RetroTan is delighted to release a selection of the legendary 1929-31 recordings of Siti Binti Saad and her Troupe. Recorded by the Gramophone Company in Mumbai, almost 90 years ago, these ground-breaking recordings of Zanzibari Taraab, have not hitherto been available to a wider public, beyond the 4 tracks released by the National Sound Archive in the UK in 2007. Three of these are included here as bonus tracks, with the kind permission of the NSA.
Siti Binti Saad was born in Zanzibar in 1880. Her given name, Mtumwa, translates as slave or servant and she started out with very little. In 1911, only 14 years after the abolition of slavery in Zanzibar, Siti moved into Ngambo, the ‘other side’ of Stone Town, seeking a better life.
During WW1 her fame as a performer spread as she sang of the joys and sorrows of daily life, using her growing reputation to critique injustice under the colonial government. Blessed with a wonderful voice, she first mastered courtly taraab, sung in Arabic, while performing for the leading families of the Swahili coastal elite. In the course of time, she translated these rhythmic and poetic structures into popular tunes. Her power as a cultural hero was cemented into history when she became the first East Africa artiste to produce gramophone recordings following her visits to Mumbai. Siti lived on until the ripe old age of 70, finally passing away in1950 but her musical fame was such that Shaaban Robert, Tanzania’s leading poet, wrote Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad, published in 1956, in her honour
‘being born poor isn’t dying poor’ the music of siti binti saad
Siti Binti Saad is one of the most studied but least heard musicians from Africa. She is the subject of a PhD, a renowned Swahili biography, several chapters in books and many scholarly articles and features. Her iconic image, one of only four extant photographs, adorns posters and advertising and she is widely considered to be a pioneer of African feminism. Yet her music has not been available outside Zanzibar for the last 50 years, and even there it is almost impossible to find a copy. She is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern taraab and the originator of a tradition, now spanning a century, of strong-minded women singers. Everyone seems to have heard of her but very few have ever heard her.
Siti was born into a poor family in Fumba, a small village a few miles south of Stone Town in the mid-1880s, a decade before the abolition of slavery in Zanzibar. Her father, Saad bin Mussa was a Nyamwezi from the mainland while her mother, Bi Mrashi, was Zigua. One of three sisters, she was given the name ‘Mtumwa’ – a slave or servant – reflecting the status into which she was born. Early life would have been typical of the time and place, playing and helping out with domestic and agricultural chores. She married in her early teens, bearing a daughter, Mariam, but soon returned home where she followed her mother’s profession of making and selling pots and mats. She stayed at home for the next ten years before moving to town with her second husband where, according to one version of her story, she was overheard singing at home. Another version describes her extraordinary voice being heard as she walked through town, singing to attract attention to her pots, entertaining customers with folk songs and riddles. As Laura Fair observed, ‘Through her regular trips to town she became acquainted with the people and possibilities of urban life’, and she eventually moved to town in 1911 to see what opportunities the post-abolition, colonial era could provide.
Two opportunities quickly presented themselves to SBS. She seized both. She first came to the attention of several established performers of Islamic ritual music such as Mhusin Ali, a member of the Sultan’s taraab group, who asked her to become a performer herself. Secondly, now around 30 years old, she began to learn the Qur’an and the rules of recitation. These opportunities were instrumental in her transformation ‘from a quaint singer of colloquial tunes into a highly sought-after performer of Islamic ritual music’ which had become a popular source of public and private entertainment. At this stage in her career, SBS performed regularly with Nadi Akhwani Safaa, founded in 1905 and one of the most popular taraab troupes but in time formed her own, small group with four other musicians, Subeiti bin Ambari, an oud player, Buda Suwedi, a gambusi player, Mwalimu Shaaban, a timbrel player and Mbaruku, a violinist.
Following the collapse of her second marriage, and now based in Mtoni, SBS threw herself into her new career and over the next few years was instrumental in expanding the social and cultural context of ‘maulid’, the Islamic version of thanksgiving, to include the use of tambourines and drums, singing in Swahili as opposed to Arabic and widening the performing arena to allow women to participate. Within ten years, SBS was one of the most highly regarded performers of taraab in Zanzibar, appealing to the poor while captivating the rich. By the time of the First World War, Siti’s fame was spreading and by the 1920s she had transformed herself from Mtumwa the slave to Siti the lady, performing in the sultan’s court and other events hosted by the wealthy elite, along the way generating considerable financial rewards and reputedly earning more for one performance that a urban laborer could earn in a year.
