Spice Island through the prism of music March 25, 2010

On Tuesday night we saw a documentary entwined with music, called “Zanzibar Musical Club”, directed by a former musician Philippe Gasnier, and as a co-author, Patrice Neznan. The film looks into the original musical culture and life on the Spice Island Zanzibar. Zanzibar, belonging to Tanzania, has for centuries been an important place on the commerce road in the Indian Ocean, where people, cultures and music from Africa, India and the Arabic world mix. Every night, musicians meet in the musical clubs to rehearse ensemble playing and practice new songs. Zanzibar's typical music is taarab, played on everyday occasions as well as in rituals and at weddings. Taarab's aim is not so much to entertain people, but rather heal them, and unite their souls. It is strongly collective music, and musical clubs are one expression of this tradition. Local people gather in the clubs which used to be open only for men: they exchange news, play games, and on the initiative of the ensemble, sing songs together.

The film's director Philippe Gasnier, who has a rich experience as a musician, looks at this place and its culture through the filter of music. The film's language is poetic, even somewhat romantic. The music speaks for itself and gives the best idea about the life rhythm and atmosphere of Zanzibar. We do not hear much talking in the film. Songs accompany images from everyday life, markets, the ocean.

One of the most spectacular characters in the film is an almost-one-hundred-year-old woman, Bi Kidude, a well respected and honoured singer, well known also in Europe, who has kept her voice and life force. It doesn't even matter if we see her performing on the stage or baking cakes at home, Kidude has the dignity of a thousand years. To relate this film to the festival's main topic, ageing, Kidude is an excellent example of a positive attitude towards old age. Despite being close to her hundredth birthday, Kidude is an active member of the community who passes on traditions and creates a connection with the ancestors and the old times.

One of the questions of the film might be, is music actually the strongest link that connects this community? The film doesn't present any problems, so we can assume that the merging of cultures through very colourful history has namely taken place through music. The social idea behind taarab music is to combine elements from different cultures without violence. Compared to Ramesh Khadka's film “Menstruation”, which we saw on Wednesday where the community holds on to their traditions, even if they were uncomfortable for the community members themselves, in Zanzibar, the tradition seems to be rather changing. And how could it be otherwise, on an island where such different cultures and religions meet? Changing is probably the key for survival of the traditions, even though it is never certain that everything will be conserved. The number of musical clubs has in fact diminished, whereas taarab music has spread to other countries in East Africa and elsewhere, developing into new forms in pop music and film production. But “Zanzibar Musical Club” gives an enjoyable view of the current state of Zanzibar's music and culture, through sounds, poetics and images from everyday life, showing how music can be a universal power for transmission.

Mari Kalkun

Bi Kidude