Entertainment Zanzibar-style centres on traditional music and dance performances.

Taarab Music

No visit to Zanzibar would be complete without spending an evening listening to the evocative strains of taarab, the archipelago’s most famous musical export. Taarab, from the Arabic tariba (roughly, ‘to be moved’), fuses African, Arabic and Indian influences, and is considered by many Zanzibaris to be a unifying force among the island’s many cultures.

A traditional taarab orchestra consists of several dozen musicians using both Western and traditional instruments, including the violin, the kanun (similar to a zither), the accordion, the nay (an Arabic flute) and drums, plus a singer. There’s generally no written music, and songs – often with themes centred on love – are full of puns and double meanings.

Taarab-style music was played in Zanzibar as early as the 1820s at the sultan’s palace, where it had been introduced from Arabia. However, it wasn’t until the 1900s, when Sultan Seyyid Hamoud bin Muhammed encouraged formation of the first taarab clubs, that it became more formalised.

One of the first clubs founded was Akhwan Safaa, established in 1905 in Zanzibar Town. Since then other clubs have sprung up, including the well-known Culture Musical Club. In traditional clubs, men and women sit separately, with the women decked out in their finest garb and elaborate hairstyles. Audience participation is key, and listeners frequently go up to the stage to give money to the singer.