June 20, 2022
Music is one of those things that either introduce someone to a new language or solidify one’s love for that language. Music carries culture and can be a fun way to learn a language as well. Swahili music and dance have come a long way in terms of sound, instruments used, and overall global reach. There are other music genres in Kenya and Tanzania but chakacha and taarab are uniquely Swahili music that originated on the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts in the early 1900s.
Chakacha is not just a genre of music. It has so much that surrounds it including dance and other social norms. It originated and is most common in coastal East Africa. Culturally, this genre of Swahili music was only performed by women with dancing as the central event.
During the dance, women wear light -almost see-through clothes- and tie a belt around their waist to accentuate their physique and to make a distinction between the upper body and lower body. Sometimes they dance together and others make a circle where one of them takes center stage to showcase her moves as if to compete with the next person. Men were never allowed to dance chakacha because the dance involved seductively shaking the waist. Men who disregarded this unwritten rule were regarded considered to be gay or feminine.
Chakacha is mostly performed live at weddings with a band using coastal percussive instruments such as msondo drums, marimba, and the chapuo. The music itself is so inviting because of its vibration which heightens the listener’s mood. Bands such as Mombasa Roots, Safari Sound Band, and Them Mushrooms are known for their ear-catching beats and easy-to-sing lyrics that have over time graced Swahili weddings religiously. Mombasa Root’s song ‘Disco chakacha’ is one of the most notable chakacha songs ever produced.
Chakacha is also distant “cousins” with another popular genre of Swahili music, taarab. Taarab is a Swahili music form as water is to rivers. Some scholars and critics have tried to argue that taarab was borrowed from Egypt but this could not be further from the truth. Lamu and Mombasa people have refuted these claims arguing that taarab was born there and was later globalized in the wake of technology.
Taarab uses instruments such as udi (an Arabian flute), ganuni (an Arabian zither with 78 strings), electric and bass guitars, a cello, an accordion, etc. There are subgenres within this genre namely; taarab asili (tradition taarab), rusha roho which loosely translates to ‘throw your heart’ or just have fun, and sometimes ago some people experimented with infusing rap with taarab calling is taarap (taarab and rap).
In taarab, the audience sometimes plays a minor less active role where they sit and just listen while sometimes they play a very active role where they help the band sing while (slow) dancing.
Both chakacha and taarab are Swahili music forms that carry lots of culture and history. It can be a good start for language learning or practice because of the repetitive nature of the lyrics. Another plus to Swahili music is they are enjoyable and easy to dance to or it can be used as a background while working.
Jason is an Fulbright scholar and experienced Swahili instructor who formerly taught at Yale University. He completed an MA degree in the US, writing a thesis about Swahili commentaries on Hollywood films. He currently teaches English language and literature at a high school in Kenya while serving as the Africa Fulbright Network's Ambassador to Kenya.