Abubakar – Shah Na Mbere, Pts 1-2


This, it seems, is the very first commercial recording from the Comoro archipelago in the Indian Ocean; or, at least the first in a Comorian language. It has never been reissued or discussed, as far as I know.

In earlier entries, I’ve mentioned the race to record musicians in East Africa by European record companies that began in 1928 and was halted after 1930. Of course, records and gramophone players had already been present in the region likely for two decades or so, but these early sessions marked the first attempts to record “popular” music of the region and to solidify an East African market. The Gramophone Company recorded three sessions that featured Zanzibari musicians (in 1928, 1929, and 1930, respectively), most notably Siti binti Saad and her group. In all three sessions, the musicians were sent to Mumbai to record. In 1930, Odeon recorded on site in Mombasa and then a little in Kampala, Uganda. That same year, Pathé sent East African musicians by boat to Marseille and then on to Paris to record. And from February to April of 1930, Columbia had a team recording in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam. This record is from those Columbia sessions in Zanzibar – issued on their “Tanganyika & Zanzibar” series, which had one of the most beautiful early label designs in history.

Of all the musical forms in the region, the remarkable taarab, sung in Swahili and played largely in coastal areas, was by far the prevailing style preferred by the record companies. They recorded it almost exclusively in Zanzibar and Mombasa, in part due to the runaway success of the 28 records from Siti binti Saad’s first session, which was entirely taarab music. Deeply influenced by the music of Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia, taarab has its origins in Zanzibar in the late 19th century. The cloudy  story is that the sultan, Barghash bin Said, invited a musical ensemble from Egypt to play and teach his musicians. From there, this secular style of music with poetic lyrics spread to the mainland, even as far as Uganda and Burundi. It also took root in Comoros, and was played in the Comorian community in Unguja (Zanzibar island).

The Comoros, located some 480 miles south-southeast of Zanzibar off the coast of northern Mozambique, were also an important trading spot for centuries between coastal Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. The French officially colonized the islands in the mid-19th century, and as with with Réunion, they created a plantation-based economy. When this recording was made in 1930, the Comoros were part of the colony of Madagascar; however, culturally there had always been a deep connection to the Swahili coast.

Comoros has its own brand of taarab, known as twarab. According to scholar Werner Graebner, taarab was introduced from Zanzibar to the main island of Ngazidja (also known as Grand Comore) at some point prior to 1912/1913, and perhaps as early as 1908, when the first musical association was established on the island. The center of musical activity was the main port of Moroni. By the late 1920s, there were several twarab groups on the island. But, they were never recorded.

When Columbia Records of England came to Zanzibar in 1930, they, like the others, recorded the stripped-down style of taarab that was popular at the time, featuring mainly oud (or sometimes the gambus), violin, percussion, and vocals. The Zanzibari artists were by then well-known and credited by their full names: Budda bin Mwendo, Subeit bin Ambar, Malim Shaban, Abeid bin Mohamed. But, there were two discs recorded by a mysterious artist known only as “Abubakar.” His discs were listed as being in the “Kingazija” language, now known more commonly as Ngazidja, the language of the Comorian island of the same name. It’s not known if he was from Comoros or from the Comorian community in Zanzibar, or if he was in fact a Zanzibari who spoke the dialect. The fact that he was credited only by a single name, without “Sheikh” or “Effendi” as some of the other musicians were, may indicate that he was not a member of the elite class of Zanzibari musicians.

I’ve included both sides of this piece. It sounds like he is accompanied by an oud (though perhaps a gambus as it’s credited as “native instrument” instead of “ud” or “oud”), along with violin and percussion.

Abubakar – Shah Na Mbere, Pts. 1-2

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: WE 52
Matrix Number: 62175/6

Much info gleaned from Janet Topp Fargion’s and Werner Graebner’s writing.

