||‘Harambe’ by Mac & Party was one of the most interesting recent rediscoveries of Kenyan taarab from the past decades. An English language taarab song with the prominent presence of an early synthesizer, it sounded unlike any other Kenyan music that came out during the 1960s and ‘70s. Initially, when trying to license the track for reissue in 2016 (Soundway’s ‘Kenya Special volume 2’ and the 45 RPM reissue on Afro7), we didn’t have much luck in finding out who had recorded and composed the song, or even when exactly it had come out. Comparing discographies of the original label, and listening to other songs that were close enough by catalogue numbers, it appeared to be the work of the late singer/composer Yaseen Mohamed. His sons were able to confirm that it was their father singing on those singles, that Mac & Party and Yaseen & Party were most likely the same band, and that the recordings were done in the early ‘60s.
A closer look at Yaseen Mohamed’s legacy reveals that he was an important figure in Kenya’s taarab music of the 20th century. Between his first 78 RPM record, which came out around 1947, and the last single released in the mid-sixties, his discography spans nearly 50 confirmed releases, and possibly many more collaborations that he was not credited for.
Yaseen was born in Mombasa in the 1920s. His parents were of Omani heritage. Growing up he joined the British colonial army, which allowed him to travel around the region and soak up a wide variety of cultural influences. During Yaseen’s youth, recorded taarab music had become popular across the region, pioneered by a group of musicians from Zanzibar whose musical output from the late ’20s and early ’30s set a trend.
Socio-economic changes in the colony during the 20th century, which transformed Mombasa from a Swahili town of less than 30,000 people, reigned by the sultan of Zanzibar, into a metropole in the newly independent country of Kenya, had a major impact on music culture. These changes were mirrored in the evolution of taarab between the 1920s and ‘60s. Yaseen’s early work is a patchwork of stylistic influences from Indian and Egyptian film melodies, Cuban son, and trendy dance styles such as the twist, mambo and samba, all thrown in the mix with a traditional taarab combo line-up of vocals, ud and percussion. He would later be quoted as saying that “there is no certain thing which is taarab. Even rock is taarab if people just sit and listen”.
By the early ‘50s, Yaseen had joined Assanand & Sons (Mombasa) Ltd., a shop selling musical instruments and 78 RPM records, which was quickly being developed into Mombasa’s most popular music studio. Yaseen was an all-round member on the team, recording his own music, performing as a session musician, acting as a studio technician, and scouting new talent for Mzuri, the in-house label. Apart from singing and composing he became a master of the taishokoto, a musical instrument of Japanese origin which was introduced in Kenya in the 1940s. During this time he started recording with his wife Saada (credited on releases as ‘Mimi’), who joined him on the stage during live single mic set up in the storage room at the back of the Assanand shop.
Yaseen, Mimi and their band were at the forefront of innovation in Mombasa taarab; their small-band approach with newly introduced instruments such as the (amplified) taishokoto, accordion, and the Clavioline, a predecessor of the synthesizer, sounded quite different from the big-band taarab approach of orchestras that were around during the 1940s and ‘50s. Their short songs (limited to 3 minutes per side for 78 RPM releases, and a bit longer when Mzuri started pressing on 45 RPM singles) appeared easy on the ear, but the lyrics were rooted in the intricate Swahili poetry that had been popular among the East African coast for centuries.
In 1962, Yaseen and Mimi got their first child, a milestone described in ‘Nimepata mwana’. From then on, Yaseen focused on working regular jobs, while music remained a hobby. They struggled to make ends meet though, living with their four children in a single-room apartment in Mombasa’s inner city. While Yaseen was of Omani heritage, Mimi’s parents were Digo, a people from coastal Kenya who were discriminated against during the colonial era. Yaseen’s close family didn’t accept Mimi and her kids into the family. In 1972, Yaseen left Mimi and the children to take up work in Oman, which had just started a transition from one of the middle east’s most traditional societies into a modern Arab oil-fuelled economy. Yaseen’s professional skills as an electrician and a mechanic were welcomed as he joined thousands from the Omani diaspora in East Africa in occupying the work force. Despite continuing to make music in his pastime, performing on national television and radio with his taishokoto, and composing a song for sultan Qaboos, he didn’t record any more music. Yaseen returned to Mombasa to visit his wife and sons every few years, and he intended to retire bring the family over to Oman, but he passed away in 1985. By that time, the Mzuri label and Assanand shop were long gone, and the production of taarab in Kenya had started a decline that has nearly decimated the Mombasa scene by 2019. A few of Yaseen’s songs were featured on foreign compilations, some of his recordings can be found on bootleg CDs in Mombasa, but only some of the older generation in Kenya are aware of the remarkable legacy and the impact that Yaseen and his wife have had on Kenya’s coastal music.