Mtindo wa Mombasa · The Style of Mombasa
Zein Musical Party


Ace · Globestyle CDORBD 066


01 - Mtindo wa Mombasa   [5:08]
“this is the way do things in Mombasa”
Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm kumbwaya · Maqam bayati

02 - Maneno tisiya   [6:25]
“nine reasons”
Mohamed Kijuma, Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm twari · Maqam saba

03 - Wanawake wa Kiamu   [12:01]
“the ladies of Lamu”
Mohamed Kijuma, Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm kumbwaya · Maqam saba

04 - Taksim bayati   [4:28]
Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Maqam bayati

05 - Baina macho na moyo   [6:27]
“between the eyes and the heart”
Khuleita Said Muhashamy, Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm samba · Maqam shuri

06 - Mwiba wa kujitoma   [5:04]
“a thorn in the flesh”
Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm goma · Maqam hijazi

07 - Binti Mombasa   [6:02]
“the daughter of Mombasa”
Ali Said Mashjury, Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm wahed-u-nus · Maqam bayati

08 - Nataka rafiki   [5:28]
“I want a friend”
Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm chacha · Maqam hijazi

09 - Mwana hasahau mama   [5:31]
“a child does not forget its mother”
Khuleita Said Muhashamy, Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Rhythm kumbwaya · Maqam rast

10 - Taksim jirka   [5:34]
Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody
Maqam jirka

Zein L’Abdin Ahmed Almoody, ’ud & vocals
Mohamed Ahemd Bwanchuoni, violin
Bakari Salim, keyboard & dumbak
Juma Bakari Chera, bass guitar & bongos
Mohamed Hafidhi, dumbak, bongos & chorus
Omar Abdurasul, bongos & chorus
Mbarak Absillahi, rika (tambourine) & chorus

recorded in Mombasa, Kenya, februrary 1989


The lyrics of ‘Mtindo Wa Mombasa’ seem to be caught between two lines of argument: one stresses the theme of community and reciprocity, the other refers to the commercialisation of social relations in today's Mombasa and the world in general. The two are also a likely portrayal of the contemporary working conditions of taarab musicians in Mombasa, being caught between the demands of community still intact in many ways and the requirements of a commercial music scene.

These features are also aptly mirrored in Zein's character and lifestyle: Zein is a family man and his place in the Old Town of Mombasa is always open to everyone from the community who wishes to pop in. On the other hand Zein is strictly professional. While he tries to keep away from the hustle and bustle of Mombasa's taarab scene and the shrewd business acumen of some, he is a strict entrepreneur. For more than ten years he has refused to record for others and has only produced cassettes on his own, which he distributes from his living room. Engagements are strictly cash, a fact criticised by the wazee, Mombasa's honourables, who are sorry he does not like to just come out and entertain them at their sit-togethers.

Zein might be an iconoclast — he never goes out except when he has to play — but once he gets up in the early afternoon, his place at ground level on Ndia Kuu Road, is open to a steady stream of visitors, be they friends, relatives or the occasional customer wishing to buy a cassette or arrange for him to play a taarab at their wedding. Hot Arabic coffee or cold water for refreshment welcomes every visitor. Zein's evenings are usually spent with friends and fellow musicians, chewing miraa (a mildly narcotic twig), listening to and discussing music — with him making a point here or there on the ’ud — or watching videos. Once the scene gets quieter around midnight he might get down to some more serious work, honing a new lyric until it fits the formal demands of Swahili poetry and sounds good sung, or working on a new song until the early hours of the morning.

It may seem a perfectly natural idea to record Zein and band in this familiar environment, but it had its problems. After a first plan to record in a local studio proved futile we decided to set up in Zein's living room. We had to wait until close to midnight when the stream of visitors lessened, and the street noise quietened. The door and windows were shut and the recording space was additionally fenced off by blankets spread across the room. We still had to cope with a few cars and motorcycles passing at arm's length from the front door, and with the video from upstairs. The ventilators and the fridge had to be switched off during recording because of the hum they produced. February is in the middle of the hot season in Mombasa and you may imagine the amount of sweat produced during the two nights of recording. If the sultry weather shows in these recordings at all, good! Not all the conditions were adverse, and we should not forget to mention the general hospitality of Zein and his wife, the delicious foods, spiced tea and the ever-present cups of hot coffee. Shukrani nyingi sana! If you can hear background sounds — street noise, coughing, coffee cups rattling — this is perfectly natural. What you hear is what we heard — the sound and style of Mombasa.


