Siti binti Saad (1880–1950) was a pioneering artist in the taraab genre of east African music. In an era in which male singers predominated, she was a pioneer as a woman singer in the genre: she was the first woman in East Africa to record her music in an album. In contrast to previous singers who sang in Arabic, she sang in Swahili. She sang in cities of the coast of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
The peak of her career was from 1928 to her death in 1950, during which she recorded over 150 gramophone records in India.
Subsequent to her death, more women singers appeared in formerly all-male singing clubs.
Siti binti Saad was born in the village of Fumba, Zanzibar in 1880. She was given the name of ‘Mtumwa’ (slave) because she was born during the Arab enslaving period.
Her father was Saadi, from the Nyamwezi tribe from Tabora, and her mother was from the Zigua tribe from Tanga; both were born in Zanzibar to very poor families and were engaged in agricultural activities and pottery manufacture that Siti herself learned and mastered well.
As the Swahili say “being born poor isn’t dying poor”. Sita was blessed with the special gift of singing. In her early life, she used singing to sell her mother’s pottery: her singing voice could travel a distance of many miles, signalling that Mtumwa’s pottery was being sold that day. Siti was said to have the lungs with great strength like a lion’s.
Since at that time education for female children wasn’t taken seriously, Siti wasn’t able go to school nor attend Koranic studies. So she decided to move to the city to better her life. She had the fortune to meet a member of the taarab group Nadi Ikhwani Safa named Ali Muhsin. At that time, Nadi Ikhwani Safa was the only taarab group founded by Sultan Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar, who loved comfort and luxury. It was an all-male group, as it was seen as indecent for women to join musical groups. Lord Muhsin volunteered to teach Siti to sing, accompanying musical instruments and Arabic. He then introduced her to the other members of Nadi Ikhwani Safa who without hesitation began to organize various performances for her in the community. They received many invitations, especially from the Sultan and other rich Arabs, and to perform at various weddings and other celebrations.
As time went by, Siti’s fame grew. In 1928, Columbia Records and His Master’s Voice heard the fame of Siti binti Saad and so they invited her and the group to record, in Swahili, at their studio in Mumbai. The company could not believe how the music was selling since the average player managed to sell 900 recordings during the first two years, but up to 72,000 were sold in 1931. Due to the spread of this album, Siti’s popularity brought people from around the world to Zanzibar. Things got even better for Siti once Columbia Records decided to build a music recording studio in Zanzibar.
Siti continued her musical activities until old age. Shortly before her death she met the famous writer and poet Shaaban Robert, who interviewed her to write her biography in a book he called Wasifu was Siti binti Saad. This biography is thought to be among Tanzania’s greatest literature and is taught in secondary school in Tanzania.
On July 8, 1950, Siti binti Saad died leaving a huge gap in the field of taarab. Although a gap that cannot be filled, there are many people who continue to sing in her style. Until her death in 2013, the pre-eminent exponent was Bi Kidude.
Siti binti Saad rose from the oppressed classes to make taarabu music her vehicle, calling for social justice in what is now Tanzania. She protested against class oppression and men’s abuse of women; her song “The Police have Stopped” sharply criticized a judge who let a rich wife-murderer go free. She seemed unafraid even of the sultan. The battle leadership of a Pawnee elder saved a village from attackers, and so she was named “Old Lady Grieves the Enemy.” Afterward, she taunted wife-beaters, telling them to go after the Poncas who came to burn up the village, and leave the women, who do no harm, alone.
Even after her death, her name is still widely used as a model for bravery. The Association of Women Journalists Tanzania (TAMWA) named their party newspaper Voice of the Siti. To this day Siti is used as a measure of teaching taarab.