Qaswidah – Music, Youth, and Islam in Modern Zanzibar

Malindi St. Qaswida Band - Zanzibar

Malindi St. Qaswida Band – Zanzibar

After living in Zanzibar for a month, you eventually learn how to navigate the utter labyrinth that is Stone town. One hot and aimless night, adrift amidst the humidity and fascinating sensoria, the distant sound of drums and muffled singing beckoned me to change my course. Zig-zagging my way through a series of narrow side streets and crippled alleyways (the average Zanzibari street seems no more than ten feet wide,) I found these lively sounds emitting from the second story window of an anonymous building on a small, dimly lit street. Besides the daily calls to prayer and the religious meanderings that issue out of Mosques (and not counting the conspicuously international Sauti za Busara festival,) this was the first time I heard live music happening organically in Zanzibar. The music slowly rose in intensity and volume, until it conjured up a little crowd of half naked children who began to scream and dance in the streets, screeching in a joyful frenzy.

I waited until the music finished, and found a group of about 15 adolescent boys between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, all dressed in traditional white Islamic clothes, pouring out into the street. They were each carrying these massive frame drums and a few small tambourines. I met the teacher, a young man himself, and while walking with him to his house around the corner, I arranged for a casual recording session to take place later that week.

This was not a normal thing in Zanzibar. Not once did I see anyone playing music on the street. Any time I saw live music advertised in town it was primarily catering to tourists who could afford a luxurious evening listening to “traditional Taraab music” while eating at one of Zanzibar’s fine dining establishments (and they are very fine.) There was also the Dhow Countries Music Academy, a reputable center for traditional acoustic music, but admittedly a foreign endeavor, having been established by American expats living on the island. All this struck me as rather strange for a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania, with such a wealth of cross-cultural inheritance, to have such little in the way of live music.

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This music, however, can be found all over the Island. Known throughout Islam as Qaswidah, its origins lie in the southern Arabian peninsula, specifically Oman and Yemen, the cultures which for centuries dominated and therefore shaped much of Zanzibari culture. Traditionally it is only played during Islamic rituals such as Moulidi (birthdays remembering the Prophet Mohammed or other important figures,) weddings, births, Eid (Persian New Year,) and Hajj (pilgrimage.) The music is sung both in Arabic and Swahili (a distinctly Zanzibari combination,) and is meant to encourage “positive behavior” according to the Muslim faith.

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What struck me as particularly endearing about this music, from the very first time I heard it, was that it was being played by youth. It is not played with mastery, clarity of pitch, and rhythmical precision (though one day, I’m sure they will get there.) Yet it is played with heart and authenticity which is what hooked me when I first heard it echoing through Stone Town’s shadowy streets. It’s not perfect, but this lively group of young Zanzibaris sing with genuine passion, and because of that I cant help but smile.

Hajji & Mundhir

Hajji & Mundhir

A few days after our recording session, I spoke with two foundational members of the group. Hajji Bakari Ali and Mundhir Abu Baker Mdungi, both eighteen years-old, have been playing Qaswidah music for most of their lives. They teach this music to a group of younger boys, fifteen in total, which was the group I encountered several nights before. They teach the music simply because they want to continue the tradition- an admirable impulse that seems harder and harder to find amongst Africa’s younger populations. This music, they said, makes them feel grounded in their religion, serving as a reminder of God (Allah,) and their Islamic tradition. I ask Mundhir why he seeks this type of musical experience out, as opposed to the more popular and mainstream Bongo Flavor music that is popular all over Tanzania. “I am Muslim,” he answers simply.

Yet there is another dimension to these young musicians that I came to just barely understand only after talking with them for some time (with the help of a translator/friend.) Hajji, the more reserved of the two, actually enjoys the Bongo Flavor music, while Mundhir would like to one day play in a Reggae band- a music loved all over Africa, and particularly in Zanzibar. But here is the kicker: Islam, the religion which they actively reinforce through their playing of Qaswidah, forbids these types of musics. In fact, Islam in its more conservative expressions, prohibits all types of music and dance that are not explicitly Islamic. The fact that these young musicians passionately sing about Islamic models of proper behavior, while secretly hoping to one day play Reggae and dance to Bongo Flavor is, to me, a paradox. Perhaps it speaks to the never ending dilemmas that arise when someone seeks to be both grounded in their tradition, as well as a citizen of the modern, globalized world. Perhaps it implies even more than I am able to realize now.

