Zanzibar Traditions

Taarab Music

No visit to Zanzibar would be complete without an evening of Zanzibar traditions – with Taarab music. Like all island culture, Zanzibar music is a mosaic of different influences and styles from around the Indian Ocean and beyond, it combines African, Arab and Indian influences and is considered by many Zanzibaris to unite the island. Taarab captures the movements and rhythm of the island.
The word taarab comes from tariba: “to be moved.” Taarab music appeared in Zanzibar already in the 19th century, but it flourished from the first decades of the 20th century, becoming the first mass music in the region. It took on a taste of Zanzibari when the lyrics from Swahili poetry were finally added.

Taarab bands

Taarab bands often include accordion, violin or qanun, a kind of zither, giving the Middle Eastern music a lively sound. Also include tablah drums and may contain double bass, cello and other instruments.
The traditional taarab orchestra consists of dozens of musicians using both Western and traditional instruments, including violin, qanun (similar to zither), accordion, nay (Arabic flute). They also include tablah drums and may contain double bass, cello and other instruments. There is usually no written music, and songs are most often about love themes. Taarab is the most popular musical style performed at weddings in the Zanzibar Islands. It is also an essential component of most local festivities.

Taarb music today 

…is still alive. The inhabitants of Zanzibar still value their own cultural traditions, so local music forms are popular among people of all ages, in particular the style known as modern taarab. The taarab revolution is currently underway. There was the so-called rusha roho (“modern taarab”) – a descendant of traditional style, which was first recognized as “taarab for dancing”
 The best taarab artists can be heard at cultural festivals in Zanzibar, at the annual ZIFF festival.


There are many theories about the true origin of taarab in Zanzibar. Legend has it that in the 1870s Sultan Bargash sent Zanzibari to Cairo to learn to play qanun.
Another theory says that the governing island of Sultan of Oman brought a team of taarabs from the Middle East to play in his palace in Zanzibar. Music has slowly adopted African and Indian influences, reflecting the island’s history as a crossroads of trade.

In the 20th century, Sultan Seyyid Hamoud bin Muhammed encouraged the creation of the first clubs with taarab, which became more formalized. The first clubs founded was Akhwan Safaa, founded in 1905 in the city of Zanzibar. Since then other clubs have been created, including the well-known Music Culture Club. In traditional clubs, men and women sit separately, and women are dressed in elegant dresses and sophisticated hairstyles. Audience participation is the key, and listeners often go on stage to give money to the singer.


Taarab Queens

In the 1930s, Siti binti Saad, the famous singer Taarab ,doughter of Zanzibari and slave , became the first East African woman to perform taarab. Before her, taarab was usually performed by educated men who sang mainly in Arabic – the language of the small Zanzibar elite. She popularized taarab music using Swahili. She was also the first East African woman to ever record commercial recordings (for the British Gramophone Company in Mumbai, India).

Siti binti Saad inspired many musicians and opened the way for other taarab singers. For example, she was the mentor of Bi Kidude, who also became a taarab star.
Siti binti Saad has produced over 250 songs, but only a few of her original recordings remain today. Her music is still widely played in Zanzibar, Tanzania and beyond.

Bi Kidude (born Fatuma Bintibaraka) is one of the most unforgettable music artists Tanzania has ever had. She learned songs from the local singer Siti Bintisaad, she began to sing with other women during initiation ceremonies. Singing in Arabic and Swahili, Kidude influenced the evolution of taarab. She is considered the undisputed queen of the music of Taarab and Unyago and experts on ancient rituals.

Bi Kidude was born on the island of Zanzibar when she was still a sultanate and that in the 1920s she became known as the Queen of Taarab, a singer and dancer of Swahili music on the coast of East Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean. She toured extensively for over forty years before settling on Zanzibar, where she became a kind of priestess, leading girls through the rites of puberty (unyago). No one knows for sure when she was born, but scientists have calculated that she was over 100 years old when she died. She continued to give concerts in the last year of her life.

On the island there is a restaurant “Kidude” named after her (Hotel “236 Hurumzi” , located in the centre of Stone Town) .

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