Rusha Roho in Zanzibar

Rusha Roho in Zanzibar

Negotiating Identity, Contesting Society

Carolien Hulshof

Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, is musically best known for its taarab tradition. Taarab is a musical style from the coastal area of East Africa, which is often performed at weddings and other celebrations (Topp Fargion, J. 1999). It is a hybrid music: lyrics in Swahili, Arabic maqams and Western scales, Arabic, African and Western instruments, and Arabic ornamentations. Almost all publications on music from Zanzibar are on traditional taarab.
During my research on the island,[1] however, I encountered another musical style which has its roots in traditional taarab and forms an important part of the life of many Zanzibaris, but which is not so obvious to a visitor: rusha roho. The name comes from kurusha roho, which means “to throw away the soul”. This is the term Zanzibaris use for modern taaraband it originally referred to the lyrics of some of the songs. These lyrics are meant to convey a clear message to another individual, using very direct words. At first the term rusha roho was used to refer to the lyrics of these songs, but today, the term is interchangeable with modern taarab and thus encompasses a whole musical style. But is rusha roho really only about throwing away the soul?
I would like to present the role of rusha roho in present-day Zanzibar society. As will become clear, this music touches upon several important musicological issues. Rusha roho is a unique and important phenomenon, closely linked to the lives of many Zanzibaris. Examining this music contributes to the current discourse on competition in music, identity formation through music and music as heterotopia.
In order to understand the role of rusha roho in Zanzibar society, it is necessary to include a brief description of the history and present of the island. Next there is a description of the development from taarab to rusha roho, followed by a discussion of its meaning using issues of competition, identity and heterotopia. Considering these issues leads to an understanding of the fact that although the lyrics of some songs have given rise to the name rusha roho, this music encompasses much more than throwing away the soul.
Zanzibar: History and present
Although the term Zanzibar is the name for the islands of Unguja, Pemba and Tumbatu, here the term will be used to designate the island of Unguja, the biggest and politically most important island. Zanzibar has been exposed to many different influences throughout history, for example from Europe, the Middle East and India, which have left their traces in varying degrees and can still be seen on the island in architecture, language and music.
The East African coast and its islands have attracted traders and travellers from the inland of Africa and various countries in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean for at least 2000 years (Askew, K.M. 2003: 611). The earliest record of encounters between East Africa and merchants from Southern Arabia is found in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an ancient Greek document from the 2nd century AD, which mentions that Arabic merchants interacted with East Africans and that intermarriage took place. From that time on, the East African coast was visited by Arabic traders, who settled down and intermingled with the African inhabitants. By the end of the first millennium a coastal society had developed that we know today as the Swahili, with the acceptance of Islam and a modern form of the Swahili language.
From 1498 the Swahili coast was a point of interest for the Portuguese. However, the influence the Portuguese had on Swahili society, unlike their colonial power further south in Mozambique, was limited, because they did not colonize the East African coast and did not look further inland, leaving the essential trading power in the hands of the Swahili. When the Portuguese finally left the Swahili coast after losing their power to the Omani in 1729, all they left behind them were several loanwords in Swahili and remains of their buildings (Middleton, R. 1992: 46).
A foreign power that did have enormous impact on the Swahili coast was Oman. The Omani were the first to achieve a hegemony over the entire coast. In 1729 the Omani sultanate of Zanzibar was established, after which the influence of the Arab world on the Swahili coast increased, with intermarriage occurring on a large scale, especially between Arab men and Swahili women (Middleton, R. 1992). From this time onwards, the trade on the East African coast flourished.
At the end of the 19th century the power of the Omani declined in favour of European colonizers. In 1890, Zanzibar became an official protectorate of the British Empire.
In 1963 Zanzibar gained independence from Britain. On 26 April 1964 Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which was later renamed as the United Republic of Tanzania. Despite the union Zanzibar retained a great level of independence, which it still has.
As is clear from the history of Zanzibar, the island has encountered many different influences. These influences shaped Zanzibar society, and there are several features which need to be examined to understand the role of rusha roho in this society.
The most obvious feature of Zanzibar society is language: all Zanzibaris speak Swahili. Swahili is a Bantu-language and is a reflection of the history of the island, because it incorporates influences from Portuguese (eg. the Swahili word pesa comes from the Portuguese peso, money), Arabic (kitabu from the Arabic kitab, book), English (baiskeli from bicycle) and German (shule from Schule).
Another important feature is religion. More than 95 percent of all Zanzibaris are Muslims. Islam plays an important role on the island, which is apparent, amongst other manifestations, from the many mosques in Zanzibar Town with their call to prayer five times a day and the conservative style of dress. Traditionally men wear a kanzu, a long white robe with long sleeves, and a kofia, a round shaped embroidered hat. Most women either wear a kanga, a printed piece of cloth with a Swahili saying on the lower end, or a bui bui, a loose-fitting long black dress with long sleeves. In most cases the women completely cover their bodies. Many women also wear a headscarf. A scarf is compulsory for girls when they are going to school as it forms a part of their school uniform.
An important characteristic of Zanzibar society that follows from the Islamic religion is gender segregation. Since most Zanzibaris are Muslims, there are separate subcultures for men and women, each with their own values, tasks and expectations. These subcultures are visible in different organizations and networks, such as dance clubs and self help groups for women, and political organizations, community centres and coffee houses for men. The following scheme (Eastman, C.M. 1984: 101) illustrates this gender division:
The contemporary gender division is not as rigid as presented in the scheme above, but it is included here to give an impression of the two separate categories that exist in Zanzibar society. Zanzibaris have a clear understanding of how a person belonging to one of these categories should or should not behave. An important concept here is aibu, shame. Actions that cause a person or his/her family aibu are to be avoided. Interestingly, that which may cause aibu for a man, can be a source of pride for a woman (Eastman, C.M. 1984). The concept of aibu is more important to men than it is to women.
In Zanzibar society, competition plays a very important role. This is expressed in sports, for instance in football. Many villages have several football teams, the rivalry between the two most important ones dominating the local sports scene (Askew, K.M. 2003: 617). Competition is also found in the design of Zanzibar villages. Each town has a central Friday mosque, and is divided into separate and socially opposed parts (mitaa): “[…] towns are traditionally divided into moieties, which are both separated spatially and united symbolically by a central congregational or Friday mosque” (Middleton, R. 1992: 60). In Stone Town several mitaa can be found, for example Malindi, Kiponda, Hurumzi, Shangani and Vuga.[2] Competition is also found in the musical life of Zanzibaris, for instance between Nadhi Ikhwan Safaa (located in the area of Malindi in Stone Town) and Culture Musical Club (Vuga area).
From taarab to rusha roho
Taarab is a musical style from the coastal area of East Africa, which is often performed at weddings and other celebrations. In general, where Swahili is spoken, taarab forms an important part of the musical life. This means taarab can be found from northern Mozambique to southern Somalia, including the islands of Pemba, Unguja, Mafia, Lamu and the Comores (Topp Fargion, J. 1999).
The name taarab comes from the Arabic word tarabun, which means joy, pleasure, delight, entertainment and music (Askew, K.M. 2002: 102). The term tarabun doesn’t signify a specific musical genre, but rather a state of mind provoked by the music. This also applies to the term taarab as it is used on Zanzibar.
Taarab emerged during the reign of Sultan Seyyid Barghash of Zanzibar (1870-1888), who sent a musician to Egypt to study the music of the takht ensembles he had enjoyed so much during a previous visit. The instrumentarium of a takht ensemble consisted of qanun (a kind of zither with a triangular soundboard), ud (lute), nay (flute), violin, riqq (a kind of tambourine) and sometimes a darabukka (drum). This was the beginning of taarab, an imported music for the entertainment of the Arabic elite at the court of the Sultan.
Taarab underwent a change through the influence of a woman of African descent and daughter of freed slaves: Siti Binti Saad (1880-1950). She made taarab accessible for a larger audience by singing in Swahili for the first time. She abandoned the Arabic based style and “brought taarab out of the palace and into the hearts of the majority who were ordinary Swahili-speaking Zanzibaris” (Topp Fargion, J. 1999: 201). Taarab in Zanzibar thus developed from a musical form for the male Arabic elite to a more popular and Africanized genre accessible to all classes and both sexes.
During my research in Zanzibar I encountered four types of taarab: traditional taarab, takhti,  kidumbak and rusha roho. Traditional taarab is the taarab as it was brought to the island, based on the music of the Egyptian takht ensembles. This type of taarab is still performed today, the best known traditional groups being Nadhi Ikhwan Safaa, Culture Musical Club and Twinkling Stars. Takhti is what the musicians themselves sometimes call chamber taarab, and it is exactly that: traditional taarab played by a small ensemble. The name refers to the music played by the Egyptian takht ensembles. A takhti ensemble on present-day Zanzibar consists of one ud, one violin, one qanun, one darabukka and sometimes one nay. A small ensemble like this is very suitable for performing in hotels and restaurants, which indeed form the main venues for takhti ensembles. Takhti ensembles perform traditional taarab songs, which is why this genre is often considered as a sub-form of traditional taarab. The third type of taarab is kidumbak, which is a more “Africanized” form of taarab, with the emphasis on drumming and dancing. The fourth type of taarab is rusha roho, the subject of this articleRusha roho is the term Zanzibaris use as a synonym for modern taarab. The term comes from kurusha roho, which means “to throw away the soul”. This finds its origin in the lyrics of some songs, which are written in a very direct language with a clear message, and are written to make someone else get the message. Because traditional taarab formed the starting point for rusha roho, I will discuss the main features of this music below.
An important feature of traditional taarab is its strict adherence to poetical structure (Askew, K.M. 2002: 103). A taarab song typically has a strophic structure, with verses being alternated with a chorus. Usually a taarab song has three or four verses, each verse set to the same music. The lyrics are always written first, and then put to music by a composer on the basis of the contents of the song text (Topp Fargion, J. 1999: 212). Sometimes the lyrics and/or the music are written by several people.
