The Rise of Topan -- Arriving as a penniless Gujarati trader in Zanzibar during the early years of the Sultan Seyyid Said's reign, Tharia Topan soon showed a noteworthy business acumen and rose through the ranks to become chief financial advisor to the sultan, who eventually ceded total control of the island's customs duties. Topan's skills were such that he survived the turbulent succession and was made honorary prime minister when Barghash took control. But both the sultanate and Topan's personal fortune were on the wane when he set off for India in 1885 to find the best designers and craftsmen to build his hospital, the Tharia Topan Jubilee Hospital, a legacy that would celebrate and commemorate his good fortune and name, as well as the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Topan wanted his hospital to be the most beautiful building in Stone Town and decided on the services of Bombay-based firm Gostling and Morris in 1885. Gostling and Morris prepared plans and supervised the joinery, but Topan's endeavor was undermined when he fell seriously ill while still in Bombay and was unable to return to Zanzibar. Undeterred, he sent over a crew of Indian craftsmen and masons from his native Gujarat, along with a foreman, Haji Mistry, in 1890, the same year Topan was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of his political and philanthropic achievements. A year later, Topan died in Bombay, having never seen a brick laid, and work on his project came temporarily to a halt. In honor of his memory, Topan's widow resumed construction, but by 1893 she had run out of funds. The building near complete, it was thankfully deemed to show "exemplary craftsmanship," according to Fredrick Pordage, consulting engineer of the British Consul, who finally helped complete the building in 1894. Despite this, the building stood empty until 1900, when it was purchased by the estate of Nasser Nur Mahomed, who turned Topan's hospital into a dispensary, with a pharmacy and a resident doctor on the ground floor and apartments above. After the 1964 revolution, the building was once again abandoned, falling into government control until 1990, when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture offered to restore the building to its former glory. Today the building plays host to various cultural events, a photographic exhibition, and offices.
Set Sail with the Music of Zanzibar -- Like so much of the island's architecture and cuisine, Zanzibari music is a fabulous blend of styles from Africa, India, and the Middle East. Taarab, roughly translated as "to be moved by music," is attributed largely to the sybaritic nature of Sultan Barghash. Seeking to be entertained while reclining and dining, Barghash imported an ensemble from Egypt to sing him tarabu (traditional praise songs) and later sent his own musician, Mohamed Ibrahim, to Egypt, where he learned, among other things, to play the kanun, a type of harp, and qanun, a kind of zither. Upon his return, Ibrahim formed the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra, precursor to the Ikwhani Safaa Musical Club (now known affectionately as Malindi), which remains one of the leading Zanzibari taarab "orchestras," with 35 active members playing a variety of instruments from Arabic (sitar, oud, darbuka), to Latin (bongo drums), to European (violin, accordion, qanun, nai, bass).
If the Malindi Music Club (or Culture, another stalwart group I recommend) is performing during your visit, make sure you catch them. Alternatively, listen for recordings of Siti Binti Sadi (1880-1950), who was not only the first to make recordings of taarab music, but also the first to sing in the language of the "common people"; in fact, some scholars attribute much of the regional spread of the Swahili language to the huge popularity of Sadi's records.
For a modern interpretation, look out for live performances by the Zanzibar Stars or East African Melody. These artists, as well as many more, perform at both Zanzibar's major cultural festivals, the annual Festival of the Dhow Countries, and Sauti za Busara. Even if you don't catch a live act, a CD (purchase one from Gallery Bookshop on Gizenga St.) is a highly recommended souvenir. As record company manager Andy Morgan wrote in his review on taarab in Roots magazine, "There's hardly anything in the whole of Africa as uplifting as the swelling sounds of a full taarab orchestra in full sail."