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.


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.


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.”


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


In Tahrir (part II)

Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia

Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia

As Tahrir burns, becoming obscured in a fog of tear gas and chaos (that night most clashes actually took place at the Presidential Palace,) I sit in a posh bar in the Zamalek neighborhood listening to jazz, sipping a cold beer. I am literally on an island in the middle of Cairo. I ask someone sitting at the table, a friend of a friend, what he thinks is happening in Tahrir right now. “Nothing good,” he says.

Nearing-middle age, he is half Egyptian, having grown up in the United Kingdom, moving back to Cairo in his adult life. “All the people I know who helped start this [revolution] are now working on initiatives, working in civil societies.” He is the typical social entrepreneur type- highly educated with liberal values, a mind for environmental sustainability and sensible development.

“The people in Tahrir now are different,” he says. Well-known amongst certain circles of Cairo’s development-savvy cosmopolitan 30-somethings, this friend-of-a-friend was a key figure in establishing an open source innovation and sustainable development platform called ICE Cairo. “My revolution is no longer in Tahrir,” he explains. “Though I missed most of the action. I was stuck in the U.K for most of it.” I cannot find anything in common with him and the young people I ran with near the square two hours earlier, except a genuine desire for a change and a vision for a better Egypt.

There are pockets of Cairo that look like the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for. One-ton blocks of concrete, stacked by the police create improvised walls, now adorned with ironic street art, bar entrance to Mohammad Mahoud St. in Cairo’s crumbling downtown. Metal and cement barricades still inhabit once busy streets around Tahrir, stemming the flow of traffic to a semi-cautious trickle (if there is such a thing in Cairo.) Broken windows, once simply a part of Egypt’s aesthetic of corruption, now signal something else. The former headquarters of disposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, located at Tahrir, is now a bombed out skeleton of a building, fenced off and kept as a massive trophy for all to gaze upon.

Being in Tahrir Square was a reminder of the very real possibilities of a police state materializing overnight- a glimpse into a potential future. Seeing the utter ease at which a faceless block of militarized police can disperse, terrify, and even kill a group of young protesters sheds light on the technologies of oppression that have been developed by equally faceless corporations. Raytheon, Halliburton, or CSI (Combined Systems Inc.)- none had their marks on the spent tear gas canister shown to me by a young Egyptian who had it shot into his leg. The only legible letters were USA.

Dramatized by Hollywood films, television programs, and playfully invoked at counter-cultural events like Burning Man, the collapsed or militarized police state of the 21st century is not an imagined narrative depicted on a screen. It is Egypt. Greece. Syria. It is Northern Mali and Nigeria. It is Palestine. Its is a bleak reality characterized by hardship, struggle, and government-sponsored brutality. It is not a party in the Nevada desert, no matter how inspiring and beautiful that may be.

The reality is that this bleak future lurks just beneath the surface of our civilization, behind television screens and in dark corners of the internet, trickling through to our collective unconscious. Images of overweight riot police diffusing pepper spray into the face of peaceful university protesters and instances of excessive use of force are now integrated into our culture. Are these state-sponsored actions accepted, ignored, or merely forgotten by our media-saturated culture? Like a 50-year bookend, the Arab Springs and the Occupy movements of today are continuing, perhaps finishing what was started in the political and social movements of the 1960’s.

Mosque Door, Old Islamic Cairo

Mosque Door, Old Islamic Cairo

Perhaps the most poignant factor in all of this is the emotional weight, the experiences of loss, and the vision of hope carried by nearly every Egyptian I met. The depth of emotions, both of sadness and hope, the stories, the tears, and the blood, still stain the streets.

For example, someone who is now a dear friend of mine was shot in the back during the revolution. She lay the street for nearly two hours, bleeding, and breathing in the “non-lethal” tear gas until her blood was heavily poisoned. She told me about coming back to consciousness, and seeing her friends, fully grown men, bawling their eyes out like children, taking shelter on the concrete. When I see this person today, gracefully navigating through her native city where her ancestors walked generations ago, I cannot help but feel profoundly moved.

“I faced death,” she told me, “and now I live my life in a completely different way. The revolution, Tahrir, it is like something spiritual for me.” I asked her what she hoped the outcome of all of this would be. “All I know,” she said, “is that I want my children, and my grandchildren, to continue this revolution. It does not end with me.”

