When I was a child falling in love with sound, I’d relish hearing the word, Zanzibar. At first it would come on the radio; then, when I could read, Zanzibar would appear in print in my National Geographics and my stamp collection so that I could roll the buzzy name around in my head and say it out loud; and then I came to learn that Zanzibar was an archipelago off continental Africa in the Indian Ocean, and that image took on its own romance. In 1964, Zanzibar was subsumed under Tanzania, the combining name for the new nation shared with the former Tanganyika, and I was disinherited of a delight from my youngest days. Recalling these childhood fancies gave tackling this review extra meaning, as I’m happy to revisit a personal if inconsequential reverie as I explore the immensely rich album here before me.
Siti of Unguja (Romance Revolution on Zanzibar) is a tribute to a pioneering woman artist, Siti Binti Saad (1890-1950). It celebrates, amplifies and updates the ages old genre of music unique to Zanzibar, taarab. Remarkably, Siti Binti Saad was able to wrest taarab from the province of men only, appearing as a lead performer who opened the way for other Zanzibari women musicians. Remarkably, too, she introduced lyrics to her songs that addressed the exploitation of women, classism and corruption.
Taarab was born of the Indian Ocean spice trade, mostly routed between the African continent, Zanzibar, and the Indian Subcontinent. As a genre, taarab, sung mostly in Swahili and in Arabic, represents a dramatic coming together of three predominating strains of music: East African, Arabian (most notably Egyptian), and South Asian.
What makes this both a tribute to the past and a compelling contemporary playlist goes beyond the music itself and the masterful arrangements: for the first time we hear the voice of Siti Binti Saad’s great-granddaughter, Siti Muharam; Siti Muharam had lived for many years silently on Zanzibar with her fabled legacy, until she was coaxed into recording her great grandmother’s repertoire.
Listening to Siti of Unguja is like opening and savoring the flacons of a collection of precious Zanzibari spices; each song, each instrument and player, has its own flavor, while together they create a dreamy bouquet, an East African garam masala.
Essential to the album’s refinements is revered producer, arranger, instrumentalist, and fellow Zanzibari, Mohamed Issa Matona. Matona is the album’s music director, working along with Sam Jones on production and studio overdubs. He has also contributed new rhythms and well-placed touches of electronica, while reviving time-old key signatures used in her day by Muharam’s great-grandmother.
Matona flaunts the spectrum of sounds in reimagined taarab in the first song, a mesmeric hodge-podge instrumental, “Mashozi-Ya Huba,” that dusts traditional acoustic sounds with low intensity electronics. “Mashozi-Ya Huba” begins sparely with what sounds like a deep African bass-baritone hand drum (Fadhil Mohamed Mtu), partnered with bottomy double bass bowing (Stian Anderson) that slips into an eerie yet affecting electronic drone. The maestro gives a mischievous chuckle, upturning the listener somewhat, that introduces a baritone saxophone (Tamar Osborne), lowing like a whale taking its morning stretch. The quintessential qunan (likened to a western zither, played by Gora Mohamed Gora) puts the stamp of acoustic Arabia on the song, and baby bells shuffle, keeping rhythm throughout, like ankle cuffs on Indian dancers. The intrusion of innovation on the integrity of this taarab standard is subtle and well-measured, enhancing the song’s original loveliness.
The steady pulse of that deep toned hand drum returns on “Aliminadura,” inviting in a set of bongos now, to lay down rhythms with a Cuban calling card, giving notice of good things to come. The song plays with an idiosyncratic and fetching pallet of Latin sounds that even channel briefly the late Cuban icon, Manuel Galbán’s electronic guitar. When Siti Muharam begins to sing, we enter another realm, enrapt.
Her voice feels far away and of the ancients still, but, limned lightly by electronica, it’s very much of today. Matona takes his oud out for a soul spin, embellished still by that bass drum, a dumbek, and a shaker. The rhythms here are more pronounced than in most of the other tunes, in an invitation to dance.
The sadness of “Kijiti” is palpable. One can hear desolation in her voice as Siti Muharam sings the true story of a young, pregnant woman from the mainland, raped and murdered on Zanzibar. Siti’s interpretation is deeply emotive, and exquisite in the way that only a tragic song can be. Her melody is partnered empathically by the double bass, and an affecting chorus quickens the grief.
“Kijiti” underscores Siti’s extraordinary voice. It’s soave with a faint nasality, bringing the listener into her feelings, and it would seem, into her heritage as well. Although said to have a “golden voice,” she doesn’t boast the heft associated with women commonly portrayed as such, Oumou Sangaré or Miriam Makeba, for instance. Instead, Siti Muharam expresses an innocence and melancholia that confer a penetrating and lasting grace.
This is an album to be cherished. It achieves an exalted integration of ancient and modern sounds that serves both the history and renewal of a captivating genre of music. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the success of Siti of Unguja is due in large part to Siti Muharam. The honesty and emotional reach of her voice carry the legend of taarab forward. - Carolina Amoruso
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