SBS sang in the taarab musical tradition, which blends Swahili music with Arabic and Indian. Prior to Siti, taarab singers were most often well-off, cultured and male and sang in Arabic. Siti, who was illiterate but had a gift for memorizing songs, began the now well-established practice of singing in Kiswahili. Her career served to give the language prestige and bring it to audiences outside of East Africa.
While Siti occupied the spotlight, she did not perform alone and as her fame grew a number of prominent musicians coalesced around her, including two from the mainland. Mwalim Shaaban Umbaye, for example, the principal poet of the Group was born in Malawi in 1900 before being brought to Zanzibar as a child in 1904. As a trained Koranic teacher, he soon became the Group’s main composer. Mbaruku Effandi Talsam, the son of a slave concubine, was born in Mombasa in 1892, becoming blind from smallpox in 1902. A flute, fiddle and oud player, he moved to Zanzibar in 1920 specifically to join Siti’s band, her fame by that time having reached the length and breadth of the East African coast. Subeti bin Ambari and Buda bin Suwedi, both born in Unguja, completed the line-up.
The group lived in Ng’ambo, the ‘other side’ for anyone familiar with modern Zanzibar and Laura Fair has described how the Group rehearsed at Siti’s home, composing lyrics in a shared exercise with members of the public who, every night, flocked to her house to listen to the latest gossip and news. By the 1920s her house was one of the central gathering places in the town as colonialism started to penetrate every aspect of social and cultural life. Siti’s response was to intentionally spark discussion around a wide range of class, gender and political issues and in due course compositions around the issues of the day came to comprise a key part of the Group’s repertoire. As Fair has noted, these songs ‘portrayed the lived physical reality of average men and women, rather than the saccharine sweet romantic idealism that would come to dominate post-World War Two taraab songs’. SBS always listened to the working population with songs about everyday life in Zanzibar and actual events. They contained social criticism, denouncing class oppression, corruption, the abuse of women by men and the shortcomings of the legal system. To this extent, taarab, the women’s performing art as it was shaped by Siti Binti Saad, is highly political.
Over the years, the Group built up a large repertoire of compositions, some say as many as 250, and in the mid-60s, Jahadhmy published lyrics for a hundred or so songs. More have been translated since then. While SBS is perhaps best remembered for her more political material, it actually accounted for only an estimated 25% of all songs recorded with the bulk, 60%, about love. Several have been analyzed by Fair and others and provide a narrative of the class, gender, social, economic and political issues which dominated Zanzibar from the end of the first world war to the start of the second.
Compared with standard historical narratives of this period, these songs help us to understand what was happening below the surface in a time of enormous change.
Kigalawa, for example, argues that even poor people deserve dignity and respect while Wala Hapana Hasara and Ela Kafa Ndugu Zangu celebrate the downfall of a corrupt Arab official landowner and a humorous celebration of the jailing of another corrupt official. Pilisi Wamesite, on the other hand, calls attention to the failure to jail a wealthy businessman who murdered his wife. Kijiti, a particularly well-known song, questions the justice of the colonial legal system. Nauliwani and Wewe Paka pick up on the theme of unwanted sexual advances while both Mpenzi Hariri and Kikombe cha Zari, turn the tables and explore how women use men and that even men can be financially dependent.
Towards the end of the 1920s, given the huge number of Siti’s fans and admirers, a local Indian businessman eventually realized the potential market for Siti’s voice and decided to try record her songs on gramophone discs, as much for their popularity as for his personal benefit. Already a rebellious figure in colonial society, with visits to Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya under her belt, SBS literally pushed the boat out for the epic journey across the Indian ocean to Mumbai. These 78rpms represents some of the first pieces of recorded music produced during the very first recording sessions of
Zanzibari musicians. In March 1928, the Gramophone Company in England invited a handful of Zanzibari musicians to Bombay, India, including Maalim Shaban and Siti binti Saad. The engineer was Robert Edward Beckett, who had been recording around the world for GramCo since 1922. The Mumbai recordings session resulted in 56 records released by His Master’s Voice later that year and when the Group returned to Zanzibar, they were greeted like visiting dignitaries with thousands turning out to welcome them home. Hilal, in her wonderful biography of 2007, described the impact of these recordings as follows;
“When records of her song were out and distributed, Bi Siti fans increased; because those who previously had heard about Siti’s qualities were now able to listen to her songs although she was far out of their sight. Discs of her songs were heard in restaurants, at home and everywhere. Wherever one passed, one could hear Siti’s voice. Hence, no celebrations or receptions of the wealthy people could be conducted without Siti’s presence”.
