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Culture Musical Club – Grand Orchestre Taarab de Zanzibar

Zanzibar – island of spices, and meeting point of the trade winds: Imagine a stroll down Stone Town’s narrow alleys, mansions built of coral rag, intricately carved and brass-studded doors – witnesses of past glory – balconies high up to catch a tropical breeze, the aroma of spicy food, cloves, cardamom, pilipili, coconut-scented rice, the Muadhin’s calls for prayer at sunset. With all this you have got the visual and sensual equivalents to the leisurely sound of Swahili taarab, itself the result of hundreds of years of exchange of musical and poetic ideas across the Indian Ocean.

Culture Musical Club began life as part of the youth organization of the Afro Shirazi Party during Zanzibar's struggle for independence back in 1958. Today, Culture Musical Club is not only the largest, but also one of the most prolific and successful orchestras of Zanzibar as they present taarab music, Swahili style, at its best. They perform new compositions on a regular basis and have developed a distinct and uniquely Swahili style. The orchestra performs widely at concerts in Zanzibar town, but also frequently travels overland with a fold-up stage and an electricity generator to bring its music to the rural areas as well. The club has released hundreds of songs on the local market; their international CD releases have made the name Culture Musical Club known to audiences throughout the world, so much so that rehearsals in their clubhouse in the Vuga section of Zanzibar Stone Town have become somewhat of a tourist attraction.

For the past 15 years the orchestra has toured internationally with outstanding success and has won over audiences all over Europe, Japan and North America. They have performed at major world music festivals, like Heimatklänge (Berlin), Musiques Métisses (Angoulème), Sfinks (Antwerp), Stimmen (Lörrach), Womad (Reading), the Chicago World Music Festival, Mondial at Expo02, as well as major concert halls from Spain to Sweden, Seattle to New York, Vienna to Tokyo.

Besides taarab, many club members are also active in kidumbak groups, smaller ensembles that play a more down-home and dance-focused music. Both types of music are played on stage, contrasting the serene sound of orchestral taarab to the festive and sexually charged dance that is kidumbak.

Taarab and Kidumbak

Both styles – taarab and kidumbak – are featured on the group’s latest release “Shime!” (World Village/Harmonia Mundi link)

The tour line-up features between 10-15 musicians: The taarab orchestra includes up to 3 violins, qanun, oud, 2 accordions, double bass, dumbak, bongos & rika, plus singers and female chorus. The kidumbak side features 2 violins, sanduku (tea-chest bass), 2 kidumbak drums, cherewa (maracas) & mkwasa (claves), female chorus & dancers.

Touring Ensemble

The touring ensemble usually includes:
Rajab Suleiman qanun, kidumbak bandmaster; Ali Hassan ‘ud; Makame Faki vocals, violin; Kesi Juma, Ramadhani Khamis, violin; Taimur Rukun accordion, mkwasa; Mahmoud Juma double bass; Foum Faki bongos, kidumbak; Amour Haj dumbak, sanduku; Rukia Ramadhani vocals, chorus; Mgeni Khamis chorus, dance ; Fatma Juma chorus, rika, dance.

On its tours the club regularly features invited guest singers, recent tours have included the legendary 95 year plus Bi Kidude.

« The music that the band performed in the Pritzker Pavilion proved seductive, with multiple strands of melody unfolding in sequence. As vocal soloists and female choir articulated melodic lines, the larger instrumental ensemble answered and amplified them. Yet the unusual chord progressions and unorthodox stop-start phrasings defied notions of melody and harmony that long have defined European-based music. While the cross-cultural nature of this band helps explain its popularity around the world, so does its level of musicianship, which was expressed in the intricacies of its vocal work and the unanimity of its strings. »
[Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 20, 2006]


« The women sang in long, gentle lines, with the gliding ornaments of Indian music, answered by the fluttery phrases of oud and qanun. Mr. Faki was more forceful, with his voice sometimes taking on the sharp, soaring tone of African traditional singers; he got the audience clapping along. And as the early set picked up momentum, there was also a lilt in the music, with hints of bolero and cha-cha, or perhaps their African antecedents. The music was finely detailed and urbane, and no harbinger of what followed.
The group returned for the second set with maracas, an African bass called a sanduku and a pair of hand drums, called kidumbaks, that resemble both Middle Eastern dumbeks and South Indian and Pakistani drums. The music they played, usually heard at wedding parties, is also called kidumbak. The songs ride on the drums and maracas and on modal, circling violin melodies, like hoedown fiddles gone back to Africa.
Flanking the band were two female dancers gifted at rump rotation, who also swiveled their way through the audience. The lead singers stepped forward to sing short lines that the rest of the band sang back to them, with some members ululating up above as the violinists dug in and the music gathered speed. It was incantatory party music, and before the set was done, the stage was filled with audience members dancing along. »
[John Pareles, New York Times, Sept. 30, 2006]

Taarab veterans still swinging … excellent introduction to the sublime world of Culture Musical Club. »
[Simon Broughton; Songlines 59, April / May 2009; Top of the World Album]
The languorous swell of CMC in full sail is one of the greatest musical treats in the whole of Africa ... The taarabtastic CMC in all their mind-boggling glory… »
[Andy Morgan; Songlines 27, Nov. / Dec. 2004; Top of the World Album]
›› Culture Musical Club are the main focus of Zanzibar Musical Club a feature length film on taarab music in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, produced by les Films Du Present in association with
Jahazi Media.
›› For international booking inquiries please get in touch with Jahazi Media.