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jagwa music

featuring Saada Nassor & Makame Faki

The characteristic sound of Zanzibar, defining the islands' aural landscape, is taarab music: traditionally a lush sound produced by a variety of Oriental, African and Western instruments. In Swahili taarab describes the style of music as well as the occasion of performance; etymologically it is linked to the Arabic tariba, to be moved or agitated by playing or listening to the sound of music.

Zanzibari qanun player Rajab Suleiman is probably best known as a member and featured soloist of the Culture Musical Club, which together with Ikhwani Safaa established the legacy of the Islands’ large taarab orchestras and social clubs. A natural musician and untiring in his quest for musical knowledge Rajab has moved beyond the frontiers of the taarab of old, becoming a virtuoso on this difficult instrument by studying the instrument’s classical Arabic and Ottoman roots, taking part in workshops in Egypt and playing with Palestinian virtuoso oud-player Habib Shehadeh. More recently he has branched out to study Western classical music and jazz, adapting compositions from Bach to Monk to the qanun, all molded by his own Zanzibari and taarab music experience.

Kithara was formed in 2012 by Rajab Suleiman and some younger members of the Culture Musical Club. “New times demand new structures to advance artistic goals“, Rajab says. Feeling that their creativity was held up by the traditional club structure they branched out on their own. Besides composing and playing more conventional taarab songs and instrumentals that feature the group’s singers and instrumentalists Kithara are generating a new repertoire by turning to the inspiration of Zanzibar’s many traditional ngoma dances, trying to marry the infectious rhythms and melodies to the group’s regular taarab instruments that besides qanun, include oud, accordion, double bass and various percussion instruments.

Just recently up-and-coming new star Saada Nassor joined the group and in a short while has become the Islands’ most talked about new singer. Saada grew up singing qasida in Quranic school and later become a member of her school’s choir. Prior to joining Kithara she has sung with a variety of Zanzibar’s modern taarab groups. Saada’s love however is with the old-school acoustic taarab: “In modern taarab everything is played at the loudest volume, and the singer has to go along in order not to be drowned out. The acoustic taarab and its instruments allow me to express myself and to use my voice in a much more intricate manner.”

Makame Faki is one of the doyens of Zanzibari taarab, having been a featured singer with Culture Musical Club for almost 40 years. Makame also leads the islands’ most in-demand kidumbak group Sina Chuki. Because of his advanced age and otherwise busy schedule Makame has not joined Kithara as a permanent member but rather as an invited guest. Besides singing and composing he also plays the ‘ud and violin.

The ensemble’s foundation is provided by Mohamed Hassan, Mahmoud Juma and Foum Faki. Like Rajab Suleiman they have all been active members of the Culture Musical Club for many years. Besides the taarab staples dumbak and bongos, Foum’s instruments also include a set of three ngoma, and vidumbaki. Mahmoud’s double-bass lines are deeply rooted in the rhythmic conception of ngoma rather than being of a jazz or Cuban inspiration; The harmonic foundation of Kithara is provided by Mohamed Hassan’s accordion. Like many Zanzibari musicians Daud Shadhil has passed through the ‘school’ of kidumbak. This is one of Zanzibar’s major wedding entertainments, a musical and dance style somehow linked to taarab and its songs yet performed with reduced line-up of just one violin, vidumbaki (2 small clay drums that give the style its name), sanduku (tea-chest bass) and cherewa (maracas). Daud plays all of kidumbak’s instruments including violin, sanduku and kidumbak. More recently he has played bass and bass guitar in a number of smaller Zanzibari taarab groups.

Rounding out the group are dancers Amina Yusuf, and Malitina Hassan. They also provide chorus and additional small percussion.

Kithara’s touring lineup is:

  • Rajab Suleiman – qanun, accordion, kidumbak, bandleader
  • Saada Nassor – vocals, chorus
  • Mohamed Hassan – accordion
  • Daud Shadhil – double bass, bass-guitar, sanduku
  • Foum Faki – dumbak, bongos, kidumbak
  • Amina Yusuf – chorus, percussion, dance
  • Malitina Hassan – chorus, percussion, dance
  • Special guest :
    Makame Faki
    – 'ud, vocals
zanzibara 8 cd cover
« […] ils s’attachent à restituer avec vigueur et sobriété l’art raffiné du taarab (brassage d’influences africaines et de mélodies empruntées aux films égyptiens et indiens), écartant toute mièvrerie pour ne conserver qu’une instrumentation acoustique subtile, parfait soutien offert aux vocalises enchanteresses de Saada Nassor et Rukia Ramadhani. » [Les Inrocks/France]
« [the] sound remains gloriously and richly acoustic, with deft real-time interplay and magnificent singing. » [Chicago Reader/US]
« Pocket-sized taarab orchestra. »Songlines Top of the World, April 2014 [Songlines/UK]
For European bookings please get in touch with Yorrick Benoist
Run Productions
» Rajab Suleiman & Kithara make their U.S. debut tour in autumn 2016 as part of Center Stage. More information here