9 thoughts on “Abubakar – Shah Na Mbere, Pts 1-2

  1. Wow. Not only early taarab, but early Comoran taarab… It’s good too! What a discovery – thank you!!

  2. >>The Gramophone Company recorded three sessions that featured Zanzibari musicians (in 1928, 1929, and 1930, respectively), most notably Siti binti Saad and her group. In all three sessions, the musicians were sent to Mumbai to record.<<

    I'm interested to know what evidence you have that these musicians "were sent to Mumbai to record".

    1. Hi Ross – Good to hear from you. Primarily, H. Evans’ 1931 report from East Africa back to the GramCo home office, where Evans outlines those sessions in detail (March 1928, March 1929, and April 1930, respectively), stating they were entirely coordinated by the “Bombay Branch.” Discs were pressed at Sealdah and Dum Dum (Kinnear). Kelly’s data on the BD- series is quite incomplete, and same with the BX- series sessions. However, Evans’ data helps to clear that up and solidify when precisely those matrices were recorded. At least, that’s as far as I can tell.

      1. Hi, Yes the recordings were “coordinated” by the Bombay Branch, but this means that after the masters were recorded they were shipped back to India for processing (and were allocated matrix numbers in various series then in use in India). The manufactured discs were then sent back to East Africa for sale. The artists did not travel to Bombay to record. This same procedure was used for decades in South East Asia were sessions were conducted locally in Singapore, Rangoon, etc. and the records were processed in India and allocated matrix numbers there. These records all say “Made In India” on the labels, but the recordings were not made in India. I have evidence that specific named recording engineers were sent out to Singapore (or whatever other locations were involved) to make the recordings, and I’m sure that the same applies to East African recordings which were manufactured in India. Regards, Ross

  3. Hi Ross.

    Confirmation of their journeys to record stems from Shaaban Robert’s biography of Siti Binti Saad herself, “Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad,” published in 1956, and a primary source for future taarab scholars. Shaaban interviewed Siti Binti Saad before her death and devotes a chapter (“Safari na Kuenea kea Sauti Take” – “A Journey and the Spread of Her Voice”) to her travels for recording to Bombay.

    Logically of course your statement makes sense for other parts of the world, though Omani and Iranian recording artists (Salim Rashid Suri, the group for the Young Iran label) did in fact travel long distances to India to record.

    At this point, all major Zanzibari/Swahili/taarab research since the Shabaan book’s publication states that these recordings were made in Bombay over three sessions. Primary examples are Janet Topp Fargion’s “Taarab Music in Zanzibar,” Werner Graebner’s numerous articles/books on the history of taarab, and scholar Laura Fair’s books/articles, most notably “Music, Memory and Meaning: The Kiswahili Recordings of Siti Binti Saad” from Swahili Forum (1998).

    A good example of how this information is encapsulated is by Fargion (2014):

    “Responsibility for East Africa had been left to the company’s Bombay branch, whose agent in Zanzibar, Abdulkarim Hakim Khan, in 1928, had the insight to suggest making records in the local language. At the time the Gramophone Company had no recording facilities in East Africa so in March 1928 Site and her band travelled to Bombay to make the first ever commercial Swahili recordings.”

    It seems likely that the origins of all of this present-day Zanzibar-Bombay information is a combination of: Shaaban’s biography, H. Evans’ document from GramCo on the East African market, and perhaps the Kelly data/ matrix numbers of the original issues themselves (indicating matrices for engineers Robert Beckett and Arthur Twine, both based in India at the respective times of recording).

    I will consult with Janet and Werner, who I believe are fluent in Swahili, and can confirm evidence, or lack thereof, of Bombay travel.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for the additional information. Iranian musicians were closer to India and may have travelled to India to record on occasion — alhough there were definitely recording sessions held in Iran as well. But I’m doubtful about even this, as musicians from Burma generally did not come to India to record even though Burma was administratively part of India at this time. Rather the recording sessions were held in Rangoon.

