October 2011, fast approaching, is the release month for my upcoming Dust-to-Digital box set, Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm (October 25th, to be precise), therefore it’s high time for a stone rarity of an African record. For some readers, the artist and title of this track might ring a bell. Part 2 of this terrific, historically significant disc appeared on the Secret Museum of Mankind’s East Africa CD. I thought I’d offer Part 1 from my own copy, completing the listening experience.
This 78 represents one of the very first pieces of recorded music from the Zanzibar archipelago, produced during the very first recording sessions of Zanzibari musicians. In March 1928, the Gramophone Company in England shipped a handful of Zanzibari musicians to Bombay, India, including Maalim Shaban and the renowned Siti binti Saad. The engineer was Robert Edward Beckett, who had been recording around the world for GramCo since 1922. Over the next three years, these and other Zanzibari musicians recorded over 125 discs in Bombay, over several visits. The records themselves were pressed in Calcutta, and shipped to Swahili-speaking regions of coastal Africa. Details are scant with regard to precisely when this disc was recorded, but it appears to have been released in September of 1929. After these historic sessions, there seemed to be a mad rush to record East African musicians: Odeon began recording local music all down the East African coast, Pathé shipped East African musicians to Marseille to record, and Columbia began recording some of the very same musicians that GramCo had recorded, except onsite.
78rpm records and gramophone players, however, had been available in the region for decades, but by and large the music that was being sold to locals was not popular or traditional music in Swahili or other African dialects. It was either English or Indian music – sold to those populations. The Zanzibari music that was recorded in 1928 (and onward) by the Gramophone Company was taarab. Probably the most overt influence heard in early taarab ensembles is the classical Arabic influence. But as scholar Werner Graebner and others have pointed out, the influences were wide – from India and Southeast Asia, to the Persian Gulf’s khaleeji music. The instrumentation heard on this piece is oud, violin, and percussion (darabukka). The title of the piece, “Unguja,” refers to Zanzibar itself (it’s the name of the largest and most populated island of the Zanzibar archipelago). Maalim Shaban lived at least until the 1960s, when he participated in interviews for a book on early Swahili recording artists (Waimbaji wa juzi, by A. A. Jahadhmy, available only in Swahili).
Label: His Master’s Voice
Issue Number: P. 13290
Coupling Number: 28-12239
Matrix Number: BD3063
For further listening, additional compositions by Maalim Shaban are on Janet Topp Fargion’s essential CD Poetry and Languid Charm, on Topic.
For those who don’t follow the Excavated Shellac Facebook page, I was recently on Jason Sigal’s WFMU radio program Talk’s Cheap. He graciously had me for 90 minutes to play music and chat. For those interested, here is a link to the archived show.
And as for Opika Pende – I’ll try to keep the self-promotion bearable, but I do hope that any fan of the site, especially those that understand and appreciate the time and effort it takes to find and make these types of recordings available, will purchase and enjoy the set. This was a labor of love – from me, to you.