Siti binti Saad: The Mother of Taarab in Zanzibar

Singer Siti bint Saad is a trailazer who revolutionized taarab music in a that is still today in Zanzibar and all the other regions along the Indian ocean coast where taarab is popular.

Siti’s contribution to taarab should not be underestimated. Whereas er predecessors where all made and song predominantly in Arabic, she was the first women to perform in Swahili – a novelty at the time.

She was born in 1880 in the Fumba village in Zanzibar. Her family’s living conditions were deplorable. When she came of age, Siti left her home village for the city where she get Ali Muhsin of Nadi Ikwan Safaa, a taarab group indebted to the Sultan at that time. Muhsin recognised Siti’s gift and decided to teach her to sing along to the group’s taarab instruments.

During the time she was starting her career, it was considered immoral for women to join taarab groups and to sing in public. Siti thus paved the way for female musicians in this she helped change people’s mindsets and transformed taarab to the point where women and now usually the lead singers in taarab bass, with men providing back-up locals and playing the instruments. And by singing in Swahili, she ensured that taarab music penetrated mainland east Africa because more people could now understand.

Between 1928 and 1950, she recorded over 150 records at the Columba music recording company, based in Mumbai, India. Her music sold fast, with company executive hardly believing that over 72 records had sold in 1931 alone. Siti’s name continued to grow and wide. Columbia even established a branch in Zanzibar to enhance her music and into other local talent. It is through her recording and performance with musicians and poets from Mombasa and Lamu that taarab became widely accessible throughout region. Later, further Egyptian influence was incorporated into the genre by including full string sections of violin, cello and bass, as well as the according, oud, ganun, keyboard and ney flute.

Throughout the world, Siti bint Saad’s name is synonymous with taarab, although she passed away in 1950, Siti is still remembered as the first women in East Africa to record an entire album of her music.

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