has performed with Culture Musical Club in Zanzibar for a long time, says she has little to show for her many years as a singer compared to what he has achieved since founding Zanzibar Stars in 2001.
“We now earn at least TSh10000 [about US$12.5] per day nowadays unlike before when you could get TSh500 [about US$0.625]. Those who criticise us could be doing so due to sour grapes. We are more successful and have material things to show for our work compared to our traditional taarab counterparts. We can earn up to TSh240000 [US$300] per month, which is as good as the salary of a professional in Tanzania.”
This economic reality could partly explain why modern taarab outfits are based in Tanzania commercial capital ‘Dar es Salaam’ and not the laid back cultural spice isle, Zanzibar. In Dar, groups like Zanzibar Stars hold six shows per week, something that would be impossible in Zanzibar, a small town.
“Here in Dar,” says Yusuf whose Zanzibar Stars rests from work only on Monday, “a group can perform at Mbagala, Kenyeki, Kariokoo, Amana, and Mtoni which are all areas in Dar es Salaam.”
While some popular modern taarab artists include Rukia Ramadhani, Fatma Issa, Rukia Ramadhani, Mwanahawa Ally, Khadija Yusuf, Mwanaidi Shaabani, Zuhura Shaaban, Hajj Mohammed, Mzee Yusuf, and Omar Kopa, among the leading modern taarab orchestras are East African Melody, Zanzibar Stars, and TOT on Tanzania mainland and JKU and Magereza in Zanzibar. JKT of Dar mixes classical with modern taarab.
The Arab-sounding traditional taarab, mainly appreciated by academics and culture buffs abroad, appears to have no future on the East African coast.
Modern taarab, predicts Mzee Yusuf, will continue growing to the level of becoming national music. Unlike bongo flava (modern music performed in Kiswahili by younger musicians of Dar) that is foreign, he says, taarab is our own, having sprang up here.
Taarab, like any other element of culture, is dynamic and cannot pretend to keep the “purity” it is said to have had in the past.
This article (with support from Saada Abdi Hassan of Zanzibar and Saphia Ngalapi of Dar es Salaam) was first published by ArtMatters.Info in 2005. This is a revised version of it.