ZEIN L’ABDIN AHMED ALAMOODY was born in Lamu on May 30, 1939. In his family, music and the other arts were highly esteemed. His father played the ’ud as a pastime. Zein remembers a kibangala, one of the old stringed Swahili lutes, hanging from the wall though he never saw his father play it. Guests were often entertained with musicians, and Baskuta was a regular visitor. Zein did not begin to play the ’ud until after his father died in 1951 when he came to Mombasa to live with an uncle. He attended school there up to 1954 but had to stop because of some misunderstandings within the family. After time back in Lamu he went to work as a hotel clerk in Mombasa. Around this time he also picked up the ’ud. Zein was never formally taught by anyone but learned by seeing, listening to and asking other ’ud players questions. He often went to the home of the tailor, Omar Awadh Ban, a well known ’ud player of the time (who recorded for the Jambo label in the late 40s), and stayed whole nights playing and discussing music.

In 1957/58 Zein joined the ’ud player Ali wa Lela as a second singer (wa Lela had worked at Zein's father's house in the 40s and had picked up ’ud playing there). They recorded occasionally for Sauti ya Mvita, the radio station at Mombasa. Wa Lela then went to the Gulf states by invitation, but died there soon after. Zein finally managed to get his own ’ud in around 1958, made by a local craftsman. Three years later he got an instrument made in Arabia. At that time he also left his work in the hotel and became a professional. After a first recording for the Arrow label in the early 60s Zein joined Mzuri Records, then Mombasa's main taarab outlet. He recorded a host of singles up to the mid-70s, occasionally featuring other singers with his band, at weddings and on records. Zuhura sang with his group for a while and also Maulidi Juma. In the second half of the 70s Zein recorded for Mbwana, a thriving cassette store in Mombasa's old town. While earlier he had to rent his instruments and amplification from that store he has since gone out on his own. Though the line-up is smaller (he can no longer afford a bass player), the changes have done him good. Zein plays regularly at weddings and distributes his own cassettes (more than 50 titles in both Swahili and Arabic) from his flat in Mombasa's Ndia Kuu Road. Once or twice a month he plays in one of the tourist hotels on Mombasa's south coast. He does not consider this a sell-out, and it is a regular sort of income. It also gives him some independence from the wedding circuit, so he can pursue his own musical direction.


Zein's group of the 70s featured the accordion, violin and bass in addition to the obligatory percussion and his own ’ud. The standard line-up for the past ten years has been: ’ud, violin, keyboard, dumbak, bongos and rika (tambourine). On some tunes on this CD, Juma Bakari, Zein's bass player through the 70s, was added to the regular line-up.

While he went along with the demands of the Mombasa scene in the 60s and early 70s, playing Indian-style taarab and including singers like Zuhura and Maulidi, Zein has since abandoned going for the latest trends, honing his own style rooted in the Lamu traditions: “For some time I too have sung with an Indian tone like the others. But I realised it is of no use. I have my own culture, I live my traditions, it is awkward for a musician like me to follow foreign music. It does not sound good.” Zein is no purist though. He keeps his “reference collection” as he calls it, of music cassettes from all over the world and likes Rai just as well as the Egyptian star, Farid Al-Atrash or Salsa. That he knows the history of his
instrument and the links to Spanish traditions is shown when he ventures from a classical taksim (an ’ud solo improvisation) via some hot flamenco strumming into ‘Malagueña’.

Zein is one of the few contemporary taarab musicians who is well-versed in the music's traditions. This includes his knowledge of Arabic music theory — acquired from taping BBC Arabic music broadcasts which featured ’ud virtuosos Jamil and Mounir Bashir and explained the various maqamat (modes) — as well as the Swahili traditions of ngoma rhythms and dances and the Swahili poetry of old. Besides his repertoire of Swahili songs and his Swahili cassettes, Zein also sings and records in Arabic. He is often invited to play at the ‘Arabic weddings’ in Mombasa or to play for visitors. His cassettes and ’ud playing are known and respected as far as Yemen, the Gulf and Egypt.

There is no Swahili system of modes like the maqamat. The maqam that comes closest to Swahili melodic traditions is saba. It is no coincidence that this is the maqam used on the two oldest songs in this collection ‘Maneno Tisiya’ and ‘Wanawake Wa Kiamu’. Other maqamat featured here include bayati (‘Mtindo Wa Mombasa’, ‘Taksim Bayati’, an instrumental solo in maqam bayati, ‘Binti Mombasa’), shuri (‘Baina Macho Na Moyo’), hijazi (‘Mwiba Wa Kujitoma’, ‘Nataka Rafiki’), rast (‘Mwana Hasahau Mama’) and jirka (‘Taksim Jirka’).

