This paper discusses a genre of Swahili popular music--taarab--by focusing on its historical development, context of performance, and relation to gender and religion. Using case studies and interviews with musicians and audience members at taarab performances, I analyze the structure and organization of taarab music performance. These performances reveal that the gender divide assumed by many scholars is in fact far from characteristic of Swahili musical performance. By examining the context and meanings of producing and consuming taarab, I demonstrate that, rather than occupying two distinct worlds of men and women, Swahili musical practices engender both competitive and complementary realities, thereby fostering a complexity that would be easily missed if the meanings of gendered interaction and behavior were to be taken at face value. Consequently, I highlight how the analysis of popular musical expression can contribute to an understanding of socio-cultural practices, reproduction and change of cultural norms, and local units of self-assessment among the Swahili in particular and other communities in general.
Taarab is the Swahili equivalent of the Arabic word tarab, which implies the concept(s) of entertainment, enchantment, emotion-filled movement, and delight (Anthony 1983; Askew 1992; Topp 1992). As used among the Swahili, taarab denotes the performance and singing of mashairi (poems) with instrumental accompaniment (Campbell 1983; Knappert 1979) and also carries the connotations of entertainment and expression of emotions. The Swahili are an African people of mixed descent living along the East African coast as well as in the interior. They are mainly Muslim and lead an urban lifestyle characterized by a mercantile economy. With a language that has become world-known, the Swahili have an elaborate cultural practice that draws from Arab, African, Indian, and European cultures. Taarab music is indeed a reflection of this complexity with its characteristics reflecting influences from Arabia, Africa, India, Europe, and the Americas. However, when one speaks of Swahili music, there is no doubt that taarab is a major part of that music.
Although taarab is often performed at Swahili weddings, the performance itself has very little to do with the bride and groom at the specific wedding. Rather, taarab performance is a social space in which local values, concerns, and relations are mobilized, discussed, evaluated, and reconfigured. Thus, apart from a song or two advising the groom and bride on how to live harmoniously in marriage, most taarab songs performed at a wedding will touch on different topics of life relevant to social contexts outside of the wedding. Some songs will touch on the concerns of humans in general, while other songs will touch on specific social issues of the local community. For instance, in one performance, one can hear a song about the human quest for control over the earth, a song about the beauty of Swahili women, a song about a changed political economy, or a song about the pain of losing a loved one. Whatever theme each taarab song represents, however, no performance is identical to another. At each performance, a song's meaning expands or changes depending on the images it expresses or the inferences the audience members may make from it. Given the use of metaphor and other symbolic tropes in song texts, a single taarab song may elicit numerous meanings and interpretations.
Taarab is unique among Swahili musical genres in that it is the only genre in which men and women now perform music together in public. In the words of Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany, (1) "these changes [of men and women performing together] come due to contexts. You will find women teaming up with men to sing but this is not Swahili culture or tradition. Indeed, it is against the teachings of Islam. These performers know it but still ignore it." (2) Sitara Bute, one of the prominent women taarab musicians in Mombasa, shared the same sentiments raised by Nabhany about Islam and gendered practices but saw the practice as part of a process of development. …