Swahili music tradition lives on in Oman.
MUSCAT: Oman seems the unlikely center for 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 -- in today's Tanzania -- with sailors bringing back instruments, music, dance and the language.
That is why in this state hugging the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, musicians wearing Oman's traditional long white robes and hand-woven hats drum rhythms and sway to music more easily found in sub-Saharan Africa 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."
Zanzibar became a major trade hub, a slave center and the economic engine for the 19th-century Omani state. 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 seafaring history, all of the music of Oman blends different traditional music and Arabic pop, as well as classical music.
Much of the music in Oman can only be found in performance -- played in parks, weddings, hotels, concert halls, sports events and cafes.
"Swahili music" is kept alive by a loose-knit community of musicians who join and leave various bands.
The bands still tend to be overshadowed by more commercially successful Omani bands, such as folklore group Al-Majd or the traditional music ensemble Bin Shamsa from southern Oman, which sell CDs and upload performances to YouTube.
Nowadays Saleh al-Zadjali, a musician in Muscat and owner of the Musicology record label, is part of a new generation mixing traditional Omani sounds -- including Swahili music with modern music, creating a new art form that is slowly gaining in popularity. He sings of complicated relationships, backed by a Lebanese pop beat.
"The influence of African music will be there forever in Omani traditional music," said Zadjali, whose dream is to sell his music in Egypt, Lebanon and the West.
"Like some of the beats in Omani music are African, and some of the melodies as well. The influence is there, and we are proud of it."
Further down the coast from Muscat is the harbor town of Sur, considered the heart of Swahili music in Oman.
"Sur bila ngoma kama chakula bila chumvi [Sur without drums is like food without salt]," says Sbet al-Ghelani, a security officer and musician in Sur, reciting in Swahili.
African instruments are handed down from generation to generation as family treasures, played by family members only at special occasions.
Prominent among them is the tanbura, a string instrument played by beating the strings with the end of a bull's horn.
Other African instruments are the misundu, a class of tall, cylindrical, single-headed drums characterized by a skin fitted by wooden wedges to the conical body. The misundu is beaten either with a stick or hands.
Sur was a major port in the 17th and 18th centuries, when traders exported dried fish, dates, mats, carpets woven from sheep wool and frankincense to East Africa and India.
"These people, from the color, their features, clearly have an African ethnicity. But they will tell you 'No, we are actually Arab,'" said Majid al-Harthi, assistant professor of music and ethnomusicology at the Sultan Qaboos University.
In Zanzibar, elements of Arabic music have been preserved over the centuries in Taarab music, coming from the Arabic word meaning "to be moved with joy or grief" or "to be delighted."
Hildegard Kiel, founder of Zanzibar's Dhow Countries Music Academy, points out that Taarab music is based on Arabic scales and that the Arabic instruments oud and qanun are key to the Taarab sound.
"I still find it amazing," she said, "how strongly not only the Arabic influence but also the Egyptian influence has remained."
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