Women Musicians, Resistance and Social Change in Zanzibar

October 15, 2019
6:00 pm-7:30 pm | London

Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

We are delighted to invite you to the first in a series of events exploring themes of resistance, social change, and female artists inspired by AKU-ISMC’s new book and current exhibition by Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab at the AKC Gallery. 


Farouk Topan and Annemette Kirkegaard begin this series by discussing the music of the famous Zanzibari singer Siti binti Saad, the first sub-Saharan artist to be recorded by a western record label, whose lyrics included social critique encouraging social change, and her lasting legacy in the popular taarab music scene of East Africa.

Farouk Topan - Siti binti Saad: A Pioneering Female Voice in East Africa

This talk will showcase the famous Zanzibari singer and composer, Siti binti Saad (1880-1950), who promoted taarab as a performing art and as a mouthpiece for women in East Africa. She was the first famous female singer of the genre who popularised taarab music by using Swahili, and also the first East African to be invited by gramophone companies – Columbia and His Master’s Voice – to travel to Mumbai, India, in 1928 to record her songs. It is reported that, within three years, the sales of her records had reached 70,000 copies! Although she performed at the Sultan's palace, she did not only sing for the elite. She also performed for the working class, who were her main audience. Always listening to the working population, Siti binti Saad put their concerns to music. Her songs are about everyday life in Zanzibar, often referencing actual events. They contain social criticism, denouncing class oppression, corruption, the abuse of women by men and the shortcomings of the legal system. Siti binti Saad’s music is still widely played in Zanzibar, Tanzania and beyond. Her songs are part of the standard repertoire of many taarab bands. Her legacy lives on in many ways, not least as a symbol of progress, industry, and dignity of the modern African woman. 

Annemette Kirkegaard - The Art and Agency of Women in Contemporary Zanzibari Music Culture

The role of women singers, musicians and organisers in the culture of Zanzibar is an important and often disputed part of its contemporary music scene. In a culture in which music and instruments are strongly gendered, the art of a few women stands out. In this talk, Annemette Kirkegaard will discuss her recent fieldwork in Zanzibar and some of the trend-setting female artists she studied there. These include the late singer Bi Kidude Baraka, who listened to Siti binti Saad as a little girl and who carried forward the legacy of her repertoire until her death in 2013, as well as the all-female taarab orchestra “Tausi Women’s Taarab” who educate women as instrumentalists in the taarab music culture. The new female artist, Amina Omar, who is the front figure of “Siti and the Band”, will also be explored. Taking its name both as a reference to Siti Bint Saad and the literal meaning of the word, “sister”, the band is a new model for women in Zanzibari music. By highlighting these contemporary taarab perfomers, the talk focuses on the interplay between the unique tradition of women in taarab and the conflicting position of female performers in Zanzibar.



Farouk Topan is Associate Professor at AKU-ISMC. He received his PhD from SOAS, University of London, where he held the position of Senior Lecturer until 2006. He was a Research Scholar and Head of the Teacher Training Programme at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS), London from 1977 - 1993. His research interests include Swahili literature, Islam in African literature, African poetry, and identity in East Africa. He has published widely on various aspects of Swahili literature, religion, spirit possession and identity in East Africa. His publications include Swahili Modernities: Culture, Politics and Identity on the East Coast of Africa (with P. Caplan, AWP, 2004). Dr Topan was previously editor of the Journal of African Languages and Cultures (JALC; Oxford University Press) and its successor, the Journal of African Cultural Studies.

Annemette Kirkegaard is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Previously she was visiting Associate Professor at the University of Bergen, Norway. She has taught ethnomusicology, popular music studies and music history. Her research interests include ethnomusicology and popular music specialising in African, Middle Eastern and Danish music cultures and cultural encounters. She has conducted fieldwork in East Africa (Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar) for 30 years, and has published widely on the popular music of this area. Her publications include Researching Music Censorship (with J. Otterbeck, 2017). 


The event is free but booking is essential.  Reserve your place here.


Atrium Room
Aga Khan Centre