Kijiti (by Siti binti Saad)

Author and context

The Taarab of the 'other side' (Ng'ambo)

The song Kijiti belongs to the taarab played in poor areas of Zanzibar town in the 1920s. At that time, this genre, formerly connected to the Sultan’s palace and the Zanzibari elite, was appropriated by musicians living in neighbouring areas (Ng’ambo) that were becoming crowded after the abolition of the slave trade. The most famous group from this period is that of Siti binti Saad, whose fame was so extraordinary that she was often invited to perform for the Sultan and local elites. Her group also recorded more than 250 songs for British labels like His Master’s Voice and Columbia between 1928 and 1930 (Fair 1998: 1).

The story of Siti binti Saad’s life is representative of the thousands of residents who struggled to transform their ethnic and social identity. Binti Saad (the daughter of Saad) was born between 1890 and 1900 in Fumba, a rural area of southern Unguja, of parents who had migrated from Tanganyika (Shaaban 1967: 1). She used to sell pottery by going to town on foot, singing riddles and popular songs. In 1911, binti Saad moved to Ng’ambo. Some practitioners of Islamic ritual music noticed Siti’s talent and introduced her to the reading of the Koran and the rules of recitation (tajwid). It was this informal education that allowed a woman with poor roots to be praised and respected by the town’s elite, the waungwana or ‘civilised’ people. According to a popular anecdote about her life, it was during a performance of Koranic recitation and religious poetry that one member of the privileged class, in a sign of admiration for her perfect intonation and Arabic pronunciation, called her ‘Siti’, the Arabic word for lady (Fair 2001: 180). At a later stage, she became active in a taarab group with Subeti bin Ambar, Budda bin Swedi, Mwalim Shaaban and Mbaruku Effandi Talsam (Fair 2001: 175).

Siti binti Saad is remembered in the Zanzibari community for the repertoire in kiswahili that she interpreted during the evening sessions at her place in Ng’ambo, where the men and women present not only listened to songs, but also had a chance to comment on relevant events and debate moral values and gender and class relations. The songs were not in the standardized form that is common today; they were short compositions — sometimes improvised — about recent news, and flexible with regard to meter and rhyme.

The lyrics of Siti binti Saad and her musicians had diverse themes. They were laudatory when the group was performing for important ceremonies, but voiced social criticism when the band was performing in Ng’ambo. The songs, for instance, expressed criticism of social behaviour (like Muhogo wa Jang’ombe, ‘Manioc of Jang’ombe’), the corruption of public officials (like Wala hapana hasara, ‘There is no loss’), and cases of injustice in the colonial courts (like Kijiti). The love songs composed by the members of Siti’s group depicted relationships between men and women in a realistic way, very different from the metaphorical style that became popular after the 1950s. An example of this is a song by Budda bin Mwendo, Mume wangu halali kwangu, ‘My husband does not sleep with me’, in which a woman complains of being neglected by her husband, both from a material and sexual point of view, after he takes a second wife and then decides to leave.