Rajab Suleiman & Kithara

A renewed taarab reinvigorates Zanzibar's syncretic signature sound                         

Taarab music has defined Zanzibar's aural landscape for over a century, renowned for its lush mix of Arabic and western instruments, diva-worthy vocalizations, and allusive Swahili lyrics. The venerable and syncretic form is ambitiously renewed by Rajab Suleiman & Kithara. This lean and nimble group has uncovered the form's essential origins and is creating new musical conversations with its East African neighbors, historic Arabic cultural partners, and allied Western forms. "A dazzling album. Gloriously and richly acoustic, with deft real-time interplay and magnificent singing." (Chicago Reader, 2015)

u.s. debut with center stage

ON TOUR September 6 - 24

tour overview

Washington, DC - September 4-7

  • Rajab Suleiman & Kithara begin their Center Stage tour in Washington, DC. In addition to sight-seeing and a welcome from the State Department, they’ll perform at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage on Tuesday September 6th. The free performance will be webcast live and available for streaming on demand from the Kennedy Center website. Information here.

Lewisburg, PA - September 8-10

  • The sounds of Zanzibar will come to rural Pennsylvania when they perform at the Weis Center Plaza on Friday, September 6th at Bucknell University. This event is free and open to the public. More information here.
  • During their residency, the group will visit an Imagining Africa class with Professor Cymone Fourshey.

Blacksburg, VA - September 11-13

  • Rajab Suleiman & Kithara will travel south to Virginia for a multi-day residency at Virginia Tech. September 12th, the band will have a joint workshop with Itraab Ensemble.
  • They will perform at the Moss Arts Center on September 14th at 7:30pm. More information here.

Madison, WI - September 15-16

  • Then on to the Midwest where they will be hosted by the Madison World Music Festival. Rajab Suleiman & Kithara will participate in a workshop at a community center with children ages 5-13. They will perform on September 16th at 5:30pm at the festival's Memorial Union Terrace. More information here

Chicago, IL - September 17-21

  • The group will participate in World Music Festival Chicago. Their first performance is on Sunday, September 18th at the Humbdolt Park Boathouse as part of the Festival’s Global Peace Picnic along with Rocky Dawuni (Ghana/USA), Herencia de Timbiquí (Colombia). More information here
  • Rajab Suleiman & Kithara will engage in community activities and workshops hosted by Old Town School of Folk Music on September 20th, and will perform on September 21st at the Gary and Laura Mauer Hall. More information here

Albuquerque, NM – September 23-25

  • The band will finish off their Center Stage tour in the Land of Enchantment at Globalquerque!, New Mexico’s annual celebration of world music. They will perform on September 23rd at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. More information here.
  • On September 24th the band will participate in a demonstration/Q&A on distinct instruments and music of their region before their final performance at 6:00pm. More information here

Program Notes and Bios

Rajab Suleiman & Kithara
Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

U.S. debut tour as part of Center Stage

Rajab Suleiman          Leader, Qanun, Accordion
Saada Nassor             Vocals, Percussion
Makame Faki              Oud, Vocals
Mohamed Hassan      Accordion, Kidumbak
Daud Shadhil              Double Bass, Electric Bass, Sanduku
Foum Faki                   Dumbak, Bongos, Ngoma, Kidumbak
Amina Yusuf               Percussion, Dancer, Backing Vocals
Malitina Hassan          Percussion, Dancer, Backing Vocals

Taarab music has defined Zanzibar's aural landscape for over a century, renowned for its lush mix of Arabic and western instruments, diva-worthy vocalizations, and allusive Swahili lyrics. The venerable and syncretic form is ambitiously renewed by Rajab Suleiman & Kithara. This lean and nimble group has uncovered the form's essential origins and is creating new musical conversations with its East African neighbors, historic Arabic cultural partners, and allied Western forms.

In the form’s heyday, taarab orchestras could include 60 or more musicians: violinists, singers, qanun, accordion, and oud players. During the last 20 years, synthesizers and drum machines displaced musicians. Virtuosity--and audiences--were lost.