Old Islamic Cairo, from the rooftop of a 14th Century Mosque

Old Islamic Cairo, from the rooftop of a 14th Century Mosque

My table-mates in Zamalek continued talking of how things in Tahrir had change since the revolution. There has been increasing incidents of sexual harassment against women, with many suspecting some level of organization behind the mass gropings. “My office is right next to Tahrir, so I have to drive near it every day,” he explains, telling the story of how a young kid through a rock at his windshield for no apparent reason. “Just being a stupid kid” I murmured. “Maybe. But things like this did not happen before.”

“Now we have the black block, and I have no idea where that came from,” he explains. The black block, as it’s called, is an action strategy utilized by protesters and anarchists throughout the United States and Europe, and apparently now Egypt. It is invoked to incite acts of direct resistance, general mayhem, and violence, usually directed at corporate property and the police. They are also characterized by their ubiquitous black masks and clothing. “Mixing violence and anonymity is a really, really bad combination.” Noted.

We continued talking, discussing the potential of this anonymous, militant group to become co-opted, developing into a para-military military force like we have seen in South America’s FARC, the LRA and other rebel factions in parts of Africa, Ireland’s IRA, and of course, the Taliban. “There is the potential for this group to start being trained and funded by elements of the former regime, in turn adding credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood.” All the ingredients necessary to initiate a proxy war, like what is now happening in Syria, exist in Egypt. Perhaps the only thing keeping this shady style of clandestine warfare at bay is the heart-felt passion and hope of the Egyptian people.

It is safe to say that Cairo is a provocative place, an ancient center of life and culture that one cannot help but feel enticed by. Yes, it is a city immersed in trash, pollution, and stench- everything either needing, or recovering from some type of repair, including the people. Yet, wandering through Cairo’s old Islamic quarter, drinking Turkish coffee in the courtyards of decadent 13th century mosques, the vibrant night scented with Oud and spices, I felt as if in a beautiful and romantic dream. There is a reason Cairo was known as the “Paris of the East.” If there is any positive hope for Cairo, it lies in her people- a vivacious, beautiful, and politically charged collection of characters that will not give up, at any cost.

Al Qahira, Um Al Dunia, (Cairo, Mother of the World,) please try and stay in one piece. At least until I return.

Al Qahira Sunset

Al Qahira Sunset

In Tahrir (part I)

Boy in Tahrir

It’s 3pm. The call to prayer sounds from rooftop megaphones in Tahrir Square. The constant din of honking, motors, and shouting seems to slow, and if you pay attention, Cairo takes a breathe. The cacophony fades into the background, along with the exhaust fumes and the smell of garbage. Birds chirp on the lamp post, wind blows through the trees, a reminder that, yes, trees do grow in this city. While Cairo already has its own “city of the dead,” a massive burial ground for the Mameluk and Fatimid sultans of the past, it’s easy to forget that Cairo actually fosters life.

In three hours this place will become packed with people- fathers, mothers, students, revolutionaries, everyday citizens gathering and standing together to voice their mutual dissatisfaction with the current “religious” regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Muslimin Iquan. Clashes with police and levels of brutality have been increasing this week, with January 25th occurring only six days prior, (the second anniversary of the revolution) and one year exactly since a nefarious act of state-incited violence that killed 74 youths at a football match on February 2nd, 2012.

With international news media reporting their nightly approximation of protester deaths and a detached recounting of the day’s events, the Egyptian Revolution, as it is, may be in danger of falling through the media cracks, victim to the ever-shrinking attention span of the common viewer, and overshadowed by ceaseless political drama in the United States.

Mahmoud Abdul Nasser, a young revolutionary and member of the politically charged Ultras Ahli, an infamous, hooligan-like football fan group-turned radically anti-establishment, has lived in Tahrir for three months. His friend, also Mahmoud, shows me a spent tear gas canister he collected the previous night. Revealing a golf ball-sized welt on his right leg, the canister in his hand was shot at him last night during the clashes, apparently from almost point blank range. He emphatically shows me the make of the empty gas canister, with three black letters printed neatly at its base: USA. He continues to tell me through our mutually broken languages that during this same clash he witnessed his friend be beaten to death by the police.

