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In years past I've shared my love of taraab music, notably on the occasion of a majestic performance in Millennium Park by Zanzibar's venerable Culture Musical Club as part of the 2006 World Music Festival. As I wrote back then of the stately form, "A strong Arabic flavor pervades all of it, and thanks to the region's role as a trade hub the music has strong Japanese influences as well." Swahili rhythms and poetry are set to elaborate orchestrations rich in Arabic instruments such as oud and kanun, and the music includes regional influences from as far afield as India and Cuba. In recent years the cost of maintaining a full taraab orchestra (CMC performances sometimes featured upward of 60 musicians) has led to the use of synthesizers and drum machines to replace live performers, a change accelerated by international demand for the music from throughout the African and Arabic world; these processes have created interesting hybrids, but they've also made traditional taraab something of an endangered species.
Rajab Suleiman originally joined CMC in the mid-90s as an accordion player, but he was fascinated by the kanun—a 78-string Arabic zither—and after learning the instrument on his own, he leapt into the chair previously filled by the group's main kanun player, Maulidi Haji Mkadam, who had to take a leave of absence in 1999. Suleiman never relinquished the position. Still, he felt that the vaunted ensemble wasn't able to suitably accommodate changing tastes, so he formed Kithara as a smaller, nimbler unit—a sextet with a raft of vocalists—to incorporate relatively modern, dance-oriented forms such as the popular wedding style kidumbak. But Kithara hasn't turned to electronic instruments—its sound remains gloriously and richly acoustic, with deft real-time interplay and magnificent singing. You can hear one of the group's primary singers, Saada Nassor, on today's 12 O'Clock Track, the title track from Chungu, below.