Hajji & Mundhir 2

Neither Hajji nor Mundhir considered music a realistic path, socially or financially. Hajji wants to be an engineer, and Mundhir a pilot or an engineer as well. The thought of trying to pursue music professionally, even the Islamic Qaswidah, seemed an outlandish fantasy. This is primarily because Zanzibar’s deeply Muslim culture does not encourage music, despite the desire for it. To think that these young musicians are doing the Islamic establishment a huge service by teaching Qaswidah music does not seem to make a difference- they still will receive little support. I could see both Hajji and Mundhir becoming slightly uncomfortable by me asking this question, as if they had either never considered it before, or chose to ignore this hypocrisy.

Yet I feel tempted, if not impelled to say that what is strangling the full musical expression of these young people is not their faith. If Islam was solely responsible for the dearth of live music culture I found in Zanzibar, then why was there such a profusion of it in places like Senegal, Egypt, and Mali, deeply Islamic cultures, yet famous for their thriving musical traditions?

After this discussion, my translator friend, a local Zanzibar who is pursing a career in the entertainment/music and event production world, explained some of the difficulties about being a young, creative person in Zanzibar. “You and I both know there is much talent in Zanzibar. The problem is that no one is encouraged, no systems to help artists and musicians develop.” He continued, explaining how the strong influence of Islam here does in fact contribute to the absence of live music culture. “You have no idea how much Islam factors into peoples lives. When I grew up, I could not leave the house without reciting certain lines from the Koran, without praying to God. My father made me. Its just the way it is here.”

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No discussion of Zanzibar can be complete without mentioning its legacy of slavery. It is, at first glance, exotic and novel to see so many Africans dressed in full Islamic garb, speaking Arabic, and displaying the courtesies found only in the Muslim world. Though if you dig only a few layers deeper, it is no secret that the Arabs were the driving force behind the slave trade in East Africa, with Zanzibar as their base. Truly, a large portion of the Zanzibari population has its roots in bondage- their ancestors being brought here as slaves, forcibly captured (or sold out by other African leaders,) and marched for miles to the coast in massive caravans driven by the Arabs, who were getting rich off this barbarous activity. To think that most Zanzibaris are deeply proud of their Muslim heritage is yet another paradox, one that I find infinitely more sinister and profound.

Throughout my time in Zanzibar, I sensed a palpable thirst for live music and freedom of expression- a deeply rooted impulse that felt like a growing, electric bubble full of creative energy ready to burst amongst the youth. As an outlet for this stifled creative flow, one can see multitudes of young people gathering near the beaches every night, practicing a great variety of acrobatic tricks, howling in joy. Usually a scene emerges on the edges of the famous Forodhani Gardens, where one can witness a crowd of young people twisting their way through the air as they jump twenty feet off the sea wall. It is a nightly ritual here- the feeling of joyful release is palpable as hordes of young Zanzibari men hurl themselves into the warm water, an antidote to the days heat and hustle.

People must express themselves in any way they can, even if it means jumping twenty feet into the shallow, rock-strewn ocean- its bright blue vastness a reminder of dreams as big as the sky, and of what it feels like to be utterly free.

Dhow Country

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Sauti za Busara Festival – Reflections

Sauti za Busara Festival - Sunday Night

Sauti za Busara Festival – Sunday Night

I never intended on visiting Zanzibar. Only when a music promoter friend in Nairobi casually mentioned that a world-class African music festival would occur on the island the following month (February,) did I even bother looking at the it on a map. Now, like my Euro-American counterparts of old (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?) I am stuck on this island longer than expected, and stewing amidst the humidity, the smells (both stinking and delicate,) and the dizzying menagerie of cultures that makes Zanzibar distinct, beautiful and deeply significant.

After a brief period of research, and upon securing myself an accredited press pass, I set my course for Zanzibar, ready to experience the 10th annual Sauti za Busara festival, called by some as “the friendliest festival in the word.” While this claim seemed to me both hyperbolic and immeasurable in any sense, I was still excited to see some great music in an amazing place. What particularly excited me was the prospect of seeing Malian diva Khaira Arby, whose native home of Timbuktu was, at that moment, being invaded by the French military in order to oust a brutal Al-Qaida affiliated militia which had invaded the region nearly a year ago.