Swahili poetry can be divided into three categories: (i) shairi, poems with four lines in each verse; (ii) utenzi, long epic poems; and (iii) wimbo, poetry composed to be sung. In actual practice, overlaps between these categories occur. According to some, “Swahili poetry is composed to be sung” (Ntarangwi, M. 2001: 3), which means all Swahili poetry could fit into the wimbo category. Taarab poetry definitely belongs to the wimbo category, because these poems are written to be sung. Taarab lyrics can have various structures, but the two most prevalent forms are tristich, verses of three lines each, and quatrain, verses of four lines each.
In taarab poetry, as in most Swahili poetry, rhyme is found in the middle of a line and at the end of the line. The subject of the lyrics is usually love, described with intelligent poetry and using a lot of metaphors. Because of these metaphors, which can be explained in many different ways, one taarab song can apply to different situations and different people. Taarab songs may also contain a message on how people should treat each other. An illustration of such a message is found in the lyrics of the song Mpewa hapokonyeki by Culture Musical Club: [3]

Mpewa hapokonyeki What has been given can’t be taken away
1. 1.
Aliepewa kapewa, naapa haponyeki To whom has been given has been given, I swear that can’t be taken away
Kwa alichojaaliwa, wallahi hapunguziki What he has been blessed with, by Allah, it can’t be reduced
Kwake ukilia ngowa, unajipatisha diki If you feel jealous of him, you are only giving yourself a hard time
(Kiitikio) (Chorus)
Mpewa hapokonyeki, aliyepewa kapewa What has been given can’t be taken away, to whom has been given has been given
Wewe ukufanya chuki, bure unajisumbua When you are feeling hatred, you are only troubling yourself
2. 2.
Mola ndiye atoae, akawapa mahuluki God is the one who gives, and He gives to many people
Humpa amtakae, ambaye humbariki He gives to whom He likes, to whom He blesses
Na kila amnyimae, kupata hatodiriki And everyone he doesn’t give to, will never get it
3. 3.
Mola hutuoa hidaya, tafauti na riziki God gives gifts, different from our daily bread
Kwa anomtukia, huwa ndiyo yake haki For the one whom He rewards, that is what he deserves
Na asie mtakia, huwa si yake haki And for whom He doesn’t want it, that one doesn’t deserve it
4. 4.
Wa tisa humpa tisa, wa moja haongezeki He gives many things to the ones who deserve it, the one who deserves a little He doesn’t increase
Alomnyima kabisa, pindi akitaharuki For the one whom He doesn’t give anything at all, if that one gets worried
Hubakia na kulia, na kulia kama nyuki He remains crying, and crying like a bee

This traditional song is about the fact that you should be happy with what you get in life; being envious of others is useless, and you will only end up crying. [4] Note that this is an example of a tristich, where there is rhyme in the middle of each line and at the end of each line.
Another feature of taarab is the use of maqamsArabic scales or modi. These are based on an octave of 24 tones, which involves whole tones, half tones and quartertones. In traditional taarab, 9 different maqams are used. Each maqam gets its name from the first tetrachord of the scale, and has a fixed order of intervals. The 9 maqams which are used in traditional taarab are Ajam (which sounds like the major scale), Nahuant (which sounds like the minor scale), Nawathar, Hijaz, Kurdi, Rast, Bhayati, Sika and Saba. Ajam, Nahuant, Nawathar, Hijaz and Kurdi only use whole and half tones, Rast, Bhayati, Sika and Saba also use quartertones. The tonic is fixed in theory, but the whole maqam can be transposed if for example this fits the vocal range of the singer better.
A traditional taarab group consists of violins, cello, double bass, ud, nay, qanun, darabukka and vocals. Usually there is a background chorus of female and male singers, and several soloists. In the larger groups, such as Nadhi Ikhwan Safaa and Culture Musical Club, a keyboard and accordion are also used. These instruments are used as background instruments, and do not play continuously. This is because a keyboard and an accordion cannot play quarter tones, [5] so they only play the parts of the song where there are no quartertones.
An important aspect of taarab is the rhythm. Usually the rhythm is played by a darabukka, a small acoustic drum. The rhythm is meant as a support to the melody. The most prevalent rhythm in traditional taarab is the wahed unus (Topp Fargion, J. 1999: 211):

After playing this basic rhythm several times, the percussionist may vary it according to his/her taste. The wahed unus rhythm is often alternated with a rumba rhythm (Topp Fargion, J. 1999: 211):

Another important feature of taarab music is ornamentation. In Arabic music, and also in taarab, embellishments have a very different meaning than in Western music. In Western music, ornamentations are used to accentuate the melody. In Arabic music and taarab however, embellishment is a means of musical expression (Askew, K.M. 2002: 108). There are different types of ornamentation in traditional taarab: slides, grace notes, vibrato, accents and melismata.
Taarab can thus be seen as hybrid music: lyrics in Swahili, Arabic maqams and Western scales, Arabic, African and Western instruments, and Arabic ornamentations.
An example of a traditional taarab song is Nipepee (Cool Me with Your Fan) by Nadhi Ikhwan Safaa (track).
Traditional taarab as described above formed the starting point for rusha roho. In the early 1990s, many Zanzibaris, some of whom were taarab musicians, went to the United Arab Emirates to find a job in the army for financial reasons. However, because many young men went there with the same idea, joining the army was not possible for everyone who wanted. Therefore they had to find other ways to survive. The taarab musicians who went to the UAE decided to make their money through music. Since there were no traditional taarab instruments available for these musicians, they used keyboards, electric guitar and bass guitar instead. In the beginning the group still used acoustic drums. At first the musicians played songs from Nadhi Ikhwan Safaa (Zanzibar’s oldest traditional taarab group) and some Arabic songs on modern instruments, but with acoustic drums. After a few years they exchanged the acoustics drums for a beat machine, so all the instruments were electronic from then on. The change from acoustic drums to beat machine was made to give more “flavour” to the music, because the musicians felt the combination of electronic instruments with acoustic ones was not correct. [6] The taarab music that thus emerged became famous in the UAE, after which the musicians wanted to come back to Zanzibar and perform there (still in the early 1990s). Because their music retained the feeling of the “real” taarab and used traditional lyrics, people in Zanzibar loved it immediately. The market for “modern taarab”, as it was then called, was very good. The group that came back from the UAE to Zanzibar was called East African Melody, and it was the only modern taarab group on the island at the time. An example of a song from this period is Karibu Habibi (Welcome Baby) by East African Melody (track). Because this music was so popular many other groups quickly emerged who took over this style.
The name rusha roho emerged in 1995. [7] East African Melody and many new modern taarab groups had been performing on the island for a couple of years, and the demand for performances at weddings was increasing. At these weddings, the audience wanted to be entertained properly. This influenced the lyrics of modern taarab: they became more and more direct and attacking, because that seemed to fulfill the demands of the audience. An example of such a rusha roho song is Niepushie (Go away) by Jahazi Modern Taarab (track). It is not clear who started to use the term rusha roho first, but the meaning of the term is clear. As stated, rusha roho comes from kurusha roho, “to throw away the soul”. Because the lyrics of some songs are very direct and often attacking someone else, such a song is said to “throw away someone else’s soul”. The term rusha roho appealed to the audience, because the element of competition – which plays an important role in Zanzibar society – is expressed in it. As the audience was attracted to this term, it persisted. At first, the term was used primarily to refer to the lyrics of these songs, while at present rusha roho is interchangeable with modern taarab and therefore refers to a whole musical style.
The lyrics of modern taarab changed from traditional taarab poetry to more direct and clear lyrics. However, the lyrics were not the only part of modern taarab that changed; the music itself changed as well. Because of the increasing demand for modern taarab, there was a lack of musicians who were trained in the taarab tradition. Therefore emerging modern taarab groups started to invite musicians from other music styles, such as soukous [8] and dans. [9] These musicians had a different style of playing. For example, soukous bass guitar players brought more melody and virtuosity into their bass lines, as opposed to the chords and not much melody played by early modern taarab bass players.
At present, there are numerous modern taarab groups in Zanzibar. The most popular ones who still reside on the island include Zanzibar One and Spice Modern Taarab. Other groups in Zanzibar are Stone Town Modern Taarab, JKU (also known as Diamond Modern Taarab, a government-owned modern taarab group), Sanaa Modern Taarab, New Zanzibar Stars, Island Modern Taarab, Safina Modern Taarab and Big Star Modern Taarab. And then there is Magereza Modern Taarab. Magereza is a prison just outside Stone Town, which has different groups: a brass band, a ngoma group and a modern taarab group. The musicians in all of these groups are working in the prison as well as performing music. The most popular and best-selling groups in general are Jahazi Modern Taarab and East African Melody. These groups originated in Zanzibar but moved to Dar es Salaam on the mainland because there is more opportunity to perform there and thus more money to make.
A typical modern taarab group consists of one or two keyboards, beat machine, electric guitar, bass guitar and several singers. In most cases there are around four singers who sit on chairs on one side of the stage, usually women. Each singer sings at least one song, for which she stands up and takes a central position on stage. The rest of the singers remain sitting and form the background chorus. A rusha roho group can invite a famous singer to perform with them, to attract a larger audience. Occasionally a musician from the traditional taarab scene is invited to perform with a rusha roho group.
An important characteristic of rusha roho performances is kutunza (literally: to reward). This refers to the practice of tipping, which is found in traditional taarab as well. During a performance, when someone in the audience hears a song that he or she likes, or that is considered appropriate for oneself or another person in the audience, they can move forward towards the stage. While dancing in front of the stage, he or she waves a banknote around, and eventually delivers it to the singer. This can be done with a lot of arm gestures and hip moving, and by giving the person for whom the song is meant a meaningful look, so that there can be no doubt this other person gets the message.
Another feature of rusha roho is the use of Western scales or Arabic maqams which do not use quartertones. This is because the main melody instrument in rusha roho is the keyboard, which cannot produce quarter tones. [10] In practice, the maqams of Ajam and Nahuant are used the most. Very rarely, a maqam is used that does contain quarternotes. When this is the case, the half flat is changed into a normal flat. This changes the nature of the music completely. [11]
Rusha roho is also characterized by a fast and loud beat, generated by a beat machine. This is an electronic musical instrument which imitates the sound of drums. The beat in modern taarab is much faster and louder than in traditional taarab, and often consists of multiple voices in the beat machine. The following example is from the song Dua la Kuku by Spice Modern Taarab:

One of the major attractions of rusha roho is constituted by the lyrics. The language in some of the songs is very direct, resonating with the name rusha roho, or “to throw away the soul”. To illustrate the nature of the song texts I will include a part of the lyrics of two songs by two different, competing modern taarab groups. They were both written in 2008. The first is Fimbo ya Mungu, which means Stick of God (track). It was written and is regularly performed by Zanzibar One. As an answer to this song, Spice Modern Taarab came up with the song Dua la Kuku, which means Prayer of the Chicken (track). [12]

Fimbo ya Mungu Stick of God
Alhamdulillahi zangu ndizo zinazokudhuru My thanking God affects you
Mabaya kifanya kwangu, silipizi nashukuru If you do bad things to me, I don’t take revenge, I’m thankful for that
Iko safi nia yangu, sina rangi ya kunguru My intention is pure, I don’t have the colour of a crow
Uchawi si sifa yangu, naiepuka kufuru Witchcraft is not my nature, I avoid blasphemy
Namuamini Mola wangu, ndie atoninusuru I believe in my God, he is the one who will save me
(Kiitikio) (Chorus)
Hujarokwa mlimwengu, usitafute sababu You have not been bewitched, don’t look for a reason
Hiyo ni fimbo ya Mungu, yakushikisha adabu This is the stick of God, it is punishing you
Unalia kwa uchungu, haina wa kukutibu You’re crying bitter tears, there is no treatment
Tanihukumia Mungu, jaza yangu ni thawabu God will judge for me, my reward is blessing
Dua la Kuku Prayer of the Chicken
Hilo ni dua la kuku, halinipati asilani mie This is the prayer of the chicken, it will never get to me
Na mwenzio kasuku, kaniapiza zamani mie And your fellow parrot, has cursed me long ago
Yailahi niepushie, hasama na faataani God protect me, from conflict and trouble
Alitakalo lisiwe, katu abadani What she wants should not be, never ever
Wala asifanikiwe, kwa uwezo wake manani Neither should she succeed, with God’s power
(Kiitikio) (Chorus)
Kama kusema ni mauti, nishasomewa hitima mie If being talked about is death, the service has been held for me
Sizijali tashtiti, viumbe wanazosema eee I don’t care about the critiques, preachers are saying eee
Ooo nishayazoea, ooo wanonizulia eee Ooo I’m used to it, ooo what they say about me eee
Ooo nishayazoea, ooo yote ya dunia Ooo I’m used to it, ooo all things of this world
Yangu hayaenda shoti, na wala hayajakwama My things don’t go wrong, neither do they get stuck
Dua zako hazipati, kazi bure zako njama Your prayers are useless, your conspiracy is worthless work

As becomes clear from the examples above, the language used in rusha roho is direct and often aimed at attacking a rival (for example a competing modern taarab group) by outdoing them in insults. In Fimbo ya Mungu by Zanzibar Onethe singer prays to God that He will see that she’s doing only the right things, and that the other person is doing evil things and will be punished through the stick of God. The response from Spice Modern Taarab is singing that the other’s is the prayer of a chicken (Dua la Kuku [13]) and that it will never get to her. Such competition by trying to outdo each other through lyrics forms a great source of entertainment for the audience. However, not all rusha roho songs are about attacking a rival, trying to outdo them, or making fun of each other. Some songs contain a message about how people should live together, how a woman can be a good wife, or they may contain messages about health. The language is always direct and clear. The term rusha roho found its origin in the direct and attacking lyrics of certain songs, but at present encompasses a whole musical style. Therefore, songs which are about friendship or love can also be called rusha roho.
One last feature which needs mentioning here is the style of dress of the audience at a rusha roho performance. Women in particular pay a lot of attention to the way they look. They wear (a lot of) make-up, shiny jewelry and put on their nicest dresses, which are often tight and revealing. Most women do not wear a headscarf.
Rusha roho is performed on different occasions: regular performances in local clubs and bars, performances during celebrations associated with weddings, performances during elections and other governmental events, and special shows by two competing modern taarab groups.
In and around Stone Town, the main venues for regular rusha roho performances are the Rock Café at the Bwawani Hotel in Malindi, and the bar Kwaraju in Kilimani area. In the Rock Café, there is rusha roho every Monday and Thursday evening from nine pm until late. The performances here are by two singers from Spice Modern Taarab, performing rusha roho songs accompanied by one keyboard. The audience consists mainly of heavily drinking men and prostitutes. In Kwaraju, there is rusha roho every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening, starting at ten pm. The group which plays here on these evenings is Stone Town Modern Taarab. The regular performances in Kwaraju start around 9.30 pm, but most of the audience starts coming in after midnight. The audience here consists of couples and single men, who drink, dance and perform kutunza.
