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African Legends

Culture Musical Club

By Tom Pryor
Published November 17, 2006

East Africa’s distinctive taarab music is unique to the Swahili coast. But the music and culture’s true homeland is the island of Zanzibar, and taraab’s best-known practitioners are the elegant and accomplished members of the great Culture Musical Club.

Taraab has its roots in Egypt, in the Cairene wedding bands and their classical Arabic repertoire; and the instrumentation reflects this: ouds, khanouns and dumbeks take places alongside contrabass, accordion and massed violins. The music is dramatic and orchestral, like its Arabic inspiration, but sung in Swahili and given a thoroughly African twist.

Also like its Arabic counterpart, taarab is still performed at weddings, and Culture Musical Club (known as Mila na Utamaduni in Swahili) is a true social club that still plays local weddings, as well as international festivals. The band gathers regularly at its clubhouse in Stone Town to rehearse and socialize, and occasionally induct new members. Though not the oldest taarab ensemble on Zanzibar (that honor goes to Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club, founded in 1905), Culture Musical Club has been an ongoing concern for decades, replacing members as needed and becoming a multigenerational outfit in the process.

There’s nothing like seeing Cultural Musical Club play live either: formally decked out in flowing white robes and sitting ramrod straight in their chairs, men radiate dignity and professionalism, while the women singers talk and gossip in the back, picking up their microphones to sing an offhanded chorus without ever missing a beat. Though the group regularly records cassettes for domestic consumption, it’s also cut a few records for the international market, any one of which will give you a small idea of what this remarkable group is like in a live setting.

Recommended Recordings

Waridi, Scents Of Zanzibar (EMI)
Spices Of Zanzibar (World Network)
Taarab 4: The Music Of Zanzibar (Globestyle)