Tausi Women’s Taraab (‘Tausi’ means peacock) was formed in 2009 under the tutelage of Mariam Hamdani and initially fronted by the venerable singer Bi Kidude. The group present in the classical taraab tradition and perform regularly at Sauti za Busara, the world-famous Zanzibar music festival and have also performed in Lebanon, Nairobi, Mayotte, Egypt, Denmark and the USA
These are the bare facts of this astonishing group but a deeper appreciation of their success and their significance can only be found in the long history of taraab and the pivotal role played by two legendary women singers, Siti Binti Saad and Bi Kidude and the rising star, Siti Muharam. Collectively, they span a century of struggle to take their rightful place at the taraab table.
The story starts 150 years ago when, in the words of Andy Morgan, ‘Sultan Barghash sent a talented young musician called Mohammed Ibrahim to Egypt to study the classical orchestral tradition known in Arabic as ‘taarab’. He bought it back to Zanzibar where it slowly percolated down the social pyramid, picking up local rhythms, colourings and Swahili texts along the way. By the 1950s there were taarab orchestras in almost every major village and town on the island, and many more in Stone Town including large female taarab vocal groups’.
But Taraab also spread to the mainland, particularly the Swahili speaking coastal communities and amongst the key figures in this regional musical expansion were two astonishing women, Siti Binti Saad and Bi Kidude. As taraab spread in the region, it soon acquired a Swahili character of its own. Instruments like the qanun, the violin, the cello, the oud and the accordion were incorporated into this musical form and by the 20th century, women were allowed to join the groups. “But they were never allowed to play instruments” says Mariam, “They only sang the chorus.” The groups would often perform at weddings, but as tourism began to flourish on the island so did the offers to play in new hotels. “Women preferred to sing at exclusively female celebrations or weddings, but they didn’t pay well enough to compete with the hotels,” recalls Mariam. So the men began performing for tourists, and the women found themselves without instrumentalists”. And so Bi Mariam set up Tausi. A former minister in the Zanzibar government she used her pension to buy instruments and pursue the goal of an allfemale ensemble, in defiance of conservative imams and recalcitrant husbands, or family members, who deemed music, especially instrumental music, to be ‘unIslamic’. Even the threat of having all the orchestra’s instruments confiscated and burned didn’t deterred Hamdani, who has written songs about the hypocrisy o puritanical sheikhs and imams and has taken the orchestra to villages to engage with
communities on issues around women’s rights.
The ‘peacock’ also spread its wings, playing to enthusiastic audiences in Lebanon, Nairobi, Mayotte, Egypt, Denmark and the USA before the pandemic halted in their steady rise to global acclaim and the opportunity to build on the success of leading member, Siti Muharam, great grand-daughter of Siti Binti Saad and highly acclaimed vocalist on the 2019 global hit, ‘Romance. Revolution’ (OTCRLP005). Normal service was only resumed in the summer of 2022 when the orchestra signed up for a lengthy tour of Germany and the Netherlands
Back in Zanzibar, as Andy Morgan observed “The sight of the sixteen-piece Tausi Women’s Taarab orchestra in full sail on the old fort’s amphitheatre stage is a delightful, unexpected surprise. On several counts. First it confirms the renaissance of taarab, Zanzibar’s most ancient and revered musical tradition, whose roots date back to the 1870s. Secondly, sixteen women sitting on a stage, not only singing but playing violins, qanouns, percussion, accordions, no men in sight, is a vision so startling in the context of 21st century Zanzibar, that it deserves a little explanation. ‘As their concert progresses, the Tausi women lose their prescribed reserve and begin to dance, smile, laugh, shimmy and spin. In one piece they act out the local wedding ritual during which the female friends and relatives of the bride gather together to give her the gifts that will equip her house and her wardrobe for married life. At this point the show enters its most raucous phase, with the woman playing the role of the bride standing on a chair, shoulder-shaking, hip-trembling and whooping as she displays her gifts for all to see. The spectacle exudes an almost ecstatic female joy, the kind that is kept ‘safely’ stowed in the domestic space most of the time, but occasionally, when there’s strength in numbers and tradition permits it, comes out, hungry for release.