ZANZIBAR: WHERE UNFETTERED LUONESS THRIVES
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Music can spell a lot. Benganised Taarab music- the new revolutionary taarab breaking away from Asian flavour, threw away the stringed instruments and turned the volume on African drums; tore the lyrics instruction sheets killed the mournful vocal chords. So what was left?
The first encounter was the 1984 when I was driving to work around mid-morning, then on the Voice of Kenya radio service a taarab song tuned to the heavy James Browns guitar works by bassist Bootsie Collins of the 1970s came into play in the air. For those of you in the know the origin of James Browns legendary hit song Sex Machine (Get UP) has been traced to a nyatiti chant. I like musicians who experiment and I was keen to hear who is the taarab ingenious guy. When the radio DJ announced the group as ToT from Dar es Salaam I was on high alert because Taarab as we knew it is very conservative Arabic culture that even Swahili words are pronounced with very heavy Arabic dialect.
So my high alert was not because the Lady Sex had reared its “head” in conservative taarab music; but because here is a brave coastian who wants to experiment and has chosen the extreme and explosive kind of sex to rip into pious Islamic custom. I kept on following them until much later in the 1990’s I was told that ToT taarab group had now turned to ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) propaganda machine wrecking at opposition instead of endless co-wife lyrics fights.
Then in mid-1990’s on a visit to Zanzibar I strayed into another song. This time it was Benga wizard Collela Mazee’s record Dichol Kadh Imosa lifted in whole without butting an eyelid onto a taarab song. At least rumba composer Lutumba Simarro Massiya of OK Jazz used to hide when lifting Collella’s guitar works. Now I sat up to listen again to the structure of modern taarab of ToT group and other groups. This current lift was by a group called Dambak of Zanzibar.
HISTORY OF TAARAB
Briefly I came to learn while touring the museums of the island that the reason why taarab lyrics is essentially gossip along the East African Coast is because it was the slave girls versus the master’s wife. And in visiting the living quarters of Sayed Said’s 100 or so wives, I realised that the silky voices we hear over the radio are not Asians but negroid African women as dark as coal. That really shocked me. How could they sing so Asiatic like dragging the words? As a youth growing up on the rigid staple diet of Benga music, this was not possible.
In the afternoon I was taken to a hall where Melody East Africa the reigning TZ group performs (Malaika Hall) but I was told I cannot attend because in strict tradition men dance on their own and women dance on their own. I understood that Arabic segregation. Instead in the evening we went to a nearby residential pub where a 4-man combo was performing delightful taarab music and again they were as black as anybody from Nyanza. There was not even a wind instrument and the long drawn out silky recitals was shortened. Besides the negroid locals mixed so well whether gay, straight, Christian, male female, prostitute you name it.
It was my first chance to meet with a gay person and chat normally. Zubedi as he was called had gone to Emirates and came back Sabrina. To be honest my chaperone played games on me just to spook my silly Luo prejudices. I remember him very well. He wore a green trouser and the 1990 sexy Hollywood fashionable “bob cut” hair style. He hung around until a verbal fight broke with a female prostitute. The whole thing did not last long as another gay person broke it up with a joke I could not fathom at first. He was pot-bellied like me. And when teased about his weight he claimed, “Hata nafikiri nina mimba”. I am telling this story because my chaperone was a young man of medium height. The next day he asked me to go and eat lunch at his brother’s house who was eager to meet me before I leave for Nairobi. They were both tall with deep dark and smooth complexion. They had milky white teeth with dark gums like Pamela Mboya. And the house was in the National Housing Corporation (NHC) flats where the former president was staying. At the end of the meal, they told me that they have an auntie married in western Kenya around Kisii. And Kisii was the largest town when they came for weddings even though they had not been back to Nyanza since 1961. Anyway towards the end they told me that the auntie is Pamela Odede Mboya, whose Nyar-Pemba mother as she was fondly known in Uyoma, Siaya is a Zanzibari. So I paid a keen interest and asked to hear more about their tribe and how Nyar-Pemba agreed to marry from so far. What followed next that was the shocker and completely rubbishes classical academic history in Kenya as not fit for purpose.