The sales proved so successful that second (1930) and third (1931) sessions were organized, resulting in a further 98 songs, selling over 40,00 copies over the next two years alone, generating total sales of over 70,000 by June 1931. Rather than release everything at once the Company released them in monthly batches of ten to sustain sales, or the equivalent of an album a month. During the second trip, SBS met an Egyptian singer who was very famous at that time, Al-anisa Ummu Kulthum, who was also in India to record her songs. Ummu Kulthum was very happy to meet Siti and was extremely impressed with Siti’s ambition, being the first woman in East Africa to record her songs, even organizing an official reception for Siti and her Group.
By any standards this was a prolific output and with individual records selling well, the label clearly judged it to be well worth their while. This was the era of the Jazz Age with styles like Swing, Boogie Woogie and Big Band and stars like Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Gene Autrey providing the soundtrack to colonial life in Zanzibar. Yet, something was stirring below the surface, amongst the colonized, as technology, business opportunities and talent combined to launch the commercial careers of what we might today call ‘world musicians’. From Om Kulsum in Egypt and ‘El Manicero’ in Cuba to Siti Binti Saad in Zanzibar, new sounds emerged to influence future musical development, not only in the sub-regions of the imperial world, the Middle East, the Caribbean and East Africa but occasionally in the very centres of empire. The records themselves were pressed in Calcutta and shipped to the Swahili-speaking regions of coastal East Africa.
After these historic sessions, there seemed to be a mad rush to record East African musicians: Odeon began recording local music all down the East African coast, Pathé shipped East African musicians to Marseille to record, and Columbia began recording some of the very same musicians that GramCo had recorded, except onsite. But by the 1930s various factors combined to create a major downturn in recording in East Africa, which did not really pick up again until the late 1940s. Out of an estimated 250 titles recorded by Siti and her Group, very few have actually surfaced, perhaps as few as 10%, although hopefully more will be unearthed as old record collections are rediscovered and enthusiasts step up their search.
Siti Binti Saad passed away in 1950, at the ripe old age of 70. Her funeral was attended by huge crowds from all corners of Unguja and Pemba but also from Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. She was buried in Zanzibar town, at the Rahaleo cemetery, leaving one daughter, one grandson and her sisters, Bi Mharami and Bi Baya.
She had been born in the last years of the independent Sultanate and had lived through almost the entire colonial experience. She transcended traditional music on the one hand and the more courtly, classical taraab on the other, helping to create Swahili Taraab, a new art form, along the way inspiring many musicians and opening the door for other female taarab singers. She was, for example, the mentor of Bi Kidude who was to became a global taarab star in the 1990s until her death in 2013, covering many of Siti’s compositions such as ‘Mahogo wa Chang’ombe’, ‘Beru’ and ‘Baba Pakistani’.
When we released Bi Kidude’s first solo album in 1995 on the RetroAfric label (Retro 12CD), she paid homage to SBS in an interview for the sleeve notes.
‘I learned all my songs from Siti Binti Saad, the first woman singer in Zanzibar. We both had to cover our faces with a fine cloth. Then she passed away but her voice was still in the air. She had a very powerful voice, like mine’
Siti Binti Saad also met the famous Swahili poet Shaaban Robert, who wrote her biography, “Wasifu wa Siti binti Saad”. Published after her death, in 1956, this book is an important work of Tanzanian literature and is still studied in schools. Shaaban Robert called Siti binti Saad’s songs ’the pride of East Africa’ and her recordings ‘a great light in the darkness’, left to posterity. A magazine dedicated to women’s issues, published by the Tanzania Media Women’s Association, also bears reference to the artist: ‘Sauti ya Siti’, (the voice of Siti’). In 2017, a group of local researchers established the Activist Siti Binti Saad Mwanahakarati Institute in Zanzibar to preserve her songs and promote Zanzibari culture and values.
