These words sound foreign. But after living in Stone Town Zanzibar for five months, the words became as common to the ear as say country music and hip-hop. I am sure you are wondering what these words are and why they are relevant to your next dream holiday in Stone Town. Sit back and enjoy the story.
I arrived in Stone Town just under one year ago, on the 25th of August. I was only planning on staying a week. I left after five months. This is because Stone Town found its way into my heart, and the capital city of the island of Zanzibar became my home. The people of the city became my friends and family, and each day was an endless exploration of alleyways, of foods, and of self. Zanzibar is as an archipelago of two large islands and many much smaller ones. The two main islands are Pemba and Unguja. Unguja, the larger of the two, is often referred to as Zanzibar. However, Unguja is her real name, and it is on this island that I found my place. Stone Town, indeed the whole of Zanzibar, is a relic and heritage of the Arabic slave trade. It was populated by slave masters and captured slaves. Today Zanzibar is a mixture of people from the Middle East, Asia and mainland Africa. But most people on the island identify themselves as Zanzibari before they identify themselves as African. This makes for an interesting and unique experience on the island. This is because you will find a way of life here that is replicated in very, very few places in the world. It is here that you find Taarab. Taarab is a type of music developed over time my mixing musical styles from the Middle East, China, Egypt and Africa, as well as incorporating, these days, music influences from Europe (in using violins).
The main instrument is the oud, a strong instrument, that carries all the other instrumental sounds along, guiding the sounds to spaces that many people have never heard. When I first heard taarab music, the sound went right into me, and I was hooked from the start. If ever you find yourself in Stone Town, take some time to sit and listen to musicians at the Culture Music Club, the oldest taarab group. Their emphasis is on keeping taarab alive. You can also find taarab at various waterfront restaurants. In my opinion, the taarab here is watered down. The best place to experience taarab is with the locals, who, no matter age or sex, all seem to be carried away to that euphoric happy place that taarab takes you. This is one type of music, in my observations, that everyone in Stone Town seems to love. If you can, find a taarab concert that locals are going to, and tag along. Glitter, lights, make-up, syrupy voices, rhythmic swaying of the audience… You will not be disappointed. Take a peek at one of the most famous and oldest taarab songs sung by one of the oldest and most famous taarab singers, Bi Kidude: If you take a walk through Stone Towns alleyways, and find yourself in Jaws Corner (the biggest and most popular of Stone Town’s coffee bazaars), you are sure to hear the thumping eery strings of taarab from Mrembo Spa. Owned by Stephanie, she is also the wife of one of the most famous contemporary taarab musician Matona. Maybe you will be lucky enough to get a personal performance. Bongo Flava, on the other hand, is Tanzania’s interpretation of hip-hop. When you are walking through Stone Town’s alleyways on the search of Jaw’s Corner or Mrembo Spa, do stay aware of the overwhelming influence of American Hip-hop on the dress and attitude of young Zanzibari boys and men. Skinny jeans, printed t-shirts, baseball caps and baseball jackets (yes, even in the stifling humidity). Cornrows, undercuts, patterns shaved into their hair. And a swagger, that is a culmination of the sense of knowing they live in a fantastic place, and knowing they are “gangsta”. Bongo Flava is a mix of Swahili influenced hip-hop beats and lyrics, all sung in Swahili (the local tongue of Tanzania and Zanzibar). Anyone who wants to sing bongo and release a single appears to have. This music is not loved by all and sundry in Stone Town, but as much as you can walk down an alleyway and listen to taarab, so too can you walk past houses and shops and bounce along to the catchy beats of bongo flava. Stone Town, while a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an ancient relic or architecture and way of life, it is also very much alive and in the contemporary world. Music, dancing, night long parties dancing to both taarab, bongo flava and Bongo Flava inspired taarab, Stone Town is a city with one foot in the past and one firmly planting and forever adapting in the present world. Safari njema!