Mohamed Issa Haji performs with Swahili Encounters, a project in which Zanzibari musicians collaborate with musicians from other countries at the Sauti za Busara festival
Mohamed Issa Haji performs with Swahili Encounters, a project in which Zanzibari musicians collaborate with musicians from other countries at the Sauti za Busara festival

 The street grid of Stone Town in Zanzibar is like a sadistic joke; one’s bearings get knotted up like a ball of yarn. Zanzibar’s last sultan, Barghash bin Said, who was in power between 1870 and 1888, is credited with laying out the town’s roads, among other things. Getting lost in the tapestry of architectural and cultural influences that have washed over the island, you might join the sultan in a chuckle, peace be upon him.

Old Customs House, a white two-storey block facing the ocean, is relatively difficult to miss — a few metres from the harbour and next to a huge construction site.

From outside, Afropop, classical music, reggae and hip-hop compete with the cacophony created by trucks and construction machinery.

Inside, the higher up in the building one goes, the less audible the noise becomes. On the top floor, the Dhow Countries Music Academy’s (DCMA) classrooms and rehearsal spaces form a rectangle, each of the doors facing the central courtyard.

To the right, through the piano rehearsal space, the Indian Ocean’s shimmer creeps through a door leading to a balcony.

In a corner close to the staircase, the cool library and instrument storeroom is a treasure trove of traditional and Western musical instruments, all of which are available to the academy’s students to learn and practise on.

The academy was founded in 2001 when Hildegard Kiel, Emerson Skeens and Mohamed Issa Haji were introduced by a mutual friend.

A plan was made soon after their encounter to establish a nongovernmental organisation that would reinvigorate the local traditional music scene by teaching different types of Zanzibari music.

Foulane Bouhssine (left) and Gora Mohammed perform on the Sauti za Busara main stage
Foulane Bouhssine (left) and Gora Mohammed perform on the Sauti za Busara main stage

With a US$100,000 cash injection from the Swiss government, the DCMA was able to start renting the space it has called home for the 16 years of its existence. In November 2016, the Swiss embassy in Tanzania and the DCMA signed an agreement under which the Swiss government will donate $411,000 to the academy over the next three years. These funds are earmarked for management and institutional capacity support.

Under the direction of Prof Mitchel Strumpf, the academic department offers music theory courses from grades 1 to 5 that are accredited and examined by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in the UK. The performance examination and accreditation are done locally, as the academy is one of the foremost institutions for learning taarab, beni, kidumbak and other traditional types of music.

Cellist, oudist and singer Rukia Juma Ali has attended the academy for seven years. Her love for music comes from her father, who is also a musician. Through the school, she has performed locally and internationally, in Germany and France. However, government has been anything but supportive of the arts in recent years, making it difficult for Ali and other musicians to earn a living.

Merging traditions

At the time of the DCMA’s establishment, Haji, who is known to most as Matona, had already been teaching music to young Tanzanians from Zanzibar and the mainland, encouraging his charges to perform in his G-Clef Taarab Orchestra. His first official position at the DCMA was as treasurer, but he soon shifted into the head teacher role, owing to, among other things, his credentials as the son of famed taarab musician Issa Matona (whom he started to mimic at the age of six), having toured with the legendary Bi Kidude, and the strides the G-Clef Taarab Orchestra made on the island.

A native of the island, Matona found his career in music in a most roundabout way. Initially, he was his father’s favourite, being the only son among seven siblings. But because of his poor performance at school he was shipped off to live with one of his sisters and her husband on the mainland. Years later, Matona found his way back to Zanzibar.

He was by then a self-taught multi-instrumentalist. He quickly established himself as a sought-after musician for bands.

On a tour in France with Bi Kidude, Matona was irreversibly thrust in a direction he has followed in his music since. "I was sitting in my room watching a music channel," he says. "It was the first time I had seen a symphony orchestra. But I wondered what the musicians were looking at. So, after two days, I asked the cleaner: ‘These musicians play very nice music, but why don’t they smile?’ She said it was [written music] they were playing. When I came back here [to Zanzibar] I tried to find a music school to learn notation, but there was no music school."

Today, Matona is the artistic director. He takes a back seat with regard to teaching, leaving that to his graduates instead.

The school has 60 active students who study a variety of different musical instruments, both traditional and Western. The DCMA initially offered only traditional music tutelage, but it added Western musical instruments to the curriculum, heeding requests from its students. It remains the only institution in Zanzibar that preserves and teaches traditional music while also teaching Western styles such as classical.

Expanding platform

Down the road, past the construction site, is the Old Fort, where the annual Sauti za Busara music festival takes place. For the first time this year the festival featured three stages: the main stage, an amphitheatre and a free stage in the adjacent Forodhani Gardens.

The amphitheatre and Forodhani Gardens stages provided an even bigger platform on which to showcase the festival’s partnership with the DCMA. Each night, some of the bands formed at the DCMA performed various types of traditional and Western-influenced music.

As Matona puts it, it is important to pique the students’ interest in traditional music without being too heavy handed. His most trusted method is to splice ideas on how traditional melodies and rhythms can be married with those of the jazz, reggae and hip-hop musical traditions into traditional music tutelage.

Give festival director Yusuf Mahmoud half a chance and he will chew your ear off about funding and the lack of government support for the feat he and his team set out to achieve annually. Ask Matona, and he laments how the current administration does not seem to realise the economic advantages of a healthy and vibrant music scene.

Matona says the regional government has recently banned the playing of live music out of doors from Monday to Thursday, at a time when he has seen an increasing number of visitors requesting to watch live traditional bands — especially taarab aggregations.

"The tourists do not come on Friday, Saturday and Sunday," he says. "They come every day."

And they also get lost, for hours, every single day.

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