Cultural Note: The Kanga

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I have talked about the (in)famous piece of cloth that is known as kanga (or leso, across the border to the north) when I posted on Taarab Music (you can find the wee extract here ). But I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole article dedicated to it in one of the leading newspapers in the region and wanted to share it with you.

It gives a good insight into the history, use and benefits of the kanga and also the cultural importance attached to it. Very interesting and informative read. Rather than me quoting bits and bobs of it, you’re better off reading it in its entirety methinks. Check it out

Taarab Music

Me again with yet another ‘random’ post! So this time I am talking about Taarab music which I’ll admit am no huge expert on but I love it nevertheless. It is of course Swahili music which is very popular in the coastal areas of Tanzania (Zanzibar, Dar, Tanga…) as well as Kenya (Mombasa). Thanks to good ol’ wikipedia I found the name to be of Arabic origin meaning, “having joy with music”. The best way to describe it is; if the US has Hip-Hop music then East Afrika has Taarab- it’s feisty, sassy, in your face, makes no apologies about its message and definitely not for the faint hearted!

Apparently we imported this kind of music from Egypt or somewhere up there in N.Africa. How it landed in Tanzania or more specifically, Zanzibar, was via some Taarab ensemble from the North that really impressed the Sultan (ruler) at the time. He decided to send some local guy up North to learn all the tricks of the trade and when he returned he formed the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra and just like that Taarab had arrived in the Spice Islands and before long the whole of Tanzania!

The Taarab that I grew up listening to is sung using a certain tone of voice which I can only compare to Bollywood songs, you know the way they tend to hit some ridiculous notes…yeahs not quite that high but something like that! The most distinct feature of Taarab songs is the style of lyrics writing which can only be described as daring, provocative and totally insulting-am not kidding! If you remember, kanga, the popular Swahili piece of clothing whose most well known feature is the message found at the bottom which usually happens to be very insulting and what not; think of Taarab in the same way.  So Swahili women would trade insults using kanga messages, then when the ‘beef’ heats up and they wish to take it up a notch, in comes Taarab! (ok I made that bit up but I’d like to think that’s how ‘strategic’ their fights can be!). Most of the kanga writings actually come from Taarab lyrics and usually when dancing to this kind of music women would be draped in their kanga, swinging their hips extremely provocatively!

Taarab lyrics can also be love songs but usually not just any regular, puppy love, Justin Bieber song but explicit love songs, as in those lyrics you are strongly advised to ban your kids from listening to! That’s why most Taarab performances are usually attended by adults only (or should be as am sure lots of kids still attend them and move their innocent little hips to the tunes!). You can find people dancing to some Taarab  at weddings and other wedding related events amongst other events. To enjoy Taarab, you need to be laid back, have a little sass and attitude and you are good to go! A friendly warning though, Taarab songs can be quite long- 10 minutes is more or less the norm- you’d be well advised to have some good ol’ stamina on you!

Taarab is a predominantly female thing but men have been known to make equally good, if not sometimes better, Taarab music. My all time favourite Taarab singer is an awesome lady called Khadija Kopa who’s been around literally my whole life and still shows no signs of slowing down- the Queen of Taarab we call her. But the true legend of  Taarab is one famous Bi Kidude who unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks back (RIP) and who had been in the business (and stayed relevant) for something ridiculous like 80 years, talk about longevity-eat that Mick Jagger!

And here’s a couple of videos…

 (This is more of  ‘Mduara’, another type of popular Swahili music but of course it’s heavily influenced by Taarab)

 (Again more of Mduara than actual Taarab)

LESSON #36: Learn Swahili vocabulary with pictures…#7

Tanzania ladies

Words to learn: pekupeku, kanga, mbeleko, vikapu (kikapu), kata, vilima (kilima)

Click on the link below to find out what the above words refer to in the picture…

EPISODE 32: Learn new Swahili vocabulary with pictures #7.

LESSON #25: Names of clothes/clothing (majina ya mavazi)

ClothesMavazi (Vazi)








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