Category: Comoros

Abubakar – Shah Na Mbere, Pts 1-2

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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 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

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

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