Like almost all prominent elements of Zanzibar’s culture, Zanzibari music is a mix of East African, Arabic, Persian and South Asian influences. Zanzibar’s most popular music is taraab, dramatic Swahili orchestral music which features instruments from several continents: Middle Eastern oud and dumbek, Indian tabla, western electric keyboards, and the “Japanese taishokoto,” described here as “a banjo/typewriter key hybrid.” According to Zanzibar.net, “taarab rhythms reflect traditional ngoma dances like chakacha, Indian film scores, Cuban rumba, and various Zairean and East African dance music. Perhaps most importantly, taarab lyrics radiate with the allusive intricacies of Swahili poetry and showcase the beauty of this long, literary tradition.”
Zanzibari music isn’t all taarab, though that’s rightfully where most overview of Zanzibar’s music start. For a one shot overview of Zanzibar’s music, take a look at this YouTube video called “Zanzibar: Taarab — an Ocean of Melodies.” It does start with a taarab performance, featuring orchestral arrangements including an oud, but then it moves on to some East African ngoma drumming (at 4:14), some dance and drumming with more of an Asian feel (5:22), some hip-shaking African dance (5:55) and back to a great multi-influenced melody, featuring floor patting and clapping worthy of music class (starts at
For a more comprehensive overview, Buda Musique — producer of the indispensable Ethiopian music collection, Ethiopiques — has created “Zanzibara,” which currently consists of five compilation CDs, featuring everything from taarab (on “Zanzibara 2: the Golden Age of Mombasa Taarab”) to sizzling big band “muziki wa danci” (dance music) on “Zanzibara 5: Hot in Dar, le son de la Tanzanie: 1978-1983.” Click on each CD’s image in the overview and you’ll be able to sample some tunes from each one.
For more information:
Wikipedia: the Music of Tanzania | More about Taarab | Zanzibari Ngoma drumming | Tanserve.co.uk’s helpful list of Zanzibari bands | Kidumbak: “a diminutive kind of taarab” | The Dhow Countries Musical Academy: “Music for Education. Music for Employment. Music for Enjoyment.”