Oct 17, 2008

Lifestyle - Poems for the Prophet

Frederica Boswell

The ancient Islamic art form of Maulidi ya Homu is being reborn in Zanzibar, as part of moves to expand the island's thriving cultural tourism.

Farhan Mussa is a member of a group which has travelled abroad and performed at the famous Zanzibar International Film Festival.

Every evening, he leaves the furniture workshop where he carves wood.

He goes home to wash, watches a bit of football on television and then makes his way to the chuoni, or religious school, in Mtendeni in Zanzibar.

At 8pm other young men gather to meet him.

On woven mats, under murky green neon lights, they rehearse praise songs to Allah and the Prophet Mohammed.

His group, the Maulidi ya Homu group of Mtendeni is just one of a handful of people in the world who still practice this unique spiritual art form.

Rolling waves

At the rehearsal, the leader begins to tap out a controlled rhythm on the curled lid of an upturned paint can.

A row of teenage boys dressed in traditional white garments known as kanzus and kofias squat on their haunches and another row stands behind them.

If you make it expensive, you won't get many kids because life is hard
Hajji Barua Ussi
Mtendeni Maulidi group leader

In chorus, they begin to recite the poetic kasida, a chant which merges Arabic and Swahili - to my untrained ear, it sounds like prayer.
As the group falls silent, a solo chant with the cadence of a muezzin carries the prayer forward.

The kanzus begin to sway, their movement almost imperceptible.

As voices become richer, movements become more pronounced, like live coral, or rolling waves, their choreography undulates, shimmies, rises and dips.

They flick their wrists, pushing and pulling in synchronised, stylised worship.

Miming, they wash their hands and bow in prayer.

The momentum gathers as the performers become freer, larger and more confident.

The sound and movement intensifies to a climax and Allah's name is repeated.

Cultural roots

The Mtendeni Maulidi group was founded in the mid-1960s and was supported financially during its early years by the first president of Zanzibar, the late Abeid Amani Karume.

He appreciated the cultural importance of preserving this unique tradition largely unknown by the outside world.

The executive secretary of the Zanzibar Arts and Music Council, Ali Omar Baramia, explains that the group has continued because it is considered to be culturally important to its people.

"Maulidi ya Homu is now famous, the group has visited other countries, like France.

"We give them permission to go, because it does not interfere with our Islamic religion," said Ali Omar Baramia.

All ages can join a Maulidi group and, though predominantly male, it can also be performed by women, although a curtain would separate the sexes on the same stage.

If a boy wants to join at Mtendeni, his parents must fill in a form and if he is accepted, pay a small joining fee.

"If you make it expensive, you won't get many kids because life is hard," said Hajji Barua Ussi, the group's leader.


There are different types of Maulidi - or poetry praising the Prophet - on the islands.

Maulidi ya Barzanji and Maulidi ya Hamziyyah, for example, are read in mosques.

However, Maulidi ya Homu has been reclaimed and developed as a cultural and not a religious activity.

Maulidi ya Homu is an art form and we are artists
Farhan Mussa

There are believed to be just four main groups practising this tradition in Zanzibar and Pemba, including this one in Mtendeni.
"Maulidi ya Homu is an art form and we are artists, it is not played in mosques.

"We play in different places - at weddings, for example, or when someone is possessed by spirits we sing to calm the spirits down," said Farhan Mussa.

The group has also been featured annually at both the Sauti za Busara (Voices of Wisdom) music festival, and the Zanzibar International Film Festival.


"Maulidi is cultural, in Zanzibar, 99% of all our culture is Islamic, so it follows that path," said Farhan Mussa.

He feels that Maulidi is now as much about art as religious devotion.

"In the past, the group would never have played at a place like Hotel Bwawani but now we play at celebrations like birthdays and weddings," he added.

Cultural tourism is a fast-growing industry in Zanzibar, with thousands visiting each year for the film and music festivals.

The Maulidi ya Homu group from Mtendeni performed at the first Sauti za Busara festival seven years ago, and in three subsequent years.

The festival director, Yusuf Mahmoud, feels that these performances have helped the group to adapt a religious experience into something for spectators.

"When they perform for an international festival, they appreciate that the music and movement are important.

In a religious performance they may be more disciplined to the text but that is not really appreciated by international audiences," he said.

Language barriers aside, international audiences have been captivated.

An American journalist Banning Eyre has been quoted as saying, "This group could do more than any politician or spokesman to communicate to Westerners the sweetness and elegance inherent in Islam."

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