Saad, Siti binti (c. 1880–1950)

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Saad, Siti binti (c. 1880–1950)

African singer and recording star from the island of Zanzibar whose recordings in Swahili, Arabic, and Hindustani continue to be heard in many parts of Africa, India, and the Arab-speaking world. Name variations: Siti bint Saad. Born Mtumwa binti Saad in Kisuani, near Zanzibar Town, probably in 1880; died in 1950; remained illiterate throughout her life, but took singing lessons in Zanzibar Town beginning in 1911.

Just off the East African coast at the edge of the Indian Ocean lies the island of Zanzibar, a trading center that for many centuries has served as the funneling point, like the neck of an hourglass, for the surrounding Arab, African and India cultures. Monsoon winds filled the triangular sails of Arab dhows, blowing the open-decked boats toward the island's ports. They came bearing cargoes of dried fruits, Indian fabrics and spices to trade for the ivory, gold, and other wares of Africa, then waited for the shift in prevailing winds to blow them back across the ocean. In the 1920s, one dhow drawn up at Zanzibar Town was the yacht-like vessel of Abdul-Wahab, a wealthy captain from the Persian Gulf who owned a fleet of trading ships. When his luxurious private ship reached the port, the popular club singer Siti binti Saad would be invited aboard with her orchestra to perform on the carpeted decks, in front of hangings of silk. In that setting reminiscent of the Arabian nights, she would raise her powerful voice in well-known songs about love, hate, temptation, the joys of parenthood, and the evils of government corruption.

Although Siti binti Saad has been dead since 1950, her voice still booms out of transistor radios and tape decks in Africa, India, and parts of the Arab world. Usually the words are sung in Swahili, but sometimes the language is Arabic or Hindustani. The island of Zanzibar is now part of the modern republic of Tanzania, but throughout that region, her music still speaks to the present.

Siti binti Saad was probably born in 1880, although the exact date is not known. Her birthplace was the village of Kisuani, six miles from the port of Zanzibar Town, and she was known first as Mtumwa binti Saad, a name which she later changed. Formal schooling for girls was not introduced on the island until the 1920s, and like many of her contemporaries, Siti never learned to read, but she had a restless intelligence, a quick memory, and a gift for mimicry that were to stand her in good stead. She loved to sing, at home and while working in the fields. She learned the pottery-making traditional among local Fumba women, and began to move from village to village to sell her wares. In 1910, when she was about 30, she moved to Mtoni. The following year, after a musician named Musa Bulushi promised to teach her how to follow string music, she left village life behind and moved to the port town of Zanzibar.

In Siti binti Saad's day, many African men and women were abandoning the traditional life of the village for the greater opportunities offered by the city. Women who left were frequently ones who had been abandoned by their husbands or otherwise stranded economically, without family or home. Arriving in the urban centers with few job skills, they risked being driven into prostitution out of the sheer need to eat and survive. When Siti arrived in Zanzibar Town, singing was not even known as a profession open to women along the East African coast. Fortunately, the combination of changing conditions, a powerful voice, and an energetic talent soon worked together in her favor.

In the city, Siti began to learn singing and Arabic from another musician, Mhusin Ali. According to one contemporary, she "possessed a wonderfully retentive mind and her power of grasping things and mastering them was unimaginable." Simply by mimicking what she had just heard, she learned the techniques of singing in Arabic or Hindustani with perfect intonation, and joined a group of four men—Subeti Ambari, Buda Swedi, Mwalimu Shaaban, and Mbaruku. At first, her musical engagements were a failure, until she found a way to differentiate her presentation from those of other performers, by acting out her songs. She also had a huge voice. As her reputation began to grow, it was said that she could be heard miles away, especially at night. If hooligans disrupted her performance, she could quell the disturbance without the use of a microphone. Singing at weddings, parties, and public functions, Siti combined her booming voice and acting skills to slowly build a reputation. She was a new, unique kind of performer, going against the traditional view of East African women as shy and dependent in public.

In Zanzibar, there was a well-established tradition of musical clubs, with performances in Arabic, dating back to 1900. Songs in Swahili were generally restricted to all-day picnics where the songs constituted the main entertainment, or festivals of Swahili song and dance, where Siti frequently performed. Swahili originated as the language of Zanzibar's Bantu people; the term comes from the Arabic word sahil, meaning coast. Over the thousands of years of coastal trade, many Arabic, Indian, Persian, English and Portuguese words were injected into it as it became the preferred language of commerce throughout the large oceanic region and along African continental paths of Arab trade. Ultimately the convergence of Arab, African, and Indian cultures, as well as of the Muslim religion, that occurred through this trade, made Swahili the lingua franca over large portions of the African continent, and independent of all borders.

In the 1920s, Siti binti Saad began to widen her reputation as a Taarab singer, performing in Swahili. Other women—Bib Jokha, Bibi Mwana Iddi Hasan, Binti Issa and Bi Mkubwa Saidi —all became famous as female Taarab singers, but she was the first true professional in the field, singing to large audiences and eventually making recordings. Like other aspects of life on the island of Zanzibar, the Taarab musical form is East African in origin with an oriental character. The term itself may mean pleasure or something pleasant, or it may derive from the word "Arab." In 1870, Sultan Barghash invited musicians from Egypt to play at his court, and was so taken with the music they called "Taarab" that he sent Muhammed Ibrahim to Egypt to learn how to perform it. A Taarab orchestra was founded at the sultan's palace, and African and Arabic elements began to blend over time. By the 1920s, it had evolved into a new form of popular music when an orchestra of African performers appeared singing Taarab songs in Swahili. In Zanzibar Town, as customers flocked to the "Changani clubs" like Silver Day and Golden Night to hear the Swahili Taarab songs, both Siti and the clubs grew famous.

It was during this period that Siti performed nightly on the dhow of Abdul-Wahab. In 1928, her local fame led to the signing of her first recording contract with Abdulkarim Hakim Khan, an agent for His Master's Voice, a recording company located in Bombay, India. Um Kalthum , the famous Egyptian singer, was already making records in Arabic, and Indian recordings were popular as well. Now Khan saw the potential of a huge new market for songs in Swahili. East Africans would not only buy the recordings, he reasoned, but the machines to play them, and Khan was also in the business of selling gramophones.

With the contract signed, Siti and her Taarab group made a concert tour of India. Hearing the local music, the singer soon recognized the potential of the subcontinent as a market for her recordings, and learned to mimic songs sung in Hindustani. Back in Zanzibar, the recording stampede was soon on, with His Master's

Voice setting up a local recording studio, and another agent, Gokaldas S. Rughani, seeking her out to record for America's Columbia Records. Singing in Arabic for Arabs, in Hindustani for Indians, and in Swahili for everyone, Siti became one of the first modern popular singing stars, tapping into a huge audience which was ostensibly separated by culture but actually bound together by a common language, religion, and strong economic ties. As radios and records reached an ever-widening audience, coffee shops and cafés throughout the region were flooded with the sound of Siti's voice.

Performance tours eventually took Siti binti Saad to Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda as well as India. Singing her Taarab songs, so rich in imagery, she also widened public recognition of the polyglot trading language of Swahili as a language of international cultural stature.

Siti binti Saad died in 1950, at age 70. "When you play on the flute at Zanzibar," goes an old Arab proverb, "all Africa as far as the lakes dances." Like a Zanzibar flute, Siti was heard throughout Africa, much of the Arab world, and India. Fully understanding her own gifts, she wrote in one of her songs:

Beauty and comely countenance
do not matter
Nor grandeur
That despises tradition
A big loss it is
To lack intelligence.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia