To those familiar with the culture and vibrancy of the region, it is little surprise that Swahili music is so rich and diverse. Here we explore three of the genres that have shaped, and been shaped by, the communities in which they've prospered.
Swahili Music from the 1850s: taarab takes hold
Over the centuries taarab music has enjoyed the bulk of its popularity in Tanzania and Kenya. Although the precise details of its origin are uncertain, it is thought to have emerged in Zanzibar in the mid 19th century. The word taarab derives from the Arabic for ‘having joy with music', perhaps after an Omani sultan brought musicians from Egypt to the region.
Over the years that followed, the music spread fast. Songs were originally sung in Arabic, but by the advent of the 20th century they started to be sung in Kiswahili. As it travelled, the influences upon it broadened and it became a fusion of musical forms from the African Great Lakes region (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi and Burundi), North Africa, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Variants such as kidumbaki, musically similar but with smaller bands who could tour more easily, sprang up.
Through the way it promoted language, tradition and identity, taarab also had a part to play in politics and social change. The 1920s saw a growth in the number of female singers, and in the 1950s and 60s a resurgence in cultural pride informed the development of independence movements, particularly in Kenya and what is now Tanzania.
The sociopolitical influence of taarab continues to be immense. Played at weddings and other communal events, its modern manifestation is one in which women are more vocal than ever and taboos are challenged with vigour and humour.
Swahili Music from the 1950s onwards: dansi and dancehalls
Swahili music has other traditions, one of which is muziki wa dansi – dance music. Often known as dansi, this combination of soukous, highlife and South African jazz started becoming popular from the 1950s. As a means for Tanzanian urban youth to socialise and express themselves in dancehalls, some elders were scandalised at the perceived freedom and looser morals associated with dansi. According to them, it led young people to behave in more ‘western' ways: drinking alcohol, dancing and dressing immodestly.
Swahili Music from the 1990s to today: bongo flava hits
The reputation is undeserved and is more a reflection of how the guardians of the status quo in any society have a tendency to feel threatened by any modernising factors. Muziki wa dansi did not serve to corrupt large swathes of the population, rather, it gave people a new outlet and way to enjoy life. The disapproval of dansi was little different from the shock and disappointment directed at taarab before it. Far from having a negative impact, both developed and ultimately opened up communities.
The third genre we will investigate is bongo flava. Originating in the late 1980s, this form of music blends taarab with hip hop, afropop and dancehall reggae. ‘Bongo' is taken from the Kiswahili ‘ubongo', which not only means ‘brain' but is also the name of a district just outside Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city and the birthplace of the genre. ‘Flava' derives from ‘flavour' as it is used in hip hop music culture, namely to denote excellent style and attractiveness.
The origins and attitude of bongo flava mean it has always been considered a vehicle for the concerns of youth, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The lyricism and humour imbue it with an intellectual heft that appeals to the educated classes. The extensive use of Kiswahili and Sheng speech impart relevance and modernity.
Again, the music has its detractors. For some, it imitates other cultures' musical forms too closely. For others, it discusses sensitive issues with vulgar candour. These two criticisms are largely without merit, but a third condemnation carries more weight because it stems from some of the genre's earliest practitioners.
Their complaint is that contemporary performers have moved too far from the music's roots as a voice for the marginalised and the community towards materialism and selfishness.
We hope you've enjoyed our foray into the world of Swahili music. We have seen that it has both lent to, and borrowed from, numerous other forms. The transformations it has undergone are testament to those who play and listen. Swahili music is an exquisite way to become immersed in Swahili culture and to learn Kiswahili – go ahead and treat yourself!