    I have no specific details about East African recording sessions during this time, but it seems more likely that a similar approach would have been taken to the many recording sessions also held in Rangoon, Singapore, Batavia, etc. during the same period which were also “coordinated” from India. In every case in these locations a recording engineer was sent out from India and travelled from place to place taking recordings. The wax masters were sent back to India for processing and the discs manufactured there before being exported to the different markets for sale by the local agents. As far as I’m aware, no artist from Burma, Malaya, the Straits Settlements, etc. ever travelled to India to record at this time.

    Part of the “coordinating” role of the Gramophone Co. in India was that the recording engineers based there also travelled to other locations in the region. The “region” extended from East Africa to South East Asia. I have evidence that engineers (including Robert Beckett and Arthur Twine, both based in India at this time) travelled to other parts of Asia to take recordings using portable equipment.

    There were no recording facilities (such as studios) in Southeast Asia at this time either, so temporary studios were set up in places like hotels and portable recording equipment was used for sessions held there. This was definitely the case from 1903 when the first recordings were made in Singapore and Rangoon up until 1941.

    The Gramophone Company usually adopted the same or similar practices for recording sessions in many parts of the world during the first half of the 20th century. Would the company really have adopted a totally different practice for East African recording sessions during the same period?

    1. I think the key word here is “usually.”

      There were several significant exceptions to the norm that I’d written about before here, and that bear similarity to the East African situation. (It does not surprise me about Beckett and Twine, as that was indeed the norm – they traveled all over the place.)

      For one, the 1930 sessions by Reuben Caluza from Durban, South Africa and his “Double Quartet” (mostly students from the Ohlange Institute). They traveled from South Africa to London to record 150 tracks in September of that year for HMV, many of which became huge sellers back in South Africa.

      The groundbreaking Zonophone EZ- series of recordings of West African musicians who recorded over 500 discs’ worth of material in London over 1927-1930. Those musicians (with a couple of exceptions who were already at the destination) were sent to London from West Africa, and many went right back to Ghana and were recorded when HMV returned to record onsite some years later (such as Jacob Sam aka “Sam” from the Kumasi Trio).

      The Pathé sessions in 1930 of Mombasa musicians, who were sent via ship to Marseilles, and then on to Paris to record (prior printed research suggested they recorded in Marseilles, but researcher Thomas Henry has discovered paperwork indicating they recorded the group in Paris). This was not part of the Paris Exposition sessions, and was specifically a session for the local East African market that Pathé was trying to exploit.

      Although the Paris Expo should be mentioned, as many musicians were recorded, many of whom traveled as far as the South Pacific. Of course, some were not professional musicians, but the Malagasy and Laotian orchestras were, in fact, full professional groups.

      The Mongolian recordings in Moscow in the 1930s are another example of musicians traveling extremely long routes – probably for an exposition or event of some kind, and the Soviet state took advantage of recording them.

      The logic of the recording industry, to me, often does not jibe with hindsight. Why was there a big Serbian session in Vienna in 1930, when HMV had recorded in Belgrade many times? Why did the Spanish artist La Nina de Los Peines, as researcher Sergio del Rio has pointed out to me, record in Berlin, when she wasn’t even touring there? To me, this is all part of the fun.

      More to the point, I will hear back from Janet and Werner.

      1. Werner Graebner wrote me back, and added some additional information pointing toward a Bombay session. He stated that there is a studio photograph of the Siti Binti Saad group with the South Asian agent from Zanzibar posing with them, in the background. “I am sure they would not have gone into the trouble of doing this if the recording had been made by a mobile unit on site in Zanzibar.”

        He reiterated that the Saad recordings were a first for East Africa (much like the Zonophone recordings in London by West African artists who had been sent there), and that prior to this, the gramophone market was aimed toward South Asians in the region. The industry was not sure, at the time, how to reach local audiences. So these were in effect trial efforts to establish a market, and at least for Sub-Saharan Africa, it was deemed more prudent to send the musicians to large HMV branches for these nascent sessions.

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