Tanzania is a country with an extremely varied musical culture which, alongside its numerous lighter incarnations shaped by influences from around the world from Cuban and jazz music in the 1940s to today's rap and hip-hop scenes, has managed to keep most of its traditions intact and nowhere more so than on island of Zanzibar, birthplace of the Imani Ngoma Troupe, a six-piece ensemble who, on the five tracks that make up their new CD Bape, offer some idea of the astonishing richness of their musical heritage.
Not simply a group, The Imani Ngoma Troupe forms part of a cultural association that organises various educational programmes including fostering young musical talent on the island and promoting its music overseas.
The most widely known musical form of this region is without doubt the taarab, which with its odd mixture of African, Arabic and Indian elements was originally destined to be played at weddings of the islands Swahili population. Not limiting themselves to this genre, however, the Imani Ngoma Troupe are quite happy to filch from the musical fish-baskets of Zanzibar's other ethnic groups. Here we have music for ritual dances (from marriages to initiation rites) employing ngoma drums, zumari (a wooden clarinet, probably of Portuguese origin) sanduku (a kind of rudimentary one-string double bass) along with various other percussion instruments. Particularly stirring are the female vocals that give body to lyrics that give equal weight to the problems of contemporary society and the timeless mysteries of the human heart.
Among the most important dances are the msewe, originally performed during exorcisms by a group of male dancers, and the kidumbak, a dance similar in sound to the taarab where two small drums lend support to a melody played on violin. The musicians of the Imani Ngoma Troupe have honed their skills through years of experience both in their work for Zanzibar's Education and Culture Ministry and in numerous concerts at home and abroad. Which is one of the reasons who listening to Bape one find oneself instantly immersed in the magic of a musical territory that is truly unique, a place brimming with unusual sounds, colours and perfumes where the circulation and melding of different styles and genres has long been embraced as a necessity rather than the fleeting whim of fashion.