The first all-woman taraab ensemble on Zanzibar is challenging traditional norms, and bringing a social message, too. Megan Iacobini de Fazio meets Mariam Hamdani, the woman who started it all.
Donning brightly coloured kangas and headscarves, several women take their place around a large, bright room, furrowing their brows as they tune their instruments. Vibrant laughter, the quivering sound of the violin, the rhythmic thumps of the percussion and the hypnotic hum of a female voice chaotically compete with each other, until the appearance of Mariam Hamdani in the doorway brings the cacophony to a halt.
The women, ranging in age from their early 20s to the mid 60s, watch as Mariam, a heavyset woman with greying roots and tips red with henna settles behind the qanun, a large zither-like instrument, plucked like a harp, and wait for her instructions. Sure enough, a few minutes and several commands later, the diverse instruments and sounds have merged into one beautiful symphony.
This is one of the last rehearsals for Tausi Women’s Taarab in Zanzibar. The coming week will be taken up with several performances, some on the terraces of opulent hotels, others inside the walls of the 400-year old Arab Fort, where the island’s Sauti za Busara festival takes place every February.
Watching them play with such ease and confidence, it’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago all of this would have been impossible. This group of women represents a revolution in a very traditional art: they are the very first all-woman taarab orchestra in Zanzibar. Taarab, which in Arabic means to reach a state of ecstasy through music, began as a largely elite and male-dominated art form. It was first introduced in Zanzibar in the late 19th century when ruler Sultan Seyyid Barghash bin Said brought over a taraab ensemble from Egypt.
Singers without an orchestra
As taraab spread in the region, it soon acquired a Swahili character of its own. Instruments like the qanun, the violin, the cello, the oud and the accordion were incorporated into this musical form and by the 20th century, women were allowed to join the groups. “But they were never allowed to play instruments” says Mariam, “They only sang the chorus.” The groups would often perform at weddings, but as tourism began to flourish on the island so did the offers to play in new hotels.
“Women preferred to sing at exclusively female celebrations or weddings, but they didn’t pay well enough to compete with the hotels,” recalls Mariam. So the men began performing for tourists, and the women found themselves without instrumentalists.
With meagre pay and no musicians to accompany them, taarab women groups had slowly died out by the early 1990s, Mariam says.
Until 2009, that is, when Mariam decided to revive the art-form. “I thought, ‘No, this can’t be. We need to try and fill the gaps’,” says the 73-year-old, who was the first female news reporter in Zanzibar, working for Russian news agency TASS. “I was very stubborn in my time, and they wanted to sack me for reporting on things they didn’t want me to. But I told them, I will criticise whom I want, whether they like it or not.” Mariam’s face often breaks into a broad smile, but her demeanour is one that commands reverence. When she speaks, people listen.
An unexpected response
She visited schools and workplaces in the hope of finding women willing to join her group. Initially the response was underwhelming: none of the women she approached showed any interest, and some even scorned her idea. “I came back disappointed. I had already bought a lot of equipment: violins, accordions, bongos. It was a lot of money,” she says.
But one morning, just as she was about to give up her search, Mariam woke up to find over 20 women waiting at her door. Within a week, those who were interested had committed to the project and started practising. They never imagined that only seven months later they would be performing in front of thousands of people on the main stage in Sauti za Busara. Since then, Tausi Women’s Taarab has played in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Beirut and Mayotte, a small French island in the Indian Ocean.
A conservative opposition
Despite an enthusiastic reception, it has been an ongoing struggle to keep Tausi alive, and many women have had to leave the group. Mariam says, “We often lose some of our greatest talents to marriage, as their husbands stop them from continuing their music careers.” There are also still doubts within the community about whether women should be allowed to play instruments at all.
“A lot of people are opposed. They say it’s anti-Islamic, that it’s haram [forbidden],” says Mariam, who is also a devout Muslim. “But I always ask them: show me the verse that says this is haram. They cannot do it, because there isn’t one.”
Simply by being part of this ensemble, this group of women is pushing boundaries and challenging norms in a traditionally male-dominated society. But they go further than that: through their lyrics, they confront topics usually considered taboo, such as domestic violence and drug abuse.
“I want our music to have a social message, too, and maybe help change things on the island. We are not happy when we hear about women getting beaten by their husbands, or young girls getting pregnant and having to leave school,” says Mariam. “We are trying to do something to change that.”
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