There are several prominent types of music that have developed along the East African coast and among Swahili speakers. On this page, I will introduce two of the most well-known and widespread music traditions: Taarab and Bongo Flava.
Taarab is a fusion of Swahili music and poetry with Arabic, Egyptian, and Indian influences. While it can be found all along the East African coast and even as far inland as Uganda, Taarab is best known as the music of Zanzibar. Taarab is widely popular and commonly performed at Swahili weddings. While the origin of Taarab is disputed, the legend is that in the late 19th century Sultan Bargash sent a musician to Cairo to learn to play the qanun (zither) and upon his return he formed the first Taarab orchestra (see any of my sources (below) for a better description of the legend). The Taarab orchestra traditionally includes the qanun or zither, the oud, violin, ney, accordion, cello, and different percussion (from “Taarab”). Now though, Taarab music is changing and the use of keyboards and smaller orchestras are increasingly common. Perhaps the most well-known Taarab singer is Siti Binti Saad (1880-1950), she is considered to be a pioneer in Taarab music because she was the first artist to sing in Swahili instead of Arabic. Siti opened the world of Taarab up to women, and as a result of her success more women became singers and performers in previously all-male orchestras (from “Zanzibar Music – Taarab”). While Taarab is considered the traditional music of Zanzibar, it remains popular today. Listen to modern and traditional examples of Taarab below:
Sitti Binti Saad – Njia Ungurusumbwe
Ikhwan Safa Musical Club – 1- Afkari
Bi Kidude & Culture Musical Club – Kijit
Nacheka Naye Nasema Naye Sina Hamu Naye -Zanzibar Stars A
Jahazi Modern Taarab Nilijua Mtasema
Mohammed Issa Matona and Rachel Hamada, “The Beating Heart of Zanzibar,” Mambo Magazine, 7 February 2011.
Yusuf Mahmoud, “Taarab,” Zanzibar.net.
“Zanzibar Music – Taarab,” Zanzibar.net.
Bongo Flava is a genre of hip hop music that originated in the streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and is traced back to the 1990s. The term “bongo flava” comes from the Swahili word for brains (ubongo), which is a nickname for the biggest city and former capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, and from the Swahili slang word for “flavor” (flava). In 2005, one scholar studying media and culture correctly predicted that Bongo Flava was taking off. He described Bongo Flava then as a, “delicious mixture of Afrobeat and arabesque melodies, dancehall and hip hop beats, Kiswahili lyrics, and a low budget European production style has the potential for mass appeal, with plenty of contenders for crossover success” (Mueller 2005). While Bongo Flava songs now span multiple music traditions– Afrobeat, rap, hip-hop, pop ballads, party tracks, arabesque melodies, and somber social commentary– the use of the Swahili language is a key part of the genre that keeps the narrative local.
Bongo Flava beats, artists, and songs quickly found their way to the rest of East Africa and other parts of the continent, and top hits are currently making their way through European countries and the United States due to the fame and success of acclaimed artists (listen below). One of the Bongo Flava pioneers who came out with the first hit single of the genre, “Ni Mimi” in 1995, is Joseph Mbilinyi, known as Mr. II, Sugu, and 2-proud. He was inspired by U.S. hip-hop artists, especially Tupak Shakur and Ice Cube. (It is interesting to note that Joseph Mbilinyi is now serving his second term in the Tanzanian Parliament.) His music reached urban and rural areas because of its quality and messages about cross-cutting social issues. You can learn more by watching this short documentary below:
Hali Halisi Documentary
Today, the economic and social rise of East African musicians is attributed to the success of the Bongo Flava industry. While there are varieties of music under this tradition now, it has stayed true to its roots: “From its very beginning, Bongo Flava has been regarded as a mouthpiece for the youth and the ordinary people. At the same time, it has always been seen as a means to escape poverty and to achieve a better life” (The Citizen 2017). Bongo Flava music continues to center on important day-to-day challenges and parts of life, as demonstrated by one of the latest biggest hits of Tanzanian artist, Diamond Platnumz. His latest popular song, “I Miss You,” is a story about love, urbanization, and vulnerability (listen below) (Peralta 2017).
Hear independent artist Vanessa Mdee talk about the Bongo Flava music industry and her own label:
Check out some of the most popular Bongo Flava hits today:
Kibabe- Professor Jay
I Miss You – Diamond Platnumz
For more, check out this playlist of the top 100 Bongo Flava hits (up to 2012):
Mueller, Gavin. “Bongoflava: The Primer.” Stylus Magazine, 12 May 2005. http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/pop_playground/bongoflava-the-primer.htm
Peralta, Eyder. “Love In A Time Of Urbanization: The Twofold Vulnerability Of An East African Pop Hit.” National Public Radio, 30 August 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/08/30/547078656/love-in-a-time-of-urbanization-the-twofold-vulnerability-of-an-east-african-pop
The Citizen. “How Bongo Flava Advanced the Music Industry.” The Citizen, 5 July 2017. http://www.thecitizen.co.tz/News/Business/works/How-Bongo-Flava-developed-the-Music-Industry/3956094-4001122-nhfb90/index.html