My hosts told me to always keep the history of Zanzibar in view of the human turbulence that took place in Eastern Africa. Most of the settlers around this area were either rescued slaves or drifters from hinterland Africa. They told me that if you look at mannerisms with a close eye you can be able to tell whether one had roots in Congo, Nyasaland, Makonde or hinterland Luo Nyanza. They told me you can even see it in the dance or how people sing or eat even though tribally they have been denoted a local tribe. The way the taarab music has been influenced with modern taarab I should be able to hear hinterland influences like Luo music. Still shocked they asked me, "where do you think all the WW1 deserters went to? How about migrant workers in quarries, mines and plantations? And who was Field Marshall John Okello, the First president of Zanzibar?" I left Zanzibar shaken and stirred into what history really should have been passed on to me.
With this new information I have always been following what is dubbed modern taarab especially the music of ToT and to see how close it is getting to Lakeside Benga Music. For a start ToT stands for Tanzania One Theatre, youth group in taarab music exploits.
But first what is Benga music? I am waiting to read the latest standard text on what is Benga music? What is the structure of lyrics or singing? Or is it just music sung in dholuo? And what is the dance that makes up Benga music.
First of all, taarab music is for listening because it is a war of words with very elaborate texts and proverbs. East African coastal taarab is mostly less story telling just vendetta. The proverbs used as ammunition are thrown in a salvo in numbers. You rarely get a story supported by one proverb. Benga on the other hand could be a commentary say but with a story line and with a saying or proverb to support. This may not have changed much in new taarab.
Where there has been a major change with a great influence of Benga is in the use of vocals. Where Arabic taarab uses the drawn out singing in silky voices to complement the music, Benga singing limits how much the singing of notes go. So they are more crisp and less of a lullaby. Listening to songs by modern taarab like ToT, the singing has dramatically changed over 30 years and is more cub like for faster dancing. You could say more disco/club like but I see more Benga because the melody has been retained. Of course the lyrics had long moved away from simply co- wife cat fights.
The modern taarab instrumentation has had the biggest revolutionary and dramatic change 30 years ago, thanks in no small part to ToT. The 50 band group was long abandoned. In its place is now 3 backup vocals, an organist, 3 guitar players, a drummer and sometimes a conga player. Very Benga-like formation even in stage set up where the vocalist lines up next to the back-up singers/dancers. The lead and bass guitarists line up immediately behind the lead vocalists. The organist who acts like the rhythm guitarist in Benga group is positioned near the drums who like in Benga is the conductor and time keeper. In other words, for whatever reason Taarab has moved dangerously close to Benga in instrumentation.
My friend, international Goalkeeper Mahmood Abbas, the superstar used to share with me video and then translate for me those deep Swahili pompous words. The words were super. Yes, I remember Shika Pendo langu uiweke kibigoni, Nenda Ukaliwe pesa wanawarembo hawaeshi. I could never make out such short sentences until Mahmoud Abbas broke them down for me. There was something else. The singing was so dour and mournful even in a wedding that you did not know whether it is a funeral or a wedding. All you knew is that there is something very sad going on here. Then the movements on stage was so slow pendulum like with the feet firmly planted in one spot. The backup in flowing dresses of 1900s in the US would be seated moving their heads lugubriously. In short taarab was one long lugubrious eye sore. And I perfectly understand this because like I was told these were slave girls probably hiding their fears of tomorrow and the hard task master; the inability to have one of their own or living a life of unnatural sex and love. It is not the joyful singing might deceive us that it was. They were not free. That was the beginning. Even later after independence when groups like Black Stars of the 1970s and Malika of 1990s KANU demagogue cheering lady came along (Vidonge) it was no more than that Indian cobra snake like shifting of the neck and military dreary marching with some two uninterested motionless backups. At most the little scattered finger gestures with the thumb knotted to the first finger which as remnants of a catalogue of Indian lewd hand dances is all that you saw. Of course uninformed women of bara imitate the gestures to show I am civilised I have been to Mombasa nam-chumbi completely oblivious to the meaning and origin of the signal. Taabu ya mwafrika ni mingi.
