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


New Flower (Addis Ababa)

Abyssinian Tradition

Abyssinian Tradition


Sitting in the famous Addis Ababa Restaurant, a landmark for traditional food and culture in Ethiopia’s capital city, I feel like I have been here before. People shout and joke, onlookers smiling at the scene, laughing together at jokes casually made on a stranger’s account, all in good fun. A playful, communal spirit flows through the heavily seasoned air. The potent scent of berebere and shiro spices, cooked meat, and injera bread create a smell that only a true Ethiopian restaurant can obtain. It could have been that the local tej, a “rustically fermented” honey wine, was getting to my head, or that the lack of sleep (departed Cairo 3am, arrived Addis 8am) was making me delirious, but I felt at this moment a deep sense of happiness and peace that defies explanation. I am in Africa. I am surrounded by strange smells, drunk Ethiopians, and half-rancid concoctions that contort my stomach. I feel truly at home.

Tej in the Addis Restaurant

Tej in the Addis Restaurant

I am blessed with the best friends a traveler could ever ask for. After waiting in the hour-long line marathon to secure my transit visa, I find Asrat Ayelew, percussionist from Ethiopian funk group Debo Band, and my good friend, patiently waiting for me outside baggage claim. It is good to see him in his native country, having met him only the previous month in Egypt, where we were both working on The Nile Project‘s music residency.

Asrat. 8am. Ethiopia. Epic.

Asrat. 8am. Ethiopia. Epic.

Ethiopia is a country that seems simultaneously separate from, and inescapably a part of Africa. The ancient and biblical kingdoms of Kush, Sheeba, and Axum still occupy the cultural memory, with populations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews all representing a uniquely Abyssinian take on their respective religion. Sacred chant resounds across the city out of churches and mosques throughout the day, each singing in distinctively Ethiopian scales and melodies. Like many aspects of this culture, the musical traditions in Ethiopia reach far back, to around 700 A.D when an Abyssinian saint named Yarid received the melodies in a revelation from God. The Ethiopian Orthodox church has sung his music ever since, and contemporary Ethiopian music, popularized by the great jazz saxophonist Mulatu Asateke, still draws upon Yarid’s distinct scales.

We take a taxi to Asrat’s neighborhood in the heart of Addis, and walk down a series of cobble-stone streets with low, multi-toned tin roofs peeking up above white walls, finally coming to a large metal gate. Inside is where Asrat and his sister live, in one room apartments with several others living in the communal-like compound. I deposit my bags, feeling welcomed, safe, and excited. I only have ten hours left in this country, and I want to see as much as I can.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

We start by walking to a Christian Orthodox church in his neighborhood- a massive octagonal building painted gold and turquoise, with red, yellow, and green highlighting every corner. Pilgrims, priests, women, and many children populate the church’s shady courtyard. The place is blissful. We walk out the next gate, and come to a beautiful view of a distant valley. I take a picture.

The Picture.

The Picture.

Immediately someone calls to us, and I notice a guard tower and a military-like structure to our left. We walk through the gate, to where they called to us, and a man walks down the road in a military uniform. “Uh-oh,” I joke. When the man arrives, it is clear he is not joking. With a face a stern as steel he shouts at my friend in Amharic. Calmly explaining, my friend apologizes, as we didn’t know that pictures were not allowed in this area.

Suddenly, and without warning, the military officer smacks my friend across the face with the hard and lightning-quick strike. My friend is dumbfounded and open mouthed, and I am equally as shocked. Without a word, we walk away.

We walk in silence. After some time, Asrat speaks up: “I’m sorry. This is a government place. I should have known better… I’m sorry.” “It’s okay man,” I say, “you don’t need to be sorry. I took the picture- I’m sorry.” “No- this is not Ethiopian culture. This is not how we are… That is not our culture.” We talk more, but my thoughts replay the incident in my head.

My mind wanders to Ethiopia’s recent past, the 1970’s and ’80s, during the time of The Derg, when the country turned to Communism, ousted emperor Haile Selassie, economically imploded, and began a series of atrocities that included torturing and imprisoning anyone suspected of political opposition. Many were imprisoned without trial for years, many were hurt, and many died. It was a dark time for Ethiopia. “I’m sorry,” he says, again and again.

We decide to clear our head, and walk out of the city. We catch a small van-turned bus, vehicles known all over East Africa as matatus, which I would come to intimately know in the coming months. Then we walk, and walk, and walk, up a winding hill covered by groves of eucalyptus trees. The scent brings me back to San Francisco, and the sun and the hills take away the heaviness that was recently thrust upon us by an insane military brute. We climb, passing brigades of donkeys laden with sticks galloping down the hill, carrying away with them the any sense of gloominess that had remained from previous our encounter.

Up to Entoto

Up to Entoto

Midway up we pass an orthodox priest, who blesses us with his smile and his staff. Near the top another man sits by the side of the road, writing intently in a notebook. Though not dressed as lavishly as the last man, my friend informs me that he too is a holy person. “He is a man of church, but not a priest. He is a…” “Monk!” I say. “Yes, like that. We call them Menaksi.” He was the first of many of these peaceful beings I was to encounter on my short stay in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Priest

Ethiopian Priest

At the top of this hill is a place called Entoto, a national park-type area where King Menelik II built the first church in Addis Ababa, and made his royal home in the late 19th century. We pass clusters of simple mud huts, with chickens and goats and children in enclosures.  At the top is the famous Entoto Church, a beautiful crown on the mountain.

