If growing up in `70s South London, surrounded by reggae, helped me understand what nonsense racism is, then my subsequent 40-odd year voyage of musical discovery has convinced me that we all come from a single seed, a common root. Since our traditional musics regardless of modern geography, racial and religious divides, share rhythms and melodies – phrasings, irrespective of language. Siti Muharam`s Siti of Unguja is a cool case in point. Listening, before checking the press release, it was impossible to place where the musicians called home. Bazaar belly-dancing Snake-charmer reeds. Electric riffs wrangling nomadic, Tuareg, blues. Dulcimer-like glissando and Bollywood strings. Songs somewhere between a lost Umm Kulthum radio transmission, a Guinea griot, and Sufi prayer. The male and female lead interplay recalling Algerian rai.
The location is in fact Zanzibar. The Tanzanian island off the coast of East Africa. Pulling in obvious influences from neighbouring Congo, Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia. The less obvious ones down to the island`s history as a key port in the Indian Ocean. When for 5 centuries it was central to trade in both spices, and slaves.
Siti of Unguja`s story is told in both Swahili and Arabic, through improvisations on the court music, Taarab. A form that has its origins in Egypt – hence the Saharan suffusions. The harp-like sound is actually a qanun, or kanun – a large trapezoid zither – manned here by Gora Mohamed Gora. While Mohamed Issa Matona`s virtuosity on the oud is evident on every track. Ritual patterns are tapped out, metallic, on tight-skinned goblet drums – the dumbak and tabla. The production by Soundthread`s Sam Jones stirs in something of 2020 street culture, but his use of electronics is subtle – really just souping stuff up, amplifying it, so that when it needs to, the sound, rich and deep, goes boom! The bottom-end buzzing and fizzing. Tamar Collocutor`s baritone sax sometimes a free skronk. Stian Andersen’s contra-bass running a Kip Hanrahan-like voodoo down. On Pakistan barely audible bleeps bumping the group harmonies between ceremonial beats.
You can order a copy of Siti Muharam`s Siti of Unguja directly from On The Corner.