"Made in USA."

“Made in USA.”

We sit in silence. I peel the small tangerines he generously offers me, and watch the people milling about the square. There are a surprising amount of women and children present. Vendors selling foul (beans,) pita, and tea from simple stations offer the bare necessities of the Egyptian diet: caffine, sugar, bread, and beans. Two years after the revolution and Tahrir is still in utter disarray, with cars broken down in the street, covered in graffiti like ivy and overgrowth. There is a general feeling of tempered chaos. Yet organically, humans manage to create some order out of total pandemonium, and life goes on, people drinking their tea from polished glasses served off the concrete. A sense of normalcy must persist, no matter how improvised, to keep people’s spirits from breaking.

Attempting to talk politics through our smattering of languages, we come to understand each other, both politically, and philosophically, as allies. Mahmoud expresses his profound hatred of the police, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and president Morsi. He tells me about clashing with the police, acts of senseless brutality he has witnessed, and his hopes for a better Egypt. But it cannot come without a fight, he says. I cannot muster a response, so I nod my head, lost amidst my thoughts and observations.

“Do you want to see?” Unsure of exactly what my new friends are proposing, I agree. Something sparks in his eye, and the two hastily gather the necessary and intimate items of a street revolutionary: cigarettes, bandana/face cover, and a gasmask. We walk down a street where rolls of squashed barbed wire lay in defeat, and broken chunks of concrete amass in piles near disheveled police barricades, now reclaimed with street art, stencils and graffiti. We go arm in arm, towards the Kasr al Nil bridge, where the revolution took a turn two years ago, and where police and protesters have now established an ongoing front. The energy rises as we move through this eerie space between the bridge and Tahrir- one of main arteries for both protesters flooding the square, and police trying to push them back. It has a sort of quietness to it that somehow lets you know danger is near. It is raw with ominousness energy, and people step quickly, like they are hurrying towards or away from something unseen.

“Do you know what this is for?” Mahmoud says, putting a heavy canvas glove on his right hand. I told him it’s for picking up gas canisters to throw back at the police. “Yes,” he says, with a cracked smile. Were we really about to go do this? Or rather, was I about to go do this, and risk the very real possibility of being arrested, gassed, or beaten by Egypt’s vicious and corrupt police force?

We turn the corner at the bridge, and about 300 feet down the road you can see the beginnings of the clashes that will undoubtedly escalate as the night goes on. “There! There it is!” We descend the gentle slope of the street, and walk into the crowd of young football shirts and black face masks. As we get closer, is see the dark mass of police, dressed in full riot gear, block the end of the street. “There!” A space of about fourty feet exists between the protester and the police, a no man’s land, a deadly space created when two groups engage in face to face combat (for reference please see World War I.) It is the ultimate liminal space, one of ordeal and transformation, with death or victory being the only true outcome. Protestors begin to rush into the empty space with arms wide, hurling rocks or taunting the police with gestures and shouts, viewing it as a sort of theater for resistance. The police view it as a kill zone.

Clashes near the Kasr al Nil bridge, and Cairo's Four Season's Hotel. Taken Feb.2nd, 2013

Clashes near the Kasr al Nil bridge, and Cairo’s Four Season’s Hotel. Taken Feb.2nd, 2013

“It’s easy! It’s easy!” Mahmoud says, casually offering the fully primed gas mask he has been kind enough to bring for me. I refuse to wear it, certain that it will signal a desire to engage at a much closer distance than I want, both to Mahmoud, and to the police. At this moment I wonder about the sanity of my impromptu guides, trying to gauge how much basic self-preservation factors into their thinking. We lock arms, and he leads me, smiling, into the fray.

Amidst the mass of protesters, I can see the faceless wall of riot police less than half a block away. There energy is extremely high, and on edge, with protesters escalating their chanting and some running into the no-man’s-land, waving their arms in provocation. I see a young protester being dragged out of the crowd, unconscious from inhaling the gas.

This is a tenuous stalemate, and despite the momentary lull in full conflict, I know things can turn at any moment. A sudden rush of protesters and the police immediately will react, their brutality having now increased to the point of lethal force. They don’t shoot the gas canisters near you. They shoot them at you. And if you are too close for their liking they’ll beat the living shit out of you, to the point of hospitalization or even death. Pretty standard. My being the only blonde, blue-eyed foreigner there was something I chose to ignore. I couldn’t afford to be preoccupied with this obvious fact, for being in an environment like this demands all of your awareness.

