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Susquehanna Life

Free Outdoor Performance by World Musicians from Zanzibar

Aug 29, 2016 01:09PM ● By Erica Shames
World musicians from Zanzibar, Rajab Suleiman and Kithara, will continue to usher in the Weis Center’s new 2016-17 Season on Friday, September 9 at 6 p.m., outside on the Weis Center Plaza. The family-friendly performance is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required.

The rain location is the Weis Center Atrium Lobby. A rain call will be made the morning of Friday, September 9.

Patrons are encouraged to bring a lawn chair, blanket and picnic. Cool beverages will be provided. 

The presentation of Rajab Suleiman and Kithara is part of Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Center Stage Pakistan is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. 

Taarab music has defined Zanzibar's aural landscape for over a century, renowned for its lush mix of Arabic and western instruments, diva-worthy vocalizations, and allusive Swahili lyrics. The venerable and syncretic form is ambitiously renewed by Rajab Suleiman & Kithara. This lean and nimble group has uncovered the form's essential origins and is creating new musical conversations with its East African neighbors, historic Arabic cultural partners, and allied Western forms.

Chicago Reader says, “A dazzling album. Gloriously and richly acoustic, with deft real-time interplay and magnificent singing.”

Tanzanian instrumentalist Rajab Suleiman threw caution to the wind. He took up the vexing, beautifully rewarding qanun, a zither with dozens of strings that features prominently in music around the Mediterranean and Middle East. What followed is renewing one of Africa’s syncretic wonders, the poetically allusive, melodically lush, and rhythmically sophisticated music of Zanzibar, the Arabic classical-meets-East African taarab.

In the form’s heyday, taarab orchestras could include 60 or more musicians: violinists, singers, qanun, accordion, and oud players. During the last 20 years, synthesizers and drum machines displaced musicians.

To revive the form’s striking colors, Suleiman and a few younger players broke off from the venerable Culture Music Club in 2012 to form Kithara, a pocket orchestra capturing all the sonic specialties of acoustic taarab in an original, dynamic way. In uniting older and younger generations, Kithara’s musicians are reckoning passionately with the music’s Arabic and Ottoman underpinnings, calling out influences from Cuba to India, and welcoming Zanzibar’s ngoma folk rhythms and stories.

Suleiman can play striking renditions of Bach or jazz standards and has sat in with the likes of Taj Mahal, yet it’s his ingenious original pieces that are remaking taarab. The eight-member ensemble explores the subtle beauty of maqam, the system of modes and ornaments that drives Arab classical music, and pairs it with interweaving rhythms that feel distinctly African. Sensual dance rhythms unfold to startling virtuosity on instruments like the qanun and oud, violin and accordion. Earthy yet nimble vocals by local masters like Makame Faki and up-and-coming singers like Saada Nassar touch delicately on life’s most pressing, universal matters.

The group’s musical heart doesn’t demand pondering. Instantly engaging, redolent of Zanzibar’s many-layered heritage, Kithara speaks gracefully of what cultural dialogue and intermingling can do.

“Zanzibar is an island where many people have come to live and trade for many centuries, so our music is mix of African, Arab, Indian and also European influences,” Suleiman muses. “It’s not all that different from America, in that way. In the U.S., many cultures have come together and the music that America is famous for now around the world is a mix of the different cultures coming together in one place.”

For more information about this free performance contact Lisa Leighton, marketing and outreach director, at 570-577-3727 or by e-mail at

The next performance in the Weis Center’s 2016-17 Season is an Americana/bluegrass performance by The Coal Town Rounders and Van Wagner on Thursday, September 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Weis Center. 

For more information about the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, go to or search for the Weis Center on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. 

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