An article in the Standard profiling Taarab music, proclaimed that “the genre has defied the test of time and myriad foreign rhythmic elements and influences – to stamp an indelible mark as a distinctive, East African musical style.” The article extolled the importance of Taarab in the musical tradition of the East African coast. Yet when I was conducting interviews in Lamu, most informants spoke of the decline of Taarab. One musician with whom I worked closely, Khalid Kajenje, declared “Taarab” to be dead. Kajenje’s comments were attributed to Kenya’s economic problems which made it difficult for local groups, who were not earning income from their music,to continue playing. Changes in musical preferences of the younger generation,moreover, affected the traditions that defined Taarab in Lamu. However, in contrast to Kajenje’s belief that the music “is now dead,” Taarab has remained a popular form of entertainment for people of Lamu, albeit in different ways from the past. The developments of Taarab in the contemporary period reveal a negotiation between continuity and change. Local traditions have adapted under the economic realities of present-day Kenya and the global influences that have affected East African culture.
Taarab is a popular music along the East African coast and while it has been said to have originated in Zanzibar, local communities along the coast such as Lamu assimilated the genre into their own local practices and traditions through the incorporation of local instruments, styles and rhythms. A large part of the tradition of Taarab in Lamu was the music’s ability to provide the town’s population with a low cost form of entertainment. Musicians often performed for little, if any money. Artists benefited from the opportunity to demonstrate their skills to the community, or to impress a local woman. Mohamed Halif, a former local musician, recounted how Taarab gave his group an opportunity to demonstrate that they were as skilled as prominent artists playing for money, “We started the clubs because we learned that our people were really losing money. They were paying a lot of money. We were just doing it [Taarab]to show that we can also do it.”Such performances brought Taarab to people who did not have the money to hire a famous musician such as Juma Bhalo, Maulidi Juma, or Zein The accessibility of Taarab made it a significant part of the community’s tradition and cultural heritage.
Economic hardship has been a driving force behind the gradual decline in local performances. Kenya, beginning in the 1980s, experienced a growing inflation rate that made it difficult for people to meet the demands of providing food and other provisions for their families. In 1980 consumer prices rose by an average of 13.2 percent and remained at around ten percent through the 1980s and 1990s. The difficulty of providing for families reduced the time that artists in Lamu could dedicate to their music. Many former musicians stated “maisha ngumu” (difficult life) as their reason for quitting music.They stopped playing Taarab music because they needed to dedicate time to a second occupation. Abdella Bakari Liongo, a former musician,explained, “People are fishing, people are farming, people are doing different work.The problem is that the amount they are earning is not enough for the purchasing of items. Therefore they don’t get time to do Taarab anymore.Former performers indicated that practicing Taarab no longer provided them with enjoyment because they were exhausted from the extra work that they had to do to sustain their livelihoods.
As local Taarab performances have declined, people in Lamu and Matadoni have turned to listening to audio cassettes and disks, mainly from artists from Tanzania and Zanzibar. “Modern Taarab” refers to a specific style that features danceable rhythms and where vocalists are predominantly women, while men continue to play the instruments. The success of these groups has been largely attributed to their ability to capitalize on the diffusion of technologies, such as audio and video disks. Capital to purchase electronic instruments and to access recording studios has thus been essential to the success of contemporary musicians. The commercialization of Taarab challenged the ideals of older generation listeners and musicians who saw Taarab as fun and not a medium for making money. Many of the older generation complained that popular groups had acted largely in the interest of profit thus deviating from what they felt was the music’s purpose of entertaining people and educating audiences on the important issues in the community. Abdella Bakari, a former musician, exclaimed,“Previously we were just doing Taarab for entertainment. But nowadays they are just doing for getting money as business.”
Modern Taarab’s emphasis on dance has challenged people’s notions of Taarab as an activity meant for listening and interpreting the singer’s lyrics. Many of the older generation, particularly men, did not like the newer Taarab music. A common explanation people offered was that, in the past, people would sit and listen to Taarab and absorb the meaning of the song’s lyrics, yet now, youth want to dance, or “to play” to it. Kajenje emphasized the differences between the modern and the local Taarab: “Special Taarab they sit and listen. But these days they don’t want to sit and listen, they want to dance.”For local artists and listeners these alterations stripped Taarab of the elements that made the music resonate with the community in the past.
While lamenting the decline of traditional Taarab, local musicians have responded to these changes by adapting their own styles of music. Kajenje’s group in Lamu has continued to play with local drums though they made other changes to accommodate the demands of the younger generation who prefer the danceable rhythms of modern Taarab. His club incorporated a popular dance beat called chakacha. Musicians play chakacha with a “fast tempo and drum pattern.” Pelvic gyrations are the main features of this dance.When Kajenje’s group wanted people to hear the message of their lyrics, they would switch to a song that was slower and softer so that the audience would have to sit and listen to the words. In this way, Kajenje’s group continued the local practices of Taarab, although making adjustments to meet the demands of a younger audience.The selective incorporation of chakacha into the repertoire of Kajenje’s performances underscores the struggles of local musicians within a cultural economy that has continued to be influenced by global capitalism. Production of compact and video disks introduced Taarab to a profitable market, which local musicians have not been able to access due to lack of capital. In addition, these changes added to the already existing hardships of local musicians who experienced the effects of Kenya’s economic struggles. Far from being dead, however, the ability of local musicians such as Kajenje to continue to perform music and generate a following, suggests that the traditions and conventions of Taarab in Lamu have adapted to changes in the social, economic,political and cultural environments. The tensions of Taarab are the result of broader social processes as Lamu and Matadoni communities redefine their identities in a globally cosmopolitan era.Caleb Edwin Owen is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of History