Album of the Week // 31 August — 4 September
“Siti Muharam was a lost artist, but this project gave her an opportunity to embrace her great-grandmother’s legacy and to see how important Siti Binti Saad is–her work is like a holy text for Zanzibari taarab”
Zanzibar is an island archipelago that lies 6 degrees South of the equator and 30 miles off of the East African coast out in the Indian Ocean. It is known for its spices, traditional Dhow sailing boats, paradise beaches and as the mercantile trading capital of Swahili culture. The modern history of Zanzibar can be animated through the life and legacy of one artist, Siti Binti Saad. Born in 1890 in the small fishing village of Fumba, on Unguja (Zanzibar’s largest island) a few kilometres from Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
A century ago, Siti Muharam’s great-grandmother Siti Binti Saad had already broken-down social barriers. From humble roots she was the first female to enter the male domain of public performance and rapidly became a local legend. Siti Binti Saad transformed the formal taarab style of music played for the Sultan’s court and took it into private homes where social commentary and improvisation became part of the performance. She introduced Swahili lyrics to taarab and created original compositions. It’s claimed that she wrote hundreds of poems, but only a few survive. Her words told of everyday struggles, love, heartbreak and radically, she told stories of injustice. Having overcome gender and social restrictions in Zanzibar to become a folk legend she then propelled her own journey to epic proportions. In the late 1920s she travelled with Dhow traders across the Indian Ocean so that she could record her music in the Indian subcontinent. This odyssey led to her becoming the first Zanzibari recording artist and within a few years of making the perilous dhow adventure her recordings sold in tens of thousands.
The tracks recorded for Siti of Unguja demonstrate Siti Binti Saad’s eclectic influence on Zanzibari taarab and her great-granddaughter, Siti Muharam imbues the compositions with feeling, her golden voice carrying the poetry with a timeless passion, bringing the spirits of these two remarkable women together.
In 2017 Pete On the Corner was invited to join the cultural board of the ambitious Fumba Town Permaculture Development in Zanzibar. To shine new light on the pioneering life of Siti Binti Saad, Pete joined the dots to connect her story, central to the history of the Swahili World, to the innovative town development that is currently transforming her birth place using the principles of permaculture and sustainability. Whilst preparations were being made for the recording, Producer Sam Jones and Pete discussed the project with filmmaker Andy Jones who revealed that Siti Binti Saad has a talented great-granddaughter, Siti Muharam. A tip-off so intriguing had to be investigated and with the help and guidance of Zanzibari legend and expert taarab musician, Matona, the potential to go beyond celebrating the singular legacy of Siti Binti Saad and find a new Swahili star was palpable.
Matona, Director of Zanzibar’s World renowned (and only) music school, the Dhow Countries Music Academy was able to bring Pete and Sam’s vision to life with the support of the British Council, Fumba Town Development’s cultural board and On the Corner Records. At the end of the recording sessions in March 2018, Matona put the album’s importance into context: “For me Siti Muharam was a lost artist, but this project gave her an opportunity to embrace her great-grandmother’s legacy and to see how important Siti Binti Saad is–her work is like a holy text for Zanzibari taarab. It also allowed Muharam to see that her own voice is a blessing. Fadhil [percussion], Gora [Qanun] and Nema [backing vocals] all gained from this project and together we’ve grown.”
This record is deeply personal, telling Siti Binti Saad’s story and her influence. Additional engineering and overdubs were made by Sam Jones at Secret Sundaze’s London studio. The result has propelled this swahili romance out into the cosmos.
The Fumba Town development is hosting Zanzibar’s first farmers ‘Kwetu Kwenu’ market on the island demonstrating it’s organic and sustainable mission. The Dhow Countries Music Academy will be providing the music and showcasing the sounds of Zanzibar on the 5th of September. It coincides with the repress release of Siti of Unguja LP.The island relies on tourism and so the Zanzibari community has been heavily impacted economically and this event embodies the potential for a more sustainable way of living in a fragile eco-system.
Tune in to Morning Mari* all next week to find out more about this fascinating release, and of course, hear the tunes!