Tonight is the last night of the celebrations and as the children leave, the party turns from school fete to rave. Teenagers and twentysomethings are now bounding wildly around to tunes that become increasingly bombastic. Pushing aside the curtain onto the dance floor proper, the noise hits me like a wave as a perspiring DJ plays gangsta rap at top volume and a mass of sweating, pop-eyed lads bound around in Kangol hats and Nike t-shirts.
I spot Hisdori and the gang at the far side of the field, trying to outdo each other in extravagant imitations of Tupac and Puff Daddy. There’s Ali, normally tall, skinny and lugubrious, but tonight waving his spindly arms above his head and grinning insanely. He’s accompanied by Small Brother Of Ali, just as skinny but at 14 not quite as lugubrious or as tall. Iddi, forever Mr Cool, all chin beard and mirror shades, has is own shadow in Small Brother Of Iddi, exuding adolescent attitude also but not quite old enough for the beard.
Seeing me they grab my arms and try to make me dance, but it quickly becomes apparent as I try and fail to match their rhythm that I am the quintessential white person on the dance floor, so I settle for a seat on the sidelines and reflect on the fact that the angry lyrics they’re dancing to could have been written by descendants of the very slaves who once huddled in the caves below the harbour in Zanzibar town, waiting to embark for the New World. No trace of this irony, though, shows on the happy features that are glowing in the light of the hurricane lamps and shouting greetings to passers by without breaking their rhythm.
Just as the music and the dancing reach a sweating fever pitch, the DJ announces a Tarab tune. Tarab is the music of Zanzibar – a wailing vocal over a beat that is curiously Arabic and African at the same time, and traditionally only danced by females. The lads on the dancefloor converge on the hapless man, shouting and waving their fists in outrage whilst still moving compulsively to the beat. The MC is unmoved, breaking into English to emphasise his point. “Ladies only pleeese…LADIES ONLY!”
The ladies appear, shyly at first but then with increasing confidence as the beat picks up. A stately conga formation begins to wind its way around the dance floor, the girls’ eyes, covered in picco and rendered drooping and sloe-like by infusions of nutmeg juice, glinting under their demure headscarves. The ladies hold up thousand-shilling notes above their heads as they sway along together, a symbol of their families’ wealth and prestige.
The boys, however, are not to be dismissed that easily. They take to the floor, t-shirts draped over their heads to imitate the girls’ kangas, Rizla packets held aloft in place of money, wiggling their rears and rolling their eyes as their conga picks up a giggling victim and tries to hustle her off the dance floor. Helpless with laughter, I’m rolling around the floor when I feel a little hand tugging at mine and a 12 year old voice whispering “Dance, lady, dance!”. I look up at his face, and recognise Hisdori’s cousin, one of the mini drag queens from the village this morning. Who am I to refuse?
Gemma Pitcher flew to Zanzibar from London with Gulf Air. Flights from ï¿½500, tel 44-171-408-1717.