The modern taarab is Benga incarnation right from Kisumu Kondele at 2 am on Saturday. The choreography and gestures by the lead singer can even be raunchy. The choreography by hand movements compliment the lyrics. The kicks by foot to stamp. It is everything goes. It is infections. Then the stage dancers perform very Benga-like moves on stage. First like Benga the waist gyration is less suggestive if anything that is left to the buttocks. But the shifting of the rhythmic shifting of body weight from one side to the other is very typical of Luo lakeside dances. The independent by rhythmic movement of the arms and the feet is very Benga-like. And it is repeated again and again as the music approaches a crescendo sometimes dubbed sebene or thum- oguro.
Meanwhile the back-up dancers are not left behind in egging and cajoling the revellers to a fast pace. The lead singer keeps the feet on the gas praises showered on the musicians, challenging, the dancers.
If there was any doubt, there that Modern Taarab has not borrowed from Benga then this is the clincher. In Taarab proper men and women dancing together was not allowed. In fact, I am not sure whether FIFA will manage to enforce the rule that women be allowed to attend football games at the world cup in Arabian territory. In modern Taarab like in Benga they even hold each other in a rumba tango (haram!). And if you watch the dancing to modern taarab it is very much benga dance. The quick limb movements; less suggestive wait movements like in Congolese soukous.
Most of all the un mistakable unparalleled upright dancing of the lakeside Luos with a straight back probably arising from tutored “walking tall” with arrogance. You know what I am talking about.
Finally, the rubber stamp dancing with gusto with a serious face to mean this is serious business is all in taarab music. Studious face but you can read extreme one ness with the music
If there was any dispute that Modern Taarab has borrowed from Benga then it must be that modern taarab as descendants of slave captives around Bagamoyo and Tanga towns are as much entitled to benga as we are.
The modern taarab dancers could also be descendants of WW1 and WW2 deserters, veterans and prisoners of war who could not make it back and are entitled to these benganised taarab as much as we do.
This takes me to 1968 as a 10-year-old listening to Mzee Patrobas Ranyuongi Opiyo who was a veteran of WW1 and WW2 and how they were abandoned in Tanzania as Von Lettow Vorbeck the German war martial kicked the British Army’s back side. Dismissed and disorientated they were trying to make their way back to Kenya not knowing where to go. They wrongly headed westwards reached a river that looked so shallow and you could see fish but when you dived in you just disappeared. A few of his Luo Nyanza mates managed to take of the boots and swim across towards what is now Kindu, eastern Congo. Ranyuongi and a few veterans fortuitously turned back and in doing so rerouted towards Mwanza. He managed to reach Gem Yala years after his Gem Kojuodhi clan had assumed he was long dead and yago tree had been ritually buried by his father Oyoo wuod Awiti. Reason is that even if he had survived the war, the Spanish Influenza, the famine of the Kanga was raging and coming through Tanganyika he would have walked direct in the eye of the storm where 5,000 South Nyanza Luos were “officially” recorded to have died of Spanish Influenza. Eight years ago I read in Dr David Livingstone’s lost journals, Inside Africa by biographer Duggard, that there was such a river that Mzee Ranyuongi talked of, that gave Dr Livingstone a hard time because it was deceptively shallow. Dr Livingstone lost a lot of men, horses and luggage in trying to cross this river. Then three years ago I read a story in the popular music journal Africa Oye that seems to suggest that Tanzania music superstar Remmy Ongara’s father or grandfather was a war veteran who lost his way and found the town Kindu in Congo that Remmy Ongala calls home. Ongalo is a common name in Luo South Nyanza. It seems to me like I have heard this story before especially where Remmy recounts how delivering him was a problem until certain rituals had to be undertaken. And just maybe this is one of the South Nyanza Ranyuongi’s colleagues who managed to swim across and Remmy granddad are one and the same person as one of the colleagues.