To revive the form’s striking colors, Suleiman and a few younger players broke off from the venerable Culture Music Club in 2012 to form Kithara, a pocket orchestra capturing all the sonic specialties of acoustic taarab in an original, dynamic way. In uniting older and younger generations, Kithara’s musicians are reckoning passionately with the music’s Arabic and Ottoman underpinnings, calling out influences from Cuba to India, and welcoming Zanzibar’s ngoma folk rhythms and stories.

Suleiman started out as an accordion player, but was fascinated by the qanun and the central role the zither played in taarab. “In the beginning when I started to play and to learn the instrument, I almost gave up,” recalls Suleiman. “It was just so difficult to master. But then when I got to go to Egypt to study, I really fell in love with it and wanted to master all the intricacies. I was the youngest player ever to pick it up and the first to get a chance to study more outside the country.”

His adventuresome approach eventually sparked a renewed sound for the music, which shows Zanzibar’s striking blend of Arabic and eastern African cultures. An age-old stopover on trade routes between several continents, the island’s music continues to absorb new influences.

“I formed my own group because I needed to do music in a way different from the regular taarab ensembles in Zanzibar,” he reflects. “The clubs that play the music have many members but they often go to the club as an evening pastime. It is a traditional way to do taarab in Zanzibar, but there is little interest in change or innovation, and now the local audiences completely ignore the old taarab because of this.”

The eight-member ensemble explores the subtle beauty of maqamat, the system of modes and ornaments that drives Arab classical music, and pairs it with interweaving rhythms that are distinctly African. Sensual dance rhythms unfold to startling virtuosity on instruments like the qanun and oud, violin and accordion. Earthy yet nimble vocals by masters like Makame Faki and up-and-coming singers like Saada Nassar touch delicately on life’s most pressing, universal matters.

“We use local ngoma traditions, the melodies and rhythms, and play them on taarab instruments most of which have come from elsewhere, though we have also made our own instruments like the sanduku, a kind of bass made from a wooden tea chest with an attached string,” Suleiman says. “Add to that the words, which are arranged in a very poetic way with strict numbers of syllables and rhymes. We talk about life in song, by alluding to something indirectly, to make our listeners ponder the meaning.”

“Zanzibar is an island where many people have come to live and trade for many centuries, so our music is a mix of African, Arab, Indian and also European influences,” Suleiman muses. “It’s not all that different from America, in that way. In the U.S., many cultures have come together and the music that America is famous for now around the world is a mix of the different cultures coming together in one place.”

Rajab Suleiman & Kithara will add their syncretic voices to this mix during the band’s month-long U.S. debut tour that begins at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and continues to Bucknell University (PA), Virginia Tech, and the Madison (WI) and Chicago World Music Festivals before ending at New Mexico’s Globalquerque.

About Center Stage

Center Stage (www.centerstageUS.org) invites performing artists from select countries overseas to the United States to perform and conduct engagement activities.

Now in its third edition, five acclaimed contemporary music and theater ensembles from Algeria and Tanzania will travel to the U.S. between July and November, 2016; two bands from Pakistan will tour in the spring of 2017. Each group undertakes independent, month-long tours around the country to perform, interact, begin meaningful dialogues with Americans, and share these experiences with friends and fans at home. Center Stage artists perform and engage with audiences onstage and online providing positive and popular avenues of engagement to build mutual understanding through shared culture and values.

Each tour includes a range of community engagement activities, such as performances, workshops, discussions, artist-to-artist exchanges, and community gatherings. To date, 17 ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and Vietnam have toured the United States, focusing on interactive engagements in diverse cities and towns across the country.

Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Center Stage Pakistan is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc

Keep up with Center Stage and find additional information at www.CenterStageUS.org, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/CenterStagePage), and Twitter (@CenterStageUS).

BACKGROUND

Zanzibar Unplugged: Kithara and the Rippling, Worldly Renaissance of Arab-African Taarab

Tanzanian instrumentalist Rajab Suleiman threw caution to the wind. He took up the vexing, beautifully rewarding qanun, a zither with dozens of strings that features prominently in music around the Mediterranean and Middle East. What followed is renewing one of Africa’s syncretic wonders, the poetically allusive, melodically lush, and rhythmically sophisticated music of Zanzibar, the Arabic classical-meets-East African taarab.