Another occasion where rusha roho is performed is during celebrations associated with weddings. Most larger wedding celebrations (which are often attended by 100 guests or more) take place in the Pemba Bar or the Salama Hall of the Bwawani Hotel in Malindi. The audience consists primarily of women, who are seated in plastic chairs and only go up to the stage to dance during a song they like.
Rusha roho is also used by the government, for example during elections. Because rusha roho is very popular in Zanzibar, the government often invites a rusha roho group because they want to get the attention of the people. Inviting a rusha roho group attracts a larger crowd to the event, so the government is able to reach more people.
Occasionally there are special shows of two competing rusha roho groups. These are held at the Ngome Kongwe (Old Fort) or at Gymkana, a local bar just outside Stone Town. For these shows, tickets can be bought at the door, and everybody is welcome. Two rusha roho groups take turns in performing a set of several songs, and they compete with each other through lyrics. For example, Zanzibar One will perform Fimbo ya Mungu in one of their sets, which is answered by Spice Modern Taarab with Dua la Kuku in their subsequent set.
The meaning of rusha roho
The current popularity of rusha roho in Zanzibar is apparent from the many regular performances at various locations throughout Stone Town, at wedding celebrations, at governmental events and at special shows. The music is closely linked with the lives of many people in Zanzibar and its meaning becomes clear when examining issues of competition, identity and music as heterotopia. Considering these issues leads to an understanding of the fact that although the lyrics of some songs have given rise to the name rusha roho, this music encompasses much more than throwing away the soul.
Competition is found in many different musics throughout the world and can take various forms. Among the Inuit in the Central Arctic for example, duelling through song is a method for airing grievances and dealing with interpersonal conflict in Inuit society, where expressing conflict openly is taboo (Eckert, P. & Newmark, R. 1980). Another form of competition is found in desafio in Brazil. This is a sung poetic battle, in which two singers try to outdo each other in the art of verse improvisation (Travassos, E. 2000: 61). The subject of the sung verses is not necessarily an existing conflict between the two singers; the competitive opposition lies in the improvisational aspect as the singers try to outdo each other by demonstrating their improvisation skills.
As was discussed before, competition in Swahili society is expressed in sports, design of the villages and music. Competition is also a very important characteristic of rusha roho performances. What distinguishes rusha roho from other musics, however, is the fact that this music forms a platform for competition in two distinct ways at the same time. First, there is competition between modern taarab groups. There are usually two competing groups who try to outdo each other in an exchange of lyrics. Zanzibar One and Spice Modern Taarab are the two best known competing groups in Zanzibar. An example of these two groups competing with lyrics can be found above, Fimbo ya Mungu by Zanzibar One and Dua la Kuku by Spice Modern Taarab. When a modern taarab group comes up with a new song, the audience is excited about the reply of the competing group. The competitive opposition among rusha roho groups is not as individual and direct as for example the song duelling among the Inuit. In direct song duelling, the participants respond to each other directly at a duelling event. This means they have to react to the attacks immediately, and whoever responds in the quickest, sharpest way “wins” the competition. This involves a lot of improvisation on the spot. The competition between rusha roho groups in Zanzibar is not so individual and direct, however. Attacking songs are usually aimed at a rival group, not a single person. The competition between groups is not about personal grievances or conflicts, but about outdoing a rival group through figurative lyrics. A modern taarab group comes up with a song that makes fun of their rival and performs it live or has it broadcast on the radio. The rival modern taarab group then has time to write a response to this song, which is then released. This leaves the audience waiting for the response, which forms part of the attraction of rusha roho. During a live performance two competing groups among others perform songs which form attacks on their rival or responses to attacks from their rival.
The second way in which rusha roho forms a platform for competition is by providing members of the audience with the opportunity to express personal conflict. A rusha roho song can be used by people from the audience to criticize each other. For example, when a man has several wives, jealousy can arise between the women. At a rusha roho performance, the first wife can choose to perform kutunza with a specific song which is about her situation, for example a song which says: “He loves me more”. She can move forward to the stage and hand over the tip to the singer, dancing exuberantly and making an entire show out of it, thus clearly letting her co-wife know that though their husband may be married to both of them, he is spending more time with her than with his second wife. The second wife may then choose to respond by performing kutunza during a song which says: “It’s ok, he’s not that great in bed anyway!”. This form of expressing competition is direct and instantaneous. This is not to say that the audience expresses only feelings of competition by performing kutunza during a rusha roho performance. Kutunza is also used to reinforce friendship or simply to express appreciation for a good singer.
Competition between members of the audience is not only expressed by performing kutunza, it is also articulated in their appearance. Individuals – especially women – who go to a rusha roho performance pay a lot of attention to the way they look. Women wear ballroom dresses, expensive looking jewellery and show off complex hair-do’s. They dress up and look their best to “show what they’ve got”, trying to outdo the other members of the audience. Rusha roho therefore forms a platform for conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen introduces this concept in his The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), arguing that the consumption patterns of individuals are closely linked to the social-economic status they have or want to have. An individual’s status is based on the judgements that other individuals make about this person’s position in society, and for the position to be established there must be a display of wealth (Trigg, A.B. 2001: 101). Veblen distinguishes two ways in which an individual can display wealth: by taking part in noticeable activities and by purchasing expensive goods. Rusha roho performances are excellent opportunities for conspicuous consumption, allowing members of the audience to display their wealth in the two ways Veblen distinguishes: by taking part in a leisure activity (the performance itself) and by showing off their expensive (or expensive looking) clothes and jewelry. At a rusha roho performance, it is all about seeing and being seen. A female member of the audience is judged by the other members of the audience based on her appearance, which is why women spend a lot of money on visible goods such as dresses and jewellery in order to give an impression of their wealth and their body shape to others.
