On my second day in Stone Town, Zanzibar, my kind host showed me the way through the nooks and crannies of the old metropolis, with its winding alleyways. I noticed a Cathedral and was taken aback, especially since Zanzibar has a majority Islamic population. My host explained to me that the early explorers from either Portugal or Spain must have been responsible for the building of a Catholic Church in the heart of this neighbourhood.
I didn’t find a moment to venture inside the Church during my stay on the island, but I was intrigued when I noticed that almost all of the singing participants in the music theatre project which I was working on at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, had Christian names. I had a wonderful chaperone, who explained to me that there was a clear cultural divide between the Christian and Muslim local singers. The Muslim singers were most likely to stick to singing Taarab – the music of Zanzibar and Swahili speakers.
The Music Academy presents regular Taarab concerts and I managed to attend two performances – one in the institution’s recital room and the other in an open public space in Stone Town. I enjoyed listening to the ambience of the music, which reminded me in some ways of the timbres and textures of Tango, which I learnt a lot about when I visited Buenos Aires, over a decade ago.
After our concert and semi staged performance of my piece “King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba”, I was interviewed by a local TV Channel (Faraji TV) and they wanted to know my opinions about Taarab music and what advice I would give to young musicians from the island. I told them that Taarab music is obviously the musical lingua franca of the Zanzibari people, so I think the musicians should be aiming to stretch the boundaries of what can be done with the genre. I could easily imagine opera and music drama based on Taarab musical ideas.
In the same way that Zanzibar has managed to become a hotspot for global tourism, Taarab music has the potential to travel across borders and regions to other parts of the world. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a new development within the genre that could accommodate the aesthetics and sensibilities of the non Muslim peoples of Zanzibar as well?