In concert with Zanzibar’s only female taarab group
Sitting outside, on a hotel terrace, Maryam Hamdan and her female-only band are treating onlookers to a fascinating and original performance of Swahili taarab music.
The melody of the violin, the low hum of the qanun and the dum dum from the tambourine provide a soundtrack to views of the Zanzibar coastline; the forlorn ballads communicate a sense of yearning and lost love.
In tribute to their Zanzibari heritage, the women are dressed in traditional, brightly-coloured cotton kaftans and wear head wraps. The significance of their performance is not lost on the audience: this is the only female taarab troupe that has surfaced in Zanzibar for decades.
The name taarab is borrowed from the Arabic word tarab, which means to reach a state of ecstasy through music. Originally a classical Arab music genre, it was particularly popular in Egypt before the outbreak of the First World War.
Taraab reached the shores of Zanzibar when Sultan Bargash bin Said, who ruled from 1870 to 1888, brought an Egyptian taarab troupe to entertain him at his palace, Beit Al Ajaib or House of Wonders, in Stone Town. One theory suggests the Sultan sent a Zanzibari to Cairo to learn taarab and how to play the qanun, and that’s how the first Zanzibari taarab orchestra, which still sang in Arabic, was formed.
The musical style had its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, when bands played a range of instruments, including the oud, violins, ney, accordion, cello and a variety of percussion instruments.
Singing in Swahili, a language which has its roots in Arabic and Eastern Bantu languages, did not become popular until the 1920s, when taarab performance truly began to reflect the local mix of cultures.
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After the performance on the hotel terrace, Hamdan tells me that women-only taarab troupes fell out of favour because of changing musical tastes among the younger generation and the arrival of mass tourism. Women-only troupes thrived in the 1940s and 50s with powerful names such as the Royal Airforce, Royal Navy, Arab Daughters and Nour Al Oyoun (light of the eyes). The groups played at weddings and other exclusively female events.
“The female-only bands preferred to sing in weddings,” says Hamdan. “And to make matters worse, they only sang and did not play any of the instruments.
“Playing at local weddings didn’t pay enough to compete with the hotels [and] the result was that the women-only troupes were without musicians. Slowly these bands died out.”
So Hamdan, at the age of 65 and retired from career in journalism, took it upon herself to learn the qanun and form a women-only troupe. In doing so, she has proved that age is no barrier to a career in music.
“I always loved music as a child and I had wanted to perform. However, when I was growing up, the culture was very conservative and frowned upon women performers”, she says. As a journalist she covered the arts, and during the 1990s she rediscovered Bi Kidude, a legendary taarab singer who had slid into obscurity. Kidude had been a protégé of Siti binti Saad, the first woman taarab singer, who had become a superstar, touring across Asia. Hamdan helped Kidude relaunch a successful career.
To kick-start her own, Hamdan bought a second-hand qanun or zither, a descendant of the old Egyptian harp. The qanun, meaning “law” in Arabic, sets the pitch for the other instruments and singers. Known as the queen of instruments, it has played an important part in Arabic music since the 10th century.
Taking lessons from a local musician and with the help of online classes, Hamdan gradually mastered the art of playing the qanun.
Incredibly, she became the first Zanzibari woman to play an instrument in public in the annual Busara music festival in 2009. She believes that particular performance inspired many more women, and some men, to take up the traditional instrument.
Once she was confident on the qanun, Maryam formed her band. She approached the government-run music conservatory to find the talent. “I spoke to the young women there about my idea but returned home dejected as they weren’t interested,” she says. However, a group of 25 young women who had heard about the idea visited Maryam’s house and her troupe, known as the Peacock troupe, thanks to its bright clothing, was born.
Hamdan arranged for her would-be musicians to learn how to play the different instruments and, now, Peacock play twice a month at the Serina Hotel in Stone Town, where I am lucky enough to hear them.
The troupe has not stopped at their efforts to revive taraab, and has recently started performing religious songs to mark the Mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday.
Hamdan’s musical journey proves that perseverance pays and long-cherished dreams can come true.
Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry is a freelance journalist based in the UAE.
Updated: October 1, 2015 04:00 AM