Anyway not all Luos who stayed back in Tanzania stayed out of duress. Remember the saying, “ukicheza na Mtanga utatangatanga”. The pleasure in Tanga catchment area is legendary and is the sort of poetic sweet sticky honey that has been used to trap Luo men including the legend Luanda Magere. Then there is this story I was told by one Nyakach 70 yr old man in Buru Phase 2 in 1976 in the company of Joyce nyagem (18 yrs) Kodiaga of an amorous Nyakach man who never came back from his working station in Mwadui near Shinyanga, the Diamond mining area. This Nyakach kabodho man lied to Odiero’ wife that, "I cannot guard you because we uncircumcised luos cannot sleep without sex so must go away to a far Kijiji”. The odiero woman had a ready solution because it was deserted bungalow in the Africa of those days and the diamond prospecting hubby had gone to sell diamonds in Zanzibar. These Nyakach guys walianza zamani.
My point is that benga is larger than our confines and ring-fencing benga as ours only may be not so accurate even if a good idea. But very significantly the subtle point is that here we have War veteran Mzee Ranyuongi at 80 years of age passing folklore to a 10 year old and then 8 years later we have a 70 year old Nyakach man passing folklore to two Afro coiffured 18 year-olds.
LESSONS TO LEARN- KHADIJA KOPA
If an extreme form of music like taarab can heavily borrow from benga based on need, then I think benga should also be free borrow. I watched the latest video by TOT led by Khadija Kopa of Zanzibar in the appropriately titled hit song “Top In Town” and I was amazed how modern taarab has further encroached into benga.
First Khadija Kopa would easily get lost in Kisumu nyahera, kakdhimu, Karachuonyo or Alego Kaluo or Asembo republic. She is dark and she radiates happiness. She is an everyday Luo woman with bravado to boot.
Then Khadija Kopa has girth. She is comfortable in any community that measures beauty in kilogrammes like my Lakeside people. If not the whole of Nyanza, then let me say I am not ashamed to say in Ugenya Kager we measure beauty in kilogrammes. Woe unto you amongst your brethren if your wife does not gain weight after you marry her. Miss Kopa flaunts her body like a Luo lady. She chants her body like a Luo woman. She is right in your face and you have nowhere to run to because the only place you can run to is your screen to watch her do her stuff.
Khadija definitely has picked a lot of stuff from Luo Benga. I am sure of that. Remember Collela Mazee and his chants of Odham Wembe or Owino Misiani and the drummer Omoya Ukwala. Well Khadija Kopa does the same thing. Remember the trend in chanting the left behind members of the community like car wash boys of Kisumu and Bust stop touts. Well Khadija Kopa also has not left behind Bagamoyo Bus stop touts. Remember “Adhiambo mano to miel mane?” of early Ohangla hits. Mmmm Khadija Kopa is also onto the driver’s octopus’ hands.
In short we are not an island and if we cannot exploit what God has given us, somebody will. Suzanne Owiyo is top notch but she stifles her razzmatazz. She is like the greatest black singer I know, Stevie Wonder, who will not do the Michael Jackson freakishness just to maximise his potential. You-tube presenter Terry Chocolate Nyang’iya used to be cavalier but she has toned downed. I think she got the PhD treatment (Pull Her Down). I see Sheri Achieng’ Nyasega as a potential Khadija Kopa on stage. I can see Sherri look straight at the camera and spit out the viewer with Khadija Kopa like, “macho-kwa-macho, macho-kwa-macho” and an accompanying wink. She has everything going for her. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Lakeside performing ladies, you are in the business of spectacular shows and razzmatazz. Your detractors should keep this in view!