African Swahili music lives on in Oman

MUSCAT Wed Oct 5, 2011 10:02am EDT

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The coastal Arab nation of Oman is the unlikely center of a thriving African music scene with roots stretching back centuries and across the seas to Zanzibar.

The Omani empire in the 18th and 19th century ruled much of East Africa's coast and the islands of Zanzibar -- today a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania -- with sailors bringing back instruments, music, dance and the language.

That is why in the nation hugging the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, musicians wearing traditional Omani long white robes and hand woven hats beat African rhythms on their drums, swaying to music more easily found on the African continent than in the Middle East.

"The music runs deep in us and is embedded in our culture, passed on by our ancestors," said Kareema Ismail, a singer and dancer. "The Swahili beats in our music is a long tradition from Zanzibar. It is not something that will be replaced by contemporary music."

The oldest independent state in the Arab world, Oman has been ruled by the al-Said family since 1744.

Zanzibar became a major trade hub, a slave center and the economic engine for the Omani empire. Its most powerful ruler, Sultan Said bin Sultan al-Said, made the archipelago the capital of Oman in 1840.

Reflecting its history and relative openness, thanks to its long history as a seafaring nation, all of the music of Oman blends different traditional music and Arabic pop, as well as classical music, promoted by its biggest fan in Oman, the ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Much of the music in Oman can only be found in live performances, played in parks, weddings, hotels, concert halls, sports events and cafes.

"Swahili music" is kept alive by a loose-knit community of musicians who constantly join and leave various bands.

The bands still tend to be overshadowed by more commercially successful Omani bands, such as folklore group Al Majd or the traditional music band Bin Shamsa from southern Oman, which sell CDs and upload performances to YouTube.

But Saleh al-Zadjali, a musician in Muscat and owner of the Musicology record label, is part of a new generation mixing traditional Omani sounds -- including Swahili music -- with modern music, creating a new art form that is slowly gaining in popularity.

Zadjali sings of complicated relationships, backed by a Lebanese pop beat.

"The influence of African music will be there forever in Omani traditional music," said Zadjali, whose dream is to sell his music in Egypt, Lebanon and the West.

"Like some of the beats in Omani music are African, and some of the melodies as well. The influence is there, and we are proud of it."

'LIKE FOOD WITHOUT SALT'

Further down the coast from the capital of Muscat is the harbor town of Sur, considered the heart of Swahili music in Oman.

"Sur bila ngoma kama chakula bila chumvi (Sur without drums is like food without salt)," says Sbet al-Ghelani, a security officer and musician in Sur, reciting in Swahili.

African instruments are handed down from generation to generation as family treasures, played by family members only at special occasions or weddings.

Prominent among them is the tanbura, a string instrument played by beating the strings with the end of a bull's horn.

Other African instruments are the misundu, a class of tall, cylindrical, single-headed drums characterized by a skin fitted by wooden wedges to the conical body. The misundu is beaten either with a stick or hands.

Sur was a major port in the 17th and 18th centuries, when traders exported dried fish, dates, mats, carpets woven from sheep wool and frankincense to East Africa and India.

"These people, from the color, their features, they have clearly an African ethnicity. But they tell you no, we are actually Arab," said Majid al-Harthi, assistant professor of music and ethnomusicology at the Sultan Qaboos University.

Ghelani and his band Shamail have managed to find a wider audience, and often travel to the neighboring United Arab Emirates to play at weddings.

In Zanzibar, elements of Arabic music have been preserved over the centuries in Taarab music.

"I still find it amazing how strongly not only the Arabic influence but also the Egyptian influence has remained," said Hildegard Kiel, founder of the Dhow Countries Music Academy in Zanzibar, pointing out that Taarab music is based on Arabic scales and that the Arabic instruments oud and qanun are key to the Taarab sound.

Taarab comes from the Arabic word meaning "to be moved with joy or grief" or "to be delighted."

(Additional reporting by Saleh al-Shaibany; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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