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Taarab 1: The Music Of Zanzibar, CD (£11.50)
This was one of a series of records of taarab music recorded by GlobeStyle on location in Zanzibar. The GlobeStyle team was myself, Roger Armstrong and Adam Skeaping (recording engineer extraordinaire and answer to a mosquito's prayer). This was one of the few recording sessions for an outside company in the history of Zanzibari taarab. As there were no recording studios on the island, we took our own digital recording equipment with us, and in doing so, became the first record company to record commercially on the island for quite some time, apart from live cassette recordings made at weddings and concerts.
Our equipment was set up in the EACROTANAL (Eastern African Centre For Research On Oral Traditions And African National Languages) using the hall for the main recording area and a little side room as a monitoring room. We took with us two two-track digital recording systems in case one system went down in the high temperatures and humidity. As there were no multi-tracking possibilities, we recorded the complete performances with two microphones live to stereo. This entailed arranging, re-arranging and moving the musicians around the microphones until a balance was achieved. With the quieter instruments this even led us to perching the musicians on tables and platforms constructed from our flight cases in the search for the perfect balance (sound and furniture).
The artists were patient and professional in circumstances which would have had the average rock star calling for airbed and manager. It was darned hot and humid but we were forced to close all windows and turn off all fans while recording to avoid noise on the microphones. Apart from the heat - we had to remove the tops from the equipment and have a huge fan blasting luke-warm air on them continuously - we had to contend with ants nesting in the equipment (eek! - not mentioned in the manual) and mosquitoes coming out for supper every evening-.-we were it! This hot and thirsty work also caused us to buy huge quantities of the indigenous franchised versions of American fizzy drinks for everyone - at one point we caused an island shortage. However, no complaints about the sudden appearance of massive communal meals of mangoes and meat biriani brought for the meal-breaks by the various bands-.-and, of course, no matter what the conditions, the music was a delight.
This particular album was not planned in our advance agenda-.-it seemed like a good idea to do at the time (and my opinion has yet to change). If you listen carefully in the background, you can hear birds, wind, leaves and vehicles, other sounds of Zanzibar. In a way, this selection of music captures an earlier spirit of taarab, that of the small groups who would play in people's houses-.-and also that spirit of friendship, entertainment and musical pleasure.
It's easy to hear the music today, with its mixture of Arabic and western instruments and scales, cool male vocals, earthy female singing, and rhythms deriving from island traditions, alongside those from Egypt (and Latin America) and imagine that this has been a long and perfect marriage-.-but it's also important to know of the opposing historical currents below the surface - all of which are outlined in the detailed sleevenotes of this release.