Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision 02/11/99)


NUMBER:  SM 1520-2

Both of these CDs feature taarab (also known as tarabu or taarabu) music, which is a fascinating example of musical confluence. Taraab is, according to the Garland Enclyclopedia of Afrian Music, derived from an Arabic word meaning "joy, delight, pleasure". However, taraab music is sung not in Arabic but rather in Swalili and it is a musical style from the coastal region (Kenya, Tanzania) of East Africa. 

Like so much of the music of West Africa, taarab bears the indelible mark of its geographic position at the crossroads between the Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa. To quote once again the Garland Enclyclopedia, "Taarab originated on the island of Lamu, the ancient capital of Swahili culture. The genre is culturally linked to the Arabian Gulf and Asia, and is closely related to the Egyptian Firqah orchestra, the precursor of Egyptian film music, prominent in the 1930s and 1940s. Latter-day taarab is strongly influenced by Indian film music. Taarab dances derive from Arabic styles and exhibit strong aspects of inland African dances and ngoma rhythms." 

One should also point out the influence of Cuban music on taarab. On these two CDs, this influence is rather diffuse, but I have heard taarab that features a distinctive son clave. (The liner notes of Malika's "Tarabu" indicate that two of the tracks use a Samba rhythm, but I am not able to determine which ones they are and the rhythm of one of tracks on "Jino la Pembe" is classified as a "Rumba".) 

Taarab is commonly played at wedding parties attended exclusively by women. It is also renowned for the beauty of its love poetry. On "Tarabu", Malika put the words of several Swahili poets to music. I must say that while the lyrics of these songs don't translate very well into English, they have a rapturous melodic and rhythmic flow when sung in Swahili. 

The overall sound of the two CDs is very similar: hand drums, keyboards, and electric bass accompanying a lead singer and chorus. On "Jino La Pembe", Zuhura Swaleh is backed by the Maulidi Musical Party, Mombasa's most sought-after taarab group, as well as her own musicians. Of particular note is the intricate melodic interplay between Mohamed Adio Shigoo's organ and Juma Kkamis Faraj's accordion. On Malika's "Tarabu", the organ bears a strong resemblance to an accordion in terms of both tone and musical phrasing. 

Both CDs feature strong Mid-Eastern style percussion. "Jino La Pembe" is probably the more interesting of the two from this point of view. The songs are given a sensual drive by an unusual, but ultimately successful, combination of tabla, bongos, tambourine and handclaps. The liner notes of Malika's "Tarabu" list two dharaboukas which, to my ears, sound similar to doumbeks, although at many points one can distinctly hear a stripped down trap set (snare drum and cymbals) which may or may not be a programmed rhythm. 

That being said, the primary focus of these two CDs is the soulful singing of Zuhura Swaleh and Malika. Zuhura Swaleh is sometimes called the "Queen of Taarab" and the title is well-deserved. She was born in Nairobi in 1941 and began to sing with local dance bands while in her teens. She has been recording since the 1970s, but little of her work has been available outside of East Africa. She recorded "Jino La Pembe" in 1991 while on tour in Germany. Zuhura Swaleh is a strong singer who can milk a song for maximum emotional effect without histrionics. 

Malika was born on the island of Lamu (Kenya) and at an early age moved to Somalia where she began her singing career. In the 1960s she appeared on Somali radio and television and soon gained fame as a singer up and down the East African coast. Apparently at some point in her career, Malika suffered damage to her voice but unfortunately, I don't have any early recordings by her so I can't really make a before and after comparison. Although Malika's voice at present is not an excessively powerful one nor does its have an extraordinary range, it is a joy to hear her sing. Her phrasing is exquisite and her singing exudes a subtle poignancy that this reviewer finds irresistible. 

The liner notes to "Tarabu" contain (in both English and German) a concise, but informative, introduction to taarab music as well as portraitsof the musicians and complete translations of the song lyrics. The notes to "Jino La Pembe" feature an interesting interview with Zurhura Swaleh as well as a brief introduction to the genre and to her musical career. The sound quality of both recordings is excellent. 

Both of these CDs are highly recommended but I would give the edge to "Jino La Pembe" due to the overall musicianship of the Maulidi Musical Party and Zurah Swaleh's vocal prowess. Taarab probably is not for all musical tastes, but I find it to be both rhythmically infectious and emotionally compelling. 

"Jino La Pembe"
Zuhura Swaleh: lead vocalist
Juma Khamis Faraj: accordion
Sitare Bute: chorus vocals and rika (tambourine)

The Maulidi Musical Party
Maulidi Juma Iha: singer and composer
Mohamed Adio Shigoo: organ
Jumaa Bakari Chera: electric bass
Bakiri Aziz Omar: bongos
Ali Abdurahman: tabla

Malika: lead vocals, composer
Anasi Sheembwana Muhaji: chorus vocals, dharabouka
Omar Seleh Al-Adbi: chorus vocals, dharabouka
Bakari Salim Wamasha: organ
Lali Mwalimu Mzamin: bass guitar

Tom Daddesio