Mariam Hamdani tunes her ganoun gently, the sunlight catching her turquoise ring as she takes time to calibrate each string with the help of an iPhone app. Her henna-highlighted hair peeks out from her loose fuchsia scarf as she strokes the strings of the trapezoidal instrument on her lap. She is surrounded by testaments to her eclectic life and interests, with bookshelves full of gold-plated awards jammed up against biographies of Princess Diana, with dusty stacks of cassette tapes and CDs sharing space with finger picks and photographs of Mariam delivering speeches. When she finishes tuning, her fingers dance across the ganoun—a classical triangle-shaped instrument with strings galore common in the Middle East and North Africa—and a song of her own composition rings out through her book-strewn house. The women in the next room preparing that evening’s fast-breaking iftar pause to listen. Madame Mariam is playing.
Mariam Hamdani, 75, is the type of person who commands attention and reverence. She is the leader of Zanzibar’s only all-female band, a subtle and empowering project that defies the extremism growing among sheikhs on the island. And she is subtly shifting social norms, simply by teaching women music and recreating the glorious all-female groups that used to be common in Zanzibar, but with a twist.
The classical women’s groups of the sixties featured many female singers, but only men played the instruments. “I loved these women groups,” says Mariam, remembering the bands of her youth. “Why don't I try to fill this gap? Teach women how to play an instrument.” So she set out to create her band in 2009. “After I retired, I got my pension, so I used my money to buy second-hand instruments.” But the cultural shift from years past has brought resistance to the very idea of her band.
“Things have changed. There are people who have started using religion to say that music is haram,” says Mariam, using the Arabic word for forbidden. “Music is not haram!”
Before her life as a bandleader, music teacher, and sheikh-defier, Mariam Hamdani was an accomplished journalist. She studied all over the world, spending time in China, Russia, and Germany, gaining accolades for her work. “I loved music since I was a child, says Mariam, “but in our society back then, the culture was that you couldn't learn it, you just admired it.” While female singing bands were common, Mariam says they always relied on men to play the instruments. She couldn’t find anyone to teach her how to play at home, but her time abroad and away from Zanzibari societal norms gave her the freedom to learn, first the piano, and then more traditional instruments, like the ganoun.
In 2009 she decided to start her band, Tawsi, which means peacock. She bought many instruments and then tried to find women who wanted to learn. Initially, she didn’t have much luck. “The women were not interested,” she thought, until one morning when 25 enthusiastic women arrived at her house, eager to learn. Soon, women were arriving daily at 8am, an hour before the allocated 9am start time, and staying to practice until well into the afternoon.
There are enough women in Tawsi that it looks like a mini-orchestra playing instruments varying from accordion, to violin, to oud, to Mariam’s grand ganoun. They play in public venues and weddings in Zanzibar, and often can be found at the island’s annual Sauti Za Busara festival, which celebrates African music. On stage their sea of instruments come together in songs that combine strong rhythmic drums, with complex delicate melodies from the string instruments, and haunting singing of traditional taarab tunes.
The type of music the women play is called taarab, an Arabic word that means enjoyment and came to Zanzibar via an Arab sultan. “Taarab is a cocktail of different musical styles,” says Mariam. The first taarab group debuted in Zanzibar in 1905, and in the early years, groups were often a mix of men and women. By the 1950’s all-women groups had become popular, playing under names like “Royal Air Force” and “Royal Navy,” though they only sang and did not play instruments. Songs often had political lyrics and melded many musical influences. But as time has passed, and Zanzibar barreled towards its 1964 revolution, those bands disappeared and female musicians became rarer and rarer on Zanzibar.
Rapidly rising tourism on the island meant that the men who accompanied the female taarab singers were in high demand at hotels, where they played more generic music for fees much more lucrative than the weddings and public concerts where they played taarab. Their disappearance effectively killed the female taarab bands and is part of the reason why Mariam thinks it is so essential that women learn instruments themselves, and never have to rely on men for accompaniment.
Mariam’s quest to bring back the all-women music groups has met with resistance. The husbands of some of the women prohibited them from playing. “I had two women playing ganoun,” recounts Mariam. “It took so much time to teach them! And these men have married them and stopped them from coming.” Other husbands, though, see the economic benefit of having wives who can earn money through their music.
Another challenge Mariam faces is recruitment. “To find new people to come and play is a bit difficult because the sheikhs are saying every day on the radio, on the TV: “Music is haram!”
Zanzibar, like many countries in East Africa, has received funding from conservative religious charities from the Gulf. The lessons taught at these schools often relay an inflexible version of religion that infuriates Mariam, “Before these children used to enjoy the zikr—a Sufi tradition—but now they say sufism is haram, it's not halal, no playing of music, no singing,” she complains angrily.
But for many parents these privately funded schools are their only choice. “The government, due to a massive lack of funds, is really struggling to provide public services,” explains Rebekka Rumpel, an East Africa researcher at Chatham House. “Increasingly the non-government funded mosques and schools help with services.”
There are not sufficient figures on the amount of funding flowing from the Gulf into Zanzibar, but at last count Saudi Arabia alone was sending $1 million a year to the island to fund Islamic schools.
On top of the schools themselves, religion has historically been a way for people on Zanzibar to express their grievances. Politically, the last few years have been volatile in Zanzibar as the ruling party has grown increasingly oppressive and the economy has declined. “If there isn't a viable way to participate, there is huge youth unemployment, and the economy is doing very badly... people presumably feel very stuck getting involved in religion ,” says Rumpel. “Especially because it’s had such a political character in Zanzibar, and has been seen as the main viable alternative.”
Mariam fears the long-term effects of the deepening conservatism on the future, “We were living happily all the days,” she says, “The sheikhs and the people in the church were very friendly, and they were teaching religion as religion. But now things have changed, instead of teaching religion, they are spoiling our children.”
For people like Mariam, who is a vocal public figure, the increasing conservatism has had a direct effect. She recounts a time when a sheikh came to her with a plan to not only to convince her to stop playing music, but also to publicly burn her instruments and tell the world that music was haram.
Mariam laughs convivially as she tells the story, and recounts how she turned the tables on the sheikh—tartly reminding him that as a lawyer he tricked more people than she did. “Sometimes you give the rights to the wrong people just because you need money, so that is haram, not me," she recalls telling him sharply. The sheikh was reportedly nonplussed.
Combating these ideas individually is not enough for Mariam; she has gone on TV to rail against the sheikhs. “I said, "Who will go to hell? I think the people who go to hell are the sheikhs—because they are the ones who bring problems here,” she remembers.
Engaging in politics and social issues is a fundamental part of taarab to Mariam. She is composing a song about the sheikhs and has already released songs that address violence and abuse towards women and children. She says she’s following the legacy of one of the first female taarab singers, Siti Binti Saad, who over the course of her storied career sang songs documenting violence and corruption in Zanzibar all across the island.
This year Mariam applied for funding for a project to take her band on a tour of the islands where they will talk to and engage villagers about these issues. “We are going to include also the religious people and the local leaders. Maybe it could help because we could talk about these things,” she says.
Meanwhile she will continue to play her ganoun, welcome women into her home and teach them how to play instruments. Her house, with its warm wooden shutters and dim golden light, will continue to be a haven to anyone who wants to learn.