Today, SBS occupies a prominent and unique place in the pantheon of Zanzibari cultural and political heroes. In 2019, Andy Morgan, a keen observer of the African music scene revisited the islands as part of the annual Sauti za Busara music festival, half expecting to find that taraab had died. Instead he found.
During his visit he also interviewed Siti Muharam, the great granddaughter of SBS and herself a rising star. ‘For me, I can live anywhere,” she says, “but the most important thing is to be free, and do what you want to do.” She talks about the courage that you need to stand in front of an audience and sing, especially if you’re a woman. ‘Lots of singers have a very beautiful voice and could play all over the world. But only one or two can do it. The rest cannot’. She tells me that she inherited her own courage from Bi Kidude, who was born at the bottom of the social pyramid but grew to become a global star. Did she know Bi Kidude, I ask. “Yes, very well.” What was she like? “Crazy!” she answers, laughing. “I admire her very much. She was free. And very strong. We’re still inspired by her: from Siti Binti to her and from her to us’.
In 2020, when Siti Muharam released her first album, producer Pete Buckingham observed that ‘when musicians like Siti Binti Saad die, their work and legacy aren’t celebrated, invested in or continued’. While this is a slight exaggeration of Siti’s legacy, it does call attention to the importance of the past in forging the future. Siti Muharam is all too well aware of what is at stake. ‘I like bringing the sound of Siti Binti Saad and her students to this time’: A voice lost and voice found to produce a snapshot of Zanzibar’s past and glimpse of its future.
I first really became aware of SBS shortly after arriving in Zanzibar in 1991. I retained a small house in the Kiponda area of Stone Town and came to work closely with Mariam Hamdani, Mohammed Ilyas and Bi Kidude on a number of musical ventures. All the time, the memory and legacy of SBS hung in the background, reflected in Bi Kidude’s repertoire, but with no original copies to listen to, on any format. I was later to discover that radio stations as far away as Somalia and the Comoros Islands still have copies in their archives, which are occasionally given an airing. It was only much later, in 2008, that strolling along a wet Gizenga Street in the late afternoon, I noticed a new shop selling fabrics, paintings and a few CDs. Intrigued, I entered and was delighted to see a CD of songs by SBS, marketed by Nubi Records of London, WC28JT.
With minimal sleeve notes and no luck in tracking down the label, I stored it away as a potential Retroafric release sometime in the future. The opportunity came in 2018 when
I started speaking to Sam and Pete at On the Corner Records, who had been busy in Zanzibar, recording Siti Muharam, with a vinyl album released in 2020 to great acclaim. I had a few other Tanzanian classics in mind and decided to relaunch the Retrotan label, given that Retroafric had more or less finished its journey with the 4 CD collection of ET Mensah in 2016. A family visit to Zanzibar and Dar in early 2019 only strengthened my resolve to start putting out some of the lost classics of Tanzanian music, starting with SBS.
During our next visit to Zanzibar in February 2020, Mariam Hamdani provided me with another version of Siti’s recordings, this time under the imprint of Zenj Film Productions, complied by Bibi Nasra M. Hilal, a veteran radio announcer with Radio Zanzibar, author of a biography of SBS and with access to the Radio Zanzibar musical archive. The titles were the same but the songs were different and it was only much later that I realized that the Nubi recording was in fact a bootleg copy of the early taraab release ‘Poetry and Languid Charm of the Swahili’, curated by Janet Topp-Fargion at the National Sound Archive in London and containing only four tracks by SBS. See below. By this time, I was now in touch with Siti Muharam, asking her to sign on behalf of the family for any publishing and licensing income which might accrue.
And that was it. These are not the only SBS songs available but with 16 different compositions on one CD, The Mumbai Recordings represent the most comprehensive compilation yet. While a huge effort has been made to try and restore the original quality of the 78rpms, this has not always been possible and several tracks carry a serious health warning. They have only been included, on the basis that their historic value is such that omitting them would condemn them to further obscurity. It is also important to bear in mind that Siti is not the lead vocalist on several of the songs and that composing duties were also shared between Siti and Mwalim Shaaban.