I am overwhelmed, and transfixed by the energy, the sounds of whistles and horns blown by the mass adding to the atmosphere of confusion and intensity. My mind wanders. Then- POP! POP! POP! Instantly I join the hundreds of bodies running, without a thought adrenaline immediately flooding my blood. My heart pounds as the firing of tear gas grenades disperses the mob of people, and instilling fear in the crowd. Everyone runs, though I see mostly youths, fleeing with a mixture of fear and glee that confounds me. My two guides manage to catch up to me. I had no qualms about running, leaving them to survive on their own.

“It’s a game!” Mahmoud tells me, trying to calm me down with a crazed smile that does just the opposite. The crowd runs, with a genuine desire of survival it seems, only to come right back to the frontline, in range of the gas. People blow plastic trumpets like at a football match, and wave flags. The mobile food vendors re-establish their stations, relocating maybe thirty feet. A man in a black face-mask casually buys a cup of tea and some bread, with a line of riot police and tear gas half a block away.

More people descend into the mass, carrying bottles of vinegar to help combat the effects of the gas. I find a high point, providing both safe elevation from the mob, and a view of the scene. To Mahmoud, the gas is no problem. “I like it. You smell it, and then it is over. It makes me… umph. It gives me strength.” “You like the gas?!” I ask him. “Yes! It makes me crazy!” “Good crazy?” “Good crazy.”

“Come! Come! You must see! It’s easy!” But at this point I feel like I have risked enough, having absolutely no desire to rejoin the mass of protesters, and running from the inevitable second round of tear gas soon to come. If it were not for me, these two would most likely be at the front of the line. This is nothing new for them. I realize at this moment familiarity that Mahmoud and his friend have with looking death in the face, the very real possibility of going out one night to face the police, and not returning. I realize that not only do they accept this as a part of their life, but they smile at it. They live for the rush of it all. What else did they have to live for?

Mahmoud & Mahmoud

Mahmoud & Mahmoud

We return to the bridge, now flooded with people coming to protest in the square, as 5 o’clock nears. The number of people have increased exponentially, with groups chanting angrily against president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are saying, ‘Morsi is a bitch. A big bitch!” We return to Tahrir proper, unbelievably a welcome respite from the din we had just emerged from.

Mahmoud shows me the memorial that has been constructed at the center of the square, a space filled with writings and pictures of the young martyrs, those who died in the revolution two years ago, and continue to die up until now. Some pictures show people with half their faces missing, blown apart by police weaponry. There are portraits of young boys with innocent smiles, and intellectual-looking university students, passionate for change. Even pious, bearded Sheikhs, famous spiritual leaders who advocated for peaceful change were lost in the revolution, their smiling faces now immortalized in political street art and social campaigns.

Sheikh Emad Effat, immortalized in street art on Cairo's Mohammad Mahoud St.

Sheikh Emad Effat, immortalized in street art on Cairo’s Mohammad Mahoud St.

These are not figures on a nightly news report, devoid of a face, name or story. These every day people- mostly youth- who lost their lives because they believed a better Egypt, if not a better world, was worth fighting for. A woman solemnly posts a piece of writing on the plastic makeshift wall. Mahmoud formally greets her, warmly exchanging words, with the unsaid understanding that they both are in this fight together. She looks at me and smiles.

I left Mahmoud, my 21 year-old friend, with 100 Egyptian pounds- about $15, telling him to share it with his friends. I wondered what would be his fate, if he would be safe in the night’s clashes, bearing witness to more incidents of brutality and fear tactics. I wondered if he could one day be the nameless body-turned number, a faceless figure reported in the international news. I wondered if he would ever take down his tent and end this vague and violent struggle, fueled by a passion to live in an Egypt free of corruption and religious imposition. I wondered if today would be his last day alive.

I wont go back to check on him tomorrow in his soggy tent, talking to his friends in my broken Arabic to ascertain his fate. It hardly matters if I go back tomorrow, or next week, or next year, because I know that he is going to be there, smoking and eating oranges, in Tahrir.