The current discourse on this concept shows that identity is not a static phenomenon, but a process. Identity is constructed, continuously negotiated, and arises from the narrativization of the self (Bhabha, H.K. 1994, Hall, S. 1996, Cerulo, K.A. 1997). This means that part of it lies in the imaginary, that identity is about who we want to be, rather than who we are. Identity is something we “put on”. Social interaction is essential for the construction of identity. Individuals construct their identities along two different lines: personal, through the characteristics and behaviours they associate with themselves; and social, by their membership of various social groups (Howard, J.A. 2000: 368-369). Individual identity and social identity are hard to separate, because there is a continuous interaction between them. The social positions individuals occupy influence their personal identity formation, and vice versa.
Music contributes to the formation of individual and collective identity. On the one hand music is an individual experience, invoking emotions and associations which are highly personal. On the other hand, experiencing music is collective, because through listening, individuals are drawn “into emotional alliances with the performers and with the performer’s other fans” (Frith, S. 1996: 121). Music offers individuals this possibility of interaction, of experiencing and negotiating the self. It is the narrativization of the self through music experience which contributes to the formation of identity. As Frith describes, music plays an important role in the construction of identity because “it offers so intensely, a sense of both self and others, of the subjective in the collective” (Frith, S. 1996: 110). Frith argues that the practice of music expresses in itself an understanding of group relationships and individuality. Music expresses a reality which is in it, rather than reflecting a reality which is behind it. This means that social groups do not agree on values which are then expressed in their cultural activities, rather they get to know themselves as groups through cultural activities. Music forms an opportunity for making sense of ourselves and the world and therefore contributes to the formation of a social identity.
In rusha roho, the aspect of identity formation through music is taken a step further. Rusha roho offers the audience an opportunity for active individual and collective identity construction. It is important to note here that while on a theoretical level the distinction between collective and subjective identifications in music can be made, in practice they are not so easily separated (O’Flynn, J. 2007: 27). I will make the distinction between individual and collective identity formation here to be able to demonstrate the role of rusha roho in these two processes. Identity formation in rusha roho performances happens through the phenomenon of kutunza, tipping, which is mainly done by women. When the performing rusha roho group plays a song which a woman thinks fits her situation, she can move forward and reward the singer with a tip. She can make an entire show of this, waving the money around, moving her hips, so that everybody else in the audience notices her. By performing kutunza she emphasizes for herself and the audience that the content of this song is about herself. In this way rusha roho forms an opportunity for individual identity construction. In the noticeable performance of kutunza, by “putting on” the contents of a song, an individual can narrate and negotiate the self. But it also contributes to the formation of a social identity: Members of the audience may also tip when they think a particular song is appropriate for someone else in the audience. For example, when a song is about friendship, a member of the audience may move forward to tip the singer while looking at his or her friend in the audience, so that the person in question knows the tipping was done for them, and that the song is meant for them. New social relationships can be formed, and existing ones reinforced. The interaction during a rusha roho performance thus is essential for the formation of an individual and collective identity.
Foucault describes two different spaces which are related to all the other spaces which we occupy, but “in such a way as to suspect, neutralize or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (Foucault, M. 1986: 24). The first type of space is the utopia, a site with no real place, which represents society itself in a perfected form. The second type of space Foucault describes is the heterotopia. This is a place that really exists, “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (Foucault, M. 1986: 24).
Rusha roho can also be seen as a kind of heterotopia, because during a rusha roho performance several expressions of social behaviour take place which do not occur openly in everyday life. Rusha roho forms an “other” space in which cultural norms are simultaneously represented and contested.
Firstly, because Zanzibar is a Muslim island, issues such as sexuality cannot be discussed in public. The lyrics of rusha roho however, are very direct and discuss matters like love, sex, jealousy and rivalry openly. Issues which are taboo in daily life are brought to the public sphere. Rusha roho thus apparently forms an artistic and protective veil for people to be able to say what they want to say.
Secondly, two consequences of Islam in Zanzibar are contested during a rusha roho performance. During the day, most Zanzibari women cover themselves completely, and there are separate public domains for men and women. At a rusha roho performance, the same women who wear a bui bui (a long black dress which covers everything from neck to ankle) and a headscarf during the day, may be seen in a short dress and bare-headed during the show. Women can also mingle with men in public during a rusha roho performance.
