Words by Nikki Cooper
The first thing you notice on arrival in Zanzibar is the heat. The Songlines Music Travel group arrived on the Monday of the week of the Sauti za Busara Festival which allowed everyone time to settle in and acclimatise before the festival kicked off a few days later. However, on walking around Stone Town you can feel the festival vibe building.
It’s such a small town that we were always bumping into artists and musicians here for the festival. We saw Kozman Ti Dalon from Reunion arrive at the airport and then bumped into Ary Morais and his band who were staying at our hotel, as well as Fredy Massamba.
To get us into the swing of things, Aisha, our local music guide ran through the different types of music we could expect to hear at the festival and some tips on the ‘not to miss’ artists. The organisers are keen to ensure that there is lots of local music from Zanzibar, Pemba and mainland Tanzania as well as international acts from all parts of Africa. But we didn’t have to wait until the official start of the festival before we could enjoy some amazing musical experiences.
Culture Musical Club, Zanzibar’s leading taarab group, were not officially performing in the festival but we arranged to visit them in their atmospheric club house for a specially arranged rehearsal. The taarab orchestra is made up of violins, accordions, qanun, oud, double bass and percussion instruments – dumbak, bongos and rika. We had different singers, both male and female, perform for us backed by a female chorus.
The poetry in taarab is laced with metaphor, allusion and multiple meanings and by means of their tipping practices during specific songs at taarab performances, audience members communicate their problems and their quarrels with others. Aisha had explained this process to us before we arrived, so although we couldn’t understand the meaning of the words we could feel the sentiment through the singer’s emotions. In turn we would waltz up to the singer or musician we wanted to acknowledge, note in hand, and tip them for their performance. It was great to see that the orchestra seemed to enjoy the performance as much as we did.
Mauilidi ya Homu
On another pre-festival evening we were lucky enough to go to an intimate rehearsal with Maulidi ya Homu ya Mtendeni in the backstreets of Stone Town. Maulidi ya Homu is described as ‘a visually spectacular and spiritually uplifting experience’ and this couldn’t be more true.
There are only three remaining groups practicing this religious art form and all are based in Zanzibar. The group is arranged in two lines: at the front is a line of dancers who are kneeling on the floor and behind them are singers and musicians, playing percussion instruments only. The music starts very softly and slowly the rhythm and music builds in intensity. As the music builds so do the movements from the dancers who remain kneeling for the duration of the song which is normally around 40 minutes. It is mesmerising to watch as the dancers move in unison in a fluid motion much like the waves lapping the shore.
Then on Thursday afternoon the festival officially opened with the carnival parade winding it’s way around the streets of Stone Town. It was time for the main party to begin!
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