Global Music Column – June

Siti Muharam: Siti of Unguja

The Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar has historically been a meeting place of cultures, from the Indian spice trade to the east African slave trade. As such, its music, taarab, blends Qur’anic verses, east African polyrhythm and Indian melodies. Traditionally it was performed only by men. But in the early 20th century, Zanzibari singer Siti Binti Saad reimagined what had been formal court music into a private form of improvisation, laced with a spirit of inclusivity that combined Arabic and Swahili lyrics. In doing so, she paved the way for female taarab singers, including protege Bi Kidude and Kenyan Zuhura Swaleh.

Almost a century on, Saad’s great granddaughter Siti Muharam is continuing her legacy, paying homage to a lineage of powerful female voices on her debut album, Siti of Unguja. Muharam reinterprets her great-grandmother’s poetic standards with her own rich tenor. Kijiti – a horrifying tale of the rape and murder of a pregnant young woman – foregrounds Muharam’s yearning, elastic voice, at points almost breaking with the weight of its emotion, while a sparse percussive backing provides space for the oud melody. Muharam puts her own stamp on the relatively conservative taarab tradition by adding western instrumentation to bandmates Mohamed Issa Matona’s oud and Gora Mohamed Gora’s qanun: highlights include the subtle blend of tablas and electronic percussion on Pakistan, the guttural rumblings of Stian Andersen’s contra bass on instrumental opener Machozi Ya Huba, and baritone saxophonist Tamar Osborn’s cool, metallic backing to the synth-laden bonus track Ashikibaya.

Read the review in the Guardian.

[This piece was published on 05/06/20]