The direct lyrics, different way of dressing and the intermingling of men and women in rusha roho are expressions of social behaviour that do not occur in the daily life of most Zanzibaris. Rusha roho can thus be seen as a form of defiance against dominant cultural norms on the island. It is a musical space in which Zanzibaris can express themselves, sort out quarrels and behave in ways they would not normally in daily life, without this having consequences for their position in Zanzibari society. On the one hand rusha roho forms a reflection of Zanzibari society and is connected to it, because social values are represented in the music and the performance of it. On the other hand rusha roho forms an “other” space, a space with its own rules, where different behaviour is possible and where cultural norms such as gender segregation are contested. Therefore rusha roho can be seen as heterotopia.
I have presented rusha roho in Zanzibar. This relatively new music is a widespread phenomenon at present, which is apparent from the many regular performances at various locations throughout Stone Town, at wedding celebrations, for governmental purposes and at special shows.
Rusha roho is closely linked with the lives of many people in Zanzibar. Although the lyrics of some of the songs have given rise to the name rusha roho, which means to throw away the soul, this music encompasses much more.
I have discussed three important issues in order to understand the meaning of rusha roho in Zanzibar society. Examining this music contributes to the current musicological discourse. First of all, rusha roho is an important phenomenon because it forms a platform for competition. Competition plays a very important role in Swahili society, and rusha roho forms a platform for this in two distinct ways at the same time: the audience can enjoy the competition between two rival rusha roho groups, and they can express personal conflicts during a performance by means of performing kutunza. The element of competition between members of the audience is also found in conspicuous consumption during performances. Members of the audience are judged by the others by the way they look, which is why many individuals – especially women – pay a lot of attention to their appearance. Dressing up is by no means a new phenomenon in Zanzibar; dress has historically been an important marker of status and class on the East African Coast. The importance of dressing up according to one’s status was widely recognized in daily life in the nineteenth century (Fair, L. 1998: 64), and it still is today. Second, examining rusha roho broadens our discursive horizon in the issue of identity formation. It is currently understood that identity is a dynamic process, not a static phenomenon, in which social interaction is essential. Music plays an important part in the construction of identity by offering individuals the possibility of interaction, of experiencing and negotiating the self. As Frith points out, people get to know themselves as groups through cultural activity. But identity formation through music is taken a step further in rusha roho: Not only do members of the audience experience music together, they are also given the opportunity to actively construct and negotiate their individual and collective identities, through the practice of kutunza. By performing kutunza, members of the audience are able (i) to “put on” the contents of a song and narrate and construct the self, and (ii) create new social relationships and reinforce existing ones. Finally, rusha roho can be seen as a heterotopia as described by Foucault, a space in which other sites that can be found in a culture are “simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (Foucault, M. 1986: 24). On the one hand rusha roho forms a reflection of Zanzibari society and is connected to it, because social values are represented in the music and the performance of it. On the other hand rusha roho forms an “other” place, a place with its own rules, where different behaviour is possible and where cultural norms such as gender segregation are contested. Although Foucault does not include music in his description of heterotopias, I argue that music, in this case rusha roho, can in fact be considered a heterotopia. By understanding rusha roho as heterotopia its meaning becomes clear. Rusha roho is a musical space in which Zanzibaris can express themselves, sort out quarrels and behave in ways they would not normally do in daily life, without this having consequences for their position in Zanzibari society.
[1] I conducted research in Zanzibar from January until May 2010, which consisted of attending rusha roho rehearsals and performances, and conducting interviews with musicians and members of the audience. I would like to thank Stichting de Fundatie van de Vrijvrouwe van Renswoude te ‘s Gravenhage, Amsterdams Universiteitsfonds and STUNT for their financial support.
[2] Zanzibaris refer to these mitaa frequently, for example to describe the geographical location of a place, such as “the bakery in Vuga”.
[3] The translation is my own, with the help of my Swahili teacher Bibi Josephine.
[4] The Swahili phrase kulia kama nyuki literally means “crying like a bee” and refers to the continuous high sound of someone crying uncontrollably.
[5] Although at present keyboards with quartertones are being made, these are not widely available and are hardly ever used.
[6] East African Melody changed back to using bongo’s and dumbak (a small acoustic drum) after they returned to Zanzibar. Mohammed Omar explained this was because with acoustic drums the performance becomes more “alive”. When the audience is warming up to the music it is necessary to be able to increase the tempo, and with a beat machine this is not possible.
[7] PC Mohammed Issa Matona, 19 March 2010.
[8] Soukous is a music style which originated in Congo, and is regarded as the African version of the rumba. This music style became very popular in East Africa.
[9] Dansi is a popular urban jazz form which fills the dance halls in the big cities in East Africa.
[10] Keyboards are also found in traditional taarab, but play a more subdued role.
[11] PC Excel Michael Haonga, 25 March 2010.
[12] The translation is my own, with the help of my Swahili teacher Bibi Josephine.
[13] The Swahili saying Hii ni dua la kuku literally translates as “This is the prayer of the chicken” and means “This is a useless prayer”.
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2 Responses to Rusha Roho in Zanzibar

  1. Serge NYAMBO says:

    Since I heard songs by Mbosso, lately Hodari and Nipepee (Zima Feni), I was tricked into searching the mix between taarabu and new High life music in coastal pop culture.
    And I stumbled upon this piece of work. Amazing!!! Thanks for enlightening academic and historical background of this wonderful music.

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