African Swahili music lives on in Oman

Wed Oct 5, 2011 10:02am EDT
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By Martina Fuchs

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The coastal Arab nation of Oman is the unlikely center of a thriving African music scene with roots stretching back centuries and across the seas to Zanzibar.

The Omani empire in the 18th and 19th century ruled much of East Africa's coast and the islands of Zanzibar -- today a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania -- with sailors bringing back instruments, music, dance and the language.

That is why in the nation hugging the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, musicians wearing traditional Omani long white robes and hand woven hats beat African rhythms on their drums, swaying to music more easily found on the African continent than in the Middle East.

"The music runs deep in us and is embedded in our culture, passed on by our ancestors," said Kareema Ismail, a singer and dancer. "The Swahili beats in our music is a long tradition from Zanzibar. It is not something that will be replaced by contemporary music."

The oldest independent state in the Arab world, Oman has been ruled by the al-Said family since 1744.

Zanzibar became a major trade hub, a slave center and the economic engine for the Omani empire. Its most powerful ruler, Sultan Said bin Sultan al-Said, made the archipelago the capital of Oman in 1840.

Reflecting its history and relative openness, thanks to its long history as a seafaring nation, all of the music of Oman blends different traditional music and Arabic pop, as well as classical music, promoted by its biggest fan in Oman, the ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Much of the music in Oman can only be found in live performances, played in parks, weddings, hotels, concert halls, sports events and cafes.   Continued...