The distinctive Swahili touch comes in terms of ‘voice’ qualities and especially in the rhythms and the dances and occasions associated with them. In general these are derived from Swahili ngoma — male and female dances, originally accompanied by the nzumari, a type of oboe, ngoma (drums), or yugo (cow-horns beaten with a stick) and various other percussion instruments.
The twari rhythm of ‘Maneno Tisiya’ derives from twari la ndia, a street procession/dance originally performed at weddings of better-class families. The goma is a dance that was performed by the older, respected male members of society at religious festivities like the Maulidi (birth of the Prophet Mohamed) or at weddings. The goma rhythm backs up the song ‘Mwiba Wa Kujitoma’. Definitely the most popular taarab rhythm along the coast is kumbwaya. The kumbwaya is a kind of drum and also a dance that was danced for amusement or to treat psychological disorders. The songs ‘Mtindo Wa Mombasa’, ‘Wanawake Wa Kiamu’, ‘Mwana Hasa-hau Mama’ use this rhythm. The wahed-u-nus of ‘Binti Mombasa’ is a rhythm from the Arabic peninsula and simply means ‘one and a half’. The samba and chacha of ‘Baina Macho Na Moyo’ and ‘Nataka Rfiki’ respectively are self-explanatory.

The Zein Musical Party plays a style that the Swahili variously call ‘men's taarab’ or taarab ya Kiarabu. The taarab of the likes of Maulidi, Zuhura or Matano in Mombasa or the various styles of the Tanzanian coast from Tanga to Zanzibar are played at women's wedding celebrations, hence ‘women's taarab’. (Check “Mombasa Wedding Special” by the Maulidi Musical Party, Globe. Style CD/ORBD 058 for a description of women's wedding celebrations and taarab performed at these weddings). The latter kind of taarab is also often referred to as taarab ya Kiswahili, or, because of the Indian leanings of much of Mombasa's taarab, taarab ya Kihindi. The Zein Musical Party plays at men's wedding celebrations, where the main public are males, while the celebrations of the women are fenced off with a curtain, according to Islamic customs. A special feature of this kind of taarab are the dances performed by the wedding guests and bridegroom. Some of the dances are from the Arabic peninsula and are referred to by their geographical origin, like Sanaani (from Yemen) or Kuwaiti. Seyyid Ah Baskuta, who witnessed the introduction of some of these dances to the Lamu area in the early thirties, points out how the dances introduced by sailors from Kuwait fitted incredibly well with ngoma rhythms from Lamu and suggested an earlier link between these two traditions. In fact African musical traditions have made many inroads into the music of the Arabic peninsula and around the Gulf. Various East African musical instruments and complete musical genres of African origin are still performed today in Kuwait and southern Iraq.


For centuries Lamu had been the acknowledged centre of Swahili culture, famous for all aspects of the arts and especially for its poetry. The expansion of the Omani court in Zanzibar throughout the second part of the 19th century and the colonial onslaught from the turn of this century onwards, and its concentration on the Mombasa-Nairobi axis, led to the decline of Lamu as a port and trade centre. Zein in his youth may have witnessed the last days of this past glory, when Lamu was a major patron of the arts. There was an exodus of men to Mombasa and other towns closer to the new centres of power after World War II. This included Seyyid Ali Baskuta, the first ’ud player in Lamu, and a walking thesaurus of Swahili musical traditions, and also the young Zein. No professional taarab group operates in Lamu today.

Zein remembers his roots though: he speaks of his uncle Baskuta as “the one who had the greatest impact on me in terms of his knowledge and capabilities. He was always around while we grew up, he played at our house when we had guests.” Another important intermediary, a fellow Lamuan and one of Zein's neighbours in Mombasa, is the well-known poet Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany. Nabhany owes his reputation not only to the quality of his poetry, but also by researching into and preserving the cultural traditions of Lamu and the Northern Kenya coast. He introduced the ’ud player to the lyrics of many of the old Lamu songs in his repertoire, ‘Maneno Tisiya’ and ‘Wanawake Wa Kiamu’ among them. Zein also sings a number of Nabhany's poems.

Both Baskuta and Nabhany name Mohamed Kijuma as one of the leading poets and performers in Lamu around the turn of the century. Back then the music was not called taarab, but the existing descriptions of the gungu poetic contest/dance and the kinanda dance show a clear similarity in character. Kijuma excelled not only as a singer and player of the kinanda — or kibangala as it is called in Lamu (a seven-stringed lute of the Swahili coast, related to the family of the gambus). He was also a proficient dancer at the ngoma. After witnessing one of his performances in Lamu, the Sultan of Zanzibar invited Kijuma to the island to lead and train an orchestra and dancers. A photograph taken in Zanzibar in 1907 shows Kijuma playing the kibangala. Popular memory attributes the lyrics of both ‘Maneno Tisiya’ and ‘Wanawake Wa Kiamu’ to Kijuma's pen. ‘Maneno’ is an old wedding song which Kijuma may simply have preserved in committing it to paper. ‘Wanawake’ honouring/describing the beauty and character of the ladies of Lamu is close to another masterpiece of Swahili poetry, the ‘Ode to the Lady of Manga’ attributed to the mythic hero Liongo.

Zein's songbook contains more than 400 entries, the majority of which are his own poetry. It is also common for well-known poets to give some of their best poems to specific singers or musical parties to sing. While these poems are committed to paper in the first place and have to agree to well defined standards of rhyme, they are invariably meant to be sung.

Werner Graebner