In the form’s heyday, taarab orchestras could include 60 or more musicians: violinists, singers, qanun, accordion, and oud players. During the last 20 years, synthesizers and drum machines displaced musicians. Virtuosity--and audiences--were lost.

To revive the form’s striking colors, Suleiman and a few younger players broke off from the venerable Culture Music Club in 2012 to form Kithara, a pocket orchestra capturing all the sonic specialties of acoustic taarab in an original, dynamic way. In uniting older and younger generations, Kithara’s musicians are reckoning passionately with the music’s Arabic and Ottoman underpinnings, calling out influences from Cuba to India, and welcoming Zanzibar’s ngoma folk rhythms and stories. As Peter Margasak noted in his review for Chicago Reader, Chungu, the band’s debut album released in 2014, captures this “gloriously and richly acoustic” sound with its “deft real-time interplay and magnificent singing.”

This rejuvenation will be on show as Rajab Suleiman & Kithara make their U.S. debut tour in 2016, as part of Center StageSM, an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts. From July-December, Center Stage will bring five ensembles from Algeria and Tanzania to the U.S. for month-long tours. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings. Keep up with Center Stage on Facebook and on Twitter and at www.centerstageUS.org.

Suleiman started out as an accordion player, but was fascinated by the qanun and the central role the zither played in taarab. “In the beginning when I started to play and to learn the instrument, I almost gave up,” recalls Suleiman. “It was just so difficult to master. But then when I got to go to Egypt to study, I really fell in love with it and wanted to master all the intricacies. I was the youngest player ever to pick it up and the first to get a chance to study more outside the country.”

He made the most of this chance and came to excel at the daunting instrument. His adventuresome approach eventually sparked a renewed sound for the music, which shows Zanzibar’s striking blend of Arabic and southern African cultures. An age-old stopover on trade routes between several continents, the island’s music continues to absorb new influences.

“I formed my own group because I needed to do music in a way different from the regular taarab ensembles in Zanzibar,” he reflects. “The clubs that play the music have many members but they often go to the club as an evening pastime. It is a traditional way to do taarab in Zanzibar, but there is little interest in change or innovation, and now the local audiences completely ignore the old taarab because of this.”

Suleiman can play striking renditions of Bach or jazz standards and has sat in with the likes of Taj Mahal, yet it’s his ingenious original pieces that are remaking taarab. The eight-member ensemble explores the subtle beauty of maqam, the system of modes and ornaments that drives Arab classical music, and pairs it with interweaving rhythms that feel distinctly African. Sensual dance rhythms unfold to startling virtuosity on instruments like the qanun and oud, violin and accordion. Earthy yet nimble vocals by local masters like Makame Faki and up-and-coming singers like Saada Nassar touch delicately on life’s most pressing, universal matters.

“We use local ngoma traditions, the melodies and rhythms, and play them on taarab instruments most of which have come from elsewhere, though we have also made our own instruments like the sanduku, a kind of bass made from a wooden box with an attached string,” Suleiman says. “Add to that the words, which are arranged in a very poetic way with strict numbers of syllables and rhymes. We talk about life in song, by alluding to something to make our listeners ponder the meaning.”

The group’s musical heart doesn’t demand pondering. Instantly engaging, redolent of Zanzibar’s many-layered heritage, Kithara speaks gracefully of what cultural dialogue and intermingling can do. “Zanzibar is an island where many people have come to live and trade for many centuries, so our music is mix of African, Arab, Indian and also European influences,” Suleiman muses. “It’s not all that different from America, in that way. In the U.S., many cultures have come together and the music that America is famous for now around the world is a mix of the different cultures coming together in one place.”

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Rajab Suleiman & Kithara
On tour as part of Center Stage

Credit Info
The following credit is required on the title page in all printed performance programs. We appreciate its use wherever else it's practical: brochures, posters, ensemble-only promotional materials, press releases, advertisements, etc:

The presentation of (name of ensemble] is part of Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Center Stage Pakistan is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc. 

Center Stage logo placement is greatly appreciated. On web-based materials, please link from the Center Stage logo or written name to www.centerstageUS.org.

Download a zipped folder with high resolution promotional photos and color and black and white versions of the Center Stage logo here.