Entoto Church

Entoto Church

“People move up here because they want to be close to the church. Also, many people are coming up here to be healed,” Asrat says. “They are sick and they know the church will take care of them.”

Asrat & Menaksi

Asrat & Menaksi

After several hours of exploring the area, we follow a local boy named Yayu, who must have been around eight years old, into the forest to find a famous spring that is known for its healing “holy water.” The walk is sunny, quiet, and very peaceful. I am in total bliss, grateful to be surrounded by trees after being in Egypt for a month.


We finally reach the spring, deep in the forest, and ask Yayu to go in and collect some water for us (we were not allowed, either out of respect, or because we were not practicing orthodox.) We leave the spring, and start our long walk out of the magical forest. Apparently this peaceful place drastically changes after sunset. “At night there are many hyenas around here… Very dangerous,” Asrat tells me. The reality of Africa is ever present, even in the most idyllic of places.

Sacred Spring of Entoto

Sacred Spring of Entoto (You can see the couple on the left)

On our walk out we come upon a couple who were leaving the spring when we arrived.  Their pace, a fraction of ours, is slowed to the point of a crawl, with each step seeming to take great effort. Weakened by sickness, they support each other, as they slowly struggle up the long and rocky trail. I suspect HIV/AIDS, due to their middle age, their mutual emaciation, and the diseases prevalence in the region. I can tell that this trek is extremely difficult for them. We walk behind them in respect for some time. The forest is deeply quiet, the only sound is the wind blowing through the trees. Not even the birds make a sound, I felt in this moment as if a layer of reality was peeled away- that just being in the presence of this specter-like couple was enough to thin the veils between the worlds. We pass them, and they smile at us kindly, both nearing death. The reality of Africa is ever present.

Forest Spirit ~ Green Man of Ethiopia

Addis Ababa (means “New Flower,”) though the capital city, felt more like a large and friendly town to me. It seemed as if everyone knew one another, and that (military psychopaths aside,) everyone strives to treat people with great respect. There is a palpable sense of community that connects the Ethiopian people, at home and abroad, like a big family. Perhaps it is Ethiopia’s long legacy of tradition, of cultural heritage, and its ancient roots that gives people this sense of pride that I saw often translate into grace.

Yarid's Shanty - A shack at Entoto where we drank traditional beer that nearly ravaged my innards.

Yarid’s Shanty – A shack at Entoto where we drank traditional beer that nearly ravaged my innards.

Back in the Addis Ababa Restaurant, I am swirling amidst the spices, the tej, and the laughter. The joy, humility, and devotion expressed by these people is almost overwhelming- nowhere in Egypt did I experience such a boisterous and lively bunch of locals. Evening is nearing, and both Asrat and I are in dire need of some rest before my 11pm flight. As I stand up to leave, and smiling man from a nearby table approaches me, and slips me a small piece of paper. “You are most welcome,” he says.

The scrap of paper, I realize, is a note the man had written to me, apparently during the happy scene in the restaurant. I open it, and read: “I know what you think. You see Ethiopian people having such happiness. You are to think, do people in own country having such happiness?”

Asrat and Sister

Asrat and Sister

(Note: For best audio quality, please listen with headphones.)

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

Sacred Sounds of Jerusalem


Recorded over a period of a week in Jerusalem, these recordings capture musical expressions of faith as exhibited by the three Judeo-Christian religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also included is a fourth recording, accounting for the spread or diaspora of these faiths around the world. These soundscapes are much like the city of Jerusalem itself: traditional yet modern, deeply spiritual yet painfully divided, each struggling to be heard above all others, sometimes gracefully, though often forcefully.

Notice the subtle layering of sounds- one tradition shadowing another, sonically intermingling, an aural tapestry of faith. The Islamic call to prayer asserts itself over loudspeakers, resounding in multiplicity across the city. A solitary Orthodox Jew rapidly utters prayers in Hebrew, amidst countless others at the Western Wall. A Christian hymn sung within the cloistered and echoing walls of a Gothic cathedral. And a group of Nigerian Christians, singing a hymn in their own language, celebrate their strong faith.

These recordings offer a mere taste of the diversity of sound and traditions that make up the sacred tapestry of Jerusalem, perhaps the most coveted and fought-over city in the world. Despite the conflict and palpable tension that is present in the city, these sounds offer, to me, punctuation marks of peace amidst a daily existence defined by struggle and animosity.

Music under fire in northern Mali

Our hearts and prayers go out to our friends in Mali, where music has gone underground in the rebel-occupied north.  Both Tuareg separatist militias such as Ansar Dine, as well as al-Qaida-affiliated groups like AQMI and MUJAO have imposed their harsh version of Islamic fundamentalist Sharia law, both banning music, and threatening sever punishment for anything they deem as against their manipulated and “Wahabist” version of Islam.  These groups have also destroyed ancient Sufi tombs in Timbuctou, both sacred to the locals, and recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Even in Niafunké, hometown of the great “desert blues” guitarist, Ali Farka Touré, music is outlawed.  Quoting from a recent UK Guardian article by Andy Morgan, a musical sidekick of the late Touré said, “I know that if Ali were to awake from his tomb today, he would just go straight back into it. He would die twice.”

From the BBC:

The late and great Malian desert blues guitarist, Ali Farka Touré

The late and great Malian desert blues guitarist, Ali Farka Touré