Stone Town from the Ocean

Stone Town from the Ocean

All of this, coupled with a basic knowledge of Zanzibar’s history, made my visit both enticing and meaningful. After all, it seemed utterly amazing to me that a Pan-African music festival would be taking place on an island which, two-hundred years ago, was the dismal epicenter of the Arab slave trade, a brutal enterprise that lasted well into the 19th century. Zanzibar can also be seen as the first departure point for Western colonial forces in East and Central Africa, both literally and metaphorically. America was actually the first Western power to establish a consulate here in 1839, when the island was still governed by the Sultanate of Oman. The Omanis dominated this strategic island for at least five centuries beforehand, and were then succeeded by the British, who claimed the island as a protectorate in the late 19th century. Prior to the Omani occupation, Shirazi Persians had influenced the Island, as well as Indian merchants. All in all, Zanzibar had been a center for trade and cultural exchange, as well as abhorrent human trafficking, for nearly two thousand years. In an odd way it was the perfect place for a peaceful celebration of African music, culture and identity.

Old Slave Market Plaque

Old Slave Market Plaque

Let me preface by saying that I consider myself extremely spoiled when it comes to music festivals. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest of the US (a region we call Cascadia,) my experience with festival culture has been profound- life changing, to say the least; blessed by a strong community of creatively potent, intelligent, and conscious people who groove to the most cutting edge music and art that Western counter-culture can muster- all the while trying to minimize our impact on the earth. In short, I have high standards for festivals. That said, I entered Sauti za Busara with an open mind and a deep love of African music.

Taking place in Zanzibar’s iconic Old Fort, an antiquated fortress with massive, barrel-like towers standing at its four corners, the venue was, quite simply, awesome. A square, grassy field, contained within the fort’s high walls provided a straight-forward area from which to dance, drink, and festivalize. Outside this area, but still inside the massive fort, was a large stone amphitheater that would serve as an arena for screening select documentary films, as well as an open avenue housing several curio shops selling cheap African wares. There was another bar at the far end, clearly a high-priced watering hole for tourists during the off-season. There were also no emergency services, hydration zones, or medical areas to speak of, and only two small bathrooms (one for each gender) which were to accommodate several thousand people, but hey, lets just disregard that.

The Venue, Zanzibar's Old Fort, before the festival

The Venue, Zanzibar’s Old Fort, before the festival

Attending the pre-festival press conference, I had a chance to both meet and listen to UK-based festival director and DJ Yusuf Mahmod speak. Starting from humble roots, this festival, like many, grew because a dedicated crew of inspired people had a vision, and a love for Zanzibar, and Africa. They were also committed to promoting live music, a principle that was music to my ears after traveling for weeks and hearing only Hip-Hoppified African music such as Tanzanian Bongo Flavor, a painfully unoriginal style of autotuned R&B that poorly mimics what people must hear coming out of American media. “We believe that we have a responsibility to opening people’s minds to the importance of playing instruments, live,” Yusuf said, a refreshing conviction to say the least.

Yet this emphasis on live music was not without its critics. I heard many people, both black and white, complain that the festival lacked local Tanzanian talent, and that the event was primarily catering to mzungus, or white foreigners. One German girl, an intellectual aid-worker type I met at a beach-side bar after the festival, was actually upset there was no Bongo Flavor music, a concern I couldn’t help but scoff at. “But Busara only promotes live music,” I explained, discussing the importance of playing real instruments as well as the continuation of African musical traditions. “Well that’s not what the youth are listening to today,” she replied haughtily. “They should at least promote what’s popular in the area.” “Not if it’s bad music,” I said. In fact, in 2012, the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) did feature a well known Bongo Flavor artist. He had never even performed his own music, having only recorded it in the studio, followed immediately by dancing in a blinged-out music video. According to a friend who helped produce and emcee the ZIFF festival, the “performance” failed utterly. “Personally, I don’t know how these Bongo Flavor artists can be considered legitimate musicians, especially on a continent full of masters,” I said. “Yea, but the crowd loved it!”

Bongo Flavor artist Diamond, who “performed” at ZIFF ’12

The crowd at Busara was an amiable mixture of international backpackers, adventurous families and lost-looking vacationers with awkward hats. On the local front, there was a collection of out-of-place Masaai men, adorned with traditional jewelry and accessories, their ubiquitous red cloths a reminder of the distant savannah that was a mere memory in this tropical paradise. There were modern-looking, well dressed African men and women, many from capital cities on the mainland, presumably Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, a majority of whom were there on some professional basis. And there was a large contingent of friendly Zanzibari Rastas, most of them admittedly “fishing” for pretty white women.

