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How the Swahili influenced music, art and culture

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 World Kiswahili Language Day.

July 7 has so much significance for Swahili and Swahili speakers. Besides the Saba Saba civil disobedience proposed by the opposition, the name itself is a Swahili phrase to mean the seventh day of the seventh month.

In 2021 before UNESCO members declared the day as the official Swahili day during a member states' session in Paris in November 2021, July 7 witnessed the adoption of Swahili as a language by the Tanganyika African Union (TANU) in 1954. Besides that, it's the date that in 2000, the East African Community was re-established. 

Go to Lamu (Amu), or Old Town in Mombasa, and you will hear a different form of Swahili, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Listen to an urbanite from Nairobi speak after a short trip to Mombasa, and their accent is Mombasani. 

Love ballads from Otile Brown, Arrow Bwoy or bongo music from Wasafi, Lordy Music, Marioo, Ali Kiba, Maua Sama and other bongo crooners are hot on radio and dancefloors, getting the lion's share of airplay. Swahili reigns supreme.

These serenades have strong roots finTaarab music from the East African coast. A genre of rhythmic, sung poems with social purposes that mostly touch on 'mipasho', the art of openly backbiting opponents, the music that borrows from Arabic, Indian, African, Indonesian, European and Latin has entertained coasterians for more than a century.

Predominantly music meant for housewives going about their daily chores while enjoying relatable content about co-wives, Taarab music has influenced contemporary artistes who have churned hits that got national acceptance and the genre much acceptance.

 Mwanate Kibwana of Lelele Africa Taarab Group. [File, Standard]

Nyota Ndogo, born Mwanaisha Abdalla, is one of the biggest proponents of  Taarab-influenced pop music. 

The late Andrew 'Madebe' Burchell, who discovered Nyota, was quoted saying, "The special thing about Taarab music is its lyrics, the melody and the lyrics it's the mashairi, the poetry, it's the poetry."

Before Nyota, Andrew, who died in November of 2017 from motor neuron disease, had discovered the Queen of Taarab music Malkia Rukia, one of Kenya's best-known Taarab musicians. 

According to a study on the oral poetry titled Taarab and Swahili Prose by Flavia Aiello Traore, Taarab is 'Songs to blame, songs to praise, songs to self-defence.'

Besides music, there is art, another form of self-expression that the Swahili have mastered through the beautiful creations plastered on hands and feet named Henna (pronounced as Hina). 

Traditionally a reserve of older Swahili women to mark auspicious occasions like weddings, Islamic ceremonies and pilgrimages, the art has extended into a need basis with artists serving a clientele that visit the Kenyan coastal towns that extend from Lunga Lunga to Kiunga. 

Another import that was heavily influenced by Arabs who made the coast home, Henna is simply a dye made from dried and crushed plants, whose powder is mixed to make a paste that is then intricately applied on the skin. 

 Henna Art

The art comes in how intricate the artiste's design is, and how perfect the brown, orange or coffee ink fits your skin tone. 

But the biggest export from the Swahili people is the cuisine, a culinary experience that is unmatched in the continent, a perfect blend of different menus that answer to every meal time, also borrowed from visitors and conquerors to the region. It is Arabic Portuguese, and Indian, spicy, colourful and delicious. 

The options are presidential, signature meals and restaurants that have seen heads of states walk into for Biriani or pilau, a must-have for every visitor to the coast. 

And with the lockdown occasioned by the Corona pandemic, an explosion of cooks who created YouTube channels dedicated to educating the rest on how to prepare these meals, from Viazi Karai to Bhajia, coconut rice to Mahamri decorated with stretch marks. 

And that is why there are always 'Swahili Dishes' in every corner of the country, restaurants that try to mimic the cuisine as it's cooked and served at the coast. 

 Swahili Biriyani

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