WHAT ELSE IS AVAILABLE
In 2007 the National Sound Archive in London released ‘Poetry and Languid Charm’, a wonderful collection of 16 tracks from East Africa, dating from the 1920s-1950s. Collated by Janet Topp Fargion, herself an authority on SBS, the collection included four tracks by Siti and her Group: ‘Wewe Paka’, ‘Usiweke Tamaa Mbele’, Muhoga wa Jang’ombe’ and ‘Kigalawa’, all carefully selected from a small selection of titles held by the NSA. Vital listening for anyone interested in the development of taraab.
Maalim Shabaan’s composition, ‘Unguja’ has also appeared on the Secret Museum of Mankind’s East Africa compilation, on the Yazoo label in 1998. Probably the most overt influence heard in early taarab ensembles is the classical Arabic influence. But as scholar Werner Graebner and others have pointed out, the influences were wide – from India and Southeast Asia, to the Persian Gulf’s khaleeji music. The instrumentation heard on this piece is oud, violin, and percussion (darabukka). The title of the piece, “Unguja,” refers to Zanzibar itself. Maalim Shaban lived at least until the 1960s, when he participated in interviews for a book on early Swahili recording artists (Waimbaji wa Juzi, by A. A. Jahadhmy.
The basic facts surrounding Siti Binti Saad are astonishing: The first woman to perform in public: The first person to sing taraab in Swahili: The first voice from Zanzibar to be recorded. But the narrative of her life, in the particular context of colonial Zanzibar, is even more memorable as a number of writers and researchers have discovered and I must acknowledge my huge debt to them, particularly Janet Topp-Fargion, Laura Fair, Kelly Askew, Werner Graebner, Andy Morgan and Hilda Keil.
Laura Fair, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890-1945, James Currey, Oxford, 2001.
Nathalie Arnold, Placing the Shameless: Approaching Poetry and the Politics of Issue 3. 2002. Indiana University Press
Kelly Askew, Sung and Unsung: Musical Reflections on Tanzanian Post-Socialisms, Journal of the International African Institute, Volume 76, Issue 1, 2006, Cambridge University Press.
Kelly Askew, Musical Images and Imaginations: Tanzanian Music Videos, Edinburgh University Press
Angela Demovic, Where are the Women When the Tourists Arrive ?: Bodies, Space, and Islamic Femininity in Rural Zanzibar, Journal of African Religions, Volume 4, Issue 1.
A. A. Jahadhmy. Waimbaji wa Juzi, Zanzibar, 1966
Laura Fair, It’s Just No Fun Anymore: Women’s Experiences of Taarab before and after the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Volume 35 Issue 1
Janet Topp Fargion, The Role of Women in taarab in Zanzibar: An Historical Examination of a Process of “Africanisation” The World of Music, Volume 35 Issue 2, Pages 1993.
Janet Topp Fargion, Taraab Music in Zanzibar in the 20th Century: The Story of ‘Old is Gold’ and Flying Spirits, Ashgate, Burlington, USA, 2014
Linda Giles, Sociocultural Change and Spirit Possession on the Swahili Coast of East Africa, Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 68 Issue 2. The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
Hilda Kiel, Travel on a Song – The Roots of Zanzibar Taarab, International Library of African Music, Volume 9 Issue 2, 2012.
Mathew Morin, Music, Memory, and Economy: NGO Initiatives of East Africa’s “Zilizopendwa” Progenitors, The World of Music, Volume 3, 2014.
Garth Myers, Isle of Cloves, Sea of Discourses: Writing about Zanzibar, Ecumene, Volume 3 Issue 4,1996
Christiaan De Beukeler, Tourism and Imagining Musical Traditions on the East African Coast: Harmony and Disharmony, The World of Music, Volume 3 Issue 1, 2014.
Laura Fair, Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Swahili Music and the Global Recording Industry in the 1920s and 1930s, Cambridge University Press, 2018
Laura Fair, Music, Memory and Meaning: The Kiswahili Recordings of Siti Binti Saad, AAP, 1998.
Paul Vernon, Feast of East, Folk Roots, No. 145, 1995.
Grandmaison, C. Le c. & Crozon A., Zanzibar Aujourd’hui. Karthala Press, Paris and IFRA, 1998.
Hilal, N. M. The Potter Enters the Palace: Siti Binti Saad, The Taarab Queen, Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd, Tanzania, 2007