In fact, I could not help but notice the profusion of single white women, mostly between the ages of thirty and fifty, who seemed to be equally as eager to find themselves a nice young African man for the evening, or week. Eventually the obligatory courting rituals became a laughable facade after the three days of the festival, and in the end, I could not help but silently chuckle to myself at the sight of a young, dreadlocked Zanzibari man being taken out to a fancy restaurant by an older white woman (or two.) I had to wonder, who had the upper hand in these exotic rendezvous’? Was there some post-colonial and racial subtext, some subconscious notion of foreign extraction at work that only I could decipher due to my arduous background in political anthropology? Or were they, despite my cynical misgivings, honest, egalitarian affairs? The festival is about “intercultural exchange,” after all…

Throughout the festival, I never once felt overwhelmed. Usually I consider this a good thing, but knowing how madness and confusion can sometimes be the most fertile grounds for meaningful and transformative experiences, especially in the liminal realms of festopia, I found the absence of such conditions at Busara to place the festival in a tame sphere that bordered on the mundane. For some reason, perhaps due to the low volume of the soundsystem, perhaps due to a general creative lackluster that seemed to pervade amongst some of the artists, I never really found myself dancing. Nor did I find many others lost in a blissful frenzy. Ok, I did not expect Burning Man, but I did expect music loud enough to make a crowd full of people shake it. I expected to feel immersed in the vocals and delicate melodies of the Kora and African guitar. I wanted to be smacked in the face by the sound of the Djembe, compelling me and everyone nearby to dance, hard! Instead I found heads nodding lazily to the beat, occasionally taking sips from somewhat cold bottles of beer, shuffling back and fourth.

With regards to the artists, I heard several people describe the majority of the lineup as “money-savers.” It was made clear from the press conference that the festival was having a difficult time securing funding and sponsorships. At one point during the first night, after the clumsy self-congratulatory “We did it!” speech/dance, someone from the festival’s board of directors came on stage and gave a disjointed, emotional address about how they need more support from the Zanzibar business community. I found this appeal to be pretty disgraceful, both in its delivery and in its timing. A valid concern worth addressing in the proper setting, yes, but not so important as to disrupt forty minutes of music programming and use the stage as a soap box to voice your financial problems to a captive, paying audience.

Nawal & Les Femmes de la Lune

Nawal & Les Femmes de la Lune

That said, there were some genuinely good artists present. Nawal & Les Femmes de la Lune, an all female band from the Comoros Islands, was enthralling, though unfortunately cut short because of the unforeseen announcements and “speeches.” The act which moved me more than any others was by far the Kora duo of Sousou & Maher Sissoko. The husband and wife team, from Senegal and Sweden, respectively, evoked a palpable sense of love throughout their performance, exchanging sweet glances to each other with a stage presence that was simply magnetic. Other highlights included Atongo Zimba, from Ghana, and of course, Northern Malian singer Khaira Arby, whose presence I felt was particularly important due to her exile and Mali’s current state of emergency resulting in international alarm.

Throughout the first two days of the festival, the emcees would continually remind people to not miss Cheikh Lo, the headling act from Senegal who was to play on Sunday night. This always struck a nerve in me, because it presumed that this artist’s presence was somehow more meaningful simply because of his higher price tag. ‘We paid the most for him, so make sure not to miss it!’ Cheikh Lo’s performance was mildly entertaining at best, certainly not worth more than any of the other artists. Not until right before her set (and this was upon her request,) did anyone deem it important to mention the crisis in Mali- the fact that at this moment, a battle was taking place in the artist’s home town, and that not even a year ago, Khaira Arby was forced to flee her home, fearing for her life, along with countless other Malian musicians, because the extremist force which had overrun their town had violently outlawed music.

Khaira Arby - Sauti za Busara, Sunday Night

Khaira Arby – Sauti za Busara, Sunday Night

Sauti za Busara, Swahili for “sounds of wisdom,” is not a bad festival by any means. In fact, it is an amazing festival that anyone should feel blessed and excited to attend. I may even come back, if I have the chance. The diversity of people, music, and scenery is truly an experience to behold. And it is an extremely friendly festival (maybe too friendly, if you are a single white women between the ages of twenty and fifty.) However, if this festival wishes to continue being know as the best music festival in East Africa, it may pay off to spend some time getting back in touch with the meaning behind the word “busara.” Otherwise if they are not careful, they may end up confusing it with a similar, but very different Swahili word: “biashara,” or, “business.”