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Lover of life
We are sad to hear that Bi Kidude has passed on, in April 2013, her age still unknown but her status as a legend in no doubt.
Bi Kidude is a tiny birdlike woman of about 100 years on this earth. Birdlike in both her frame, and her voice. Not for nothing is she known as the songbird of Zanzibar. In repose, she cuts a strong figure. She is gentle – she calls everyone ‘mwanangu’ – meaning ‘my child’, although she never had children of her own. “I wanted to, but God did not give them to me.”
But she is also no pushover – during the two days of interview, she challenges a strapping 20-something lad to a boxing match and has a truckload of geared-up Tanzanian riot police eating out of her hand. She is loved by all – ‘Fatma Binti Baraka’, everyone calls her birth name after her with affection – from hotel staff and elders to the chefs of Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens.
There are two sides to Fatma Binti Baraka. She is the queen of taarab, the stately, undulating music that marries Arabic and African sensibilities. A music of strong tradition and initiated by rich Arabic merchants calling into Stone Town’s harbour on their dhows after long ocean voyages, Bi Kidude holds all the old lyrics in her head – rich in metaphor, words of unrequited love and social justice. It should be sung sitting down or at most standing sedately, she maintains, despairing of the younger generation who dare to dance and even wiggle their bums when performing this music. “It’s not real taarab,” she says.
But she is also the queen of unyago, the drumming and dancing ceremony that can go on for days to which men are not admitted and during which young girls are initiated into the mysteries of womanhood (and during which bum wriggling is de rigueur). Girls are taught graphically how to pleasure their husbands, but also how to handle difficult husbands and stand their ground through some of the trials that married life might bring. This tradition sits uneasily sometimes with the more conservative Islamic mindset of some Zanzibaris, and it is the ease with which Bi Kidude navigates both artforms – the sedate and the bawdy – that encapsulates her nature also.
She likes to drink, smoke and has had many husbands and lovers in her many years walking East Africa and the rest of the world barefoot – “as soon as you start to wear shoes you become weak”. She also chooses sometimes on Zanzibar to go without her head covered, which is at least culturally unusual. But she refuses to play up these traits, as if in respect to a culture that has let her be herself and be loved for it.
One of her oldest friends (left, that is – most of her original family and friends have passed away and she has had to endure the pain of becoming alone again and again) is Emerson Skeens. A well known character on Zanzibar and founder of the famous Emerson and Green hotel, the blueprint for the boutique hotels and restoration projects now springing up across the old town, Emerson clearly has great affection for ‘bibi’. He tells the story of her announcing that, at about 98 years old, she had decided to ‘clean up her act’. Instead of smoking Sportsman, the local cigarette brand that are undoubtedly some of the strongest you will find around, she decided to switch to Embassy (a slightly lighter smoke), and instead of drinking Konyagi, the strong local gin, she said she would switch to beer instead – ‘but at least six’. When asked about it in interview, she looks stern for a minute and says that she only drinks and smokes a little “but most of the time it is for fun”.
Her lovers have also been many, as you might expect over her lifetime, with some not treating her well. Indeed, many of the people around her have chosen to exploit her for the money her talents bring in – but with Bi Kidude you cannot help but feel that she may well know and choose to turn a blind eye, because for all her tough hide, she is exceedingly kind. But she does joke about it – “they will try to auction me soon!”
Interviewing her is not an easy gig. She performs like a dream, but faced with direct questions, she often answers on a tangent, or decides to answer another question, the one she wanted to be asked in the first place. Every few minutes she will break into song – in either Arabic or Kiswahili – and her music is so special that it would be churlish to interrupt her. It’s difficult to elicit a clear life history from her – she has been alive so long, her life has taken on a mythlike status.
She does explain how she came about her nickname ‘Kidude’. Born in Kitumba, about 15 miles from Zanzibar Town, she was a little scrap of a baby, and was wrapped in a bundle of clothes on a bed when her uncle came to visit. He nearly sat down on top of her, when her mother exclaimed no, there was a baby there. Her uncle commented that it was hardly a baby, it was just a ‘tiny bit of stuff’ – in Kiswahili ‘Kidude’. She also reveals that some of her family came from the Congo and some from Burundi – at the time of the abolition of slavery, many slaves were freed and mixed in with the rest of the population. “Bi Kidude is a cocktail,” she smiles.
Her face is weathered with lines from smiling and emoting, her body is muscular from drumming longer than most young men could at a single sitting, and her teeth are few and far between – an improvement that has left her mouth freer for singing, she says. She started singing at only 10, and even now when she sings, she says she feels like she is 14 again and indeed, when the music flows, the years drop away and she is a young girl reborn.
That young girl used to work on the Arab dhows that came to the harbour and there she says she heard the singing of her inspiration Sidi Binti Saad. If Bi Kidude is the grandmother of taarab, Sidi was its founder, and when a young Fatma heard her sing, her heart was won. Fatma used to accompany Sidi to performances in town for rich merchants and would stand outside the door listening and soaking up the music, while also trying to avoid catching the eye of her uncle, a talented violinist who used to play with the taarab groups. Later she started to perform herself. At that time the female singers, of whom there were few, had to perform under veil.
This young girl became the toast of Zanzibar and is still heard in nightclubs across Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania, most recently with a young band called Offside Trick, who recruited her to sing the chorus on their song Ahmada, about the perils of alcohol abuse. This song had massive success this year, and is still the one most likely to pull young people on to the dancefloor. There is the hint of rock and roll about her – she sits on our first interview day bedecked in gold and black with giant sunglasses perched on her small face. But she is not vain – why would she wear a wig, she offers as an example, as everyone knows she has grey hair!
Bi Kidude says she is very proud of being loved by so many people and of being known all over the world by wazungu (foreigners). When travelling around with her, it is like being with a member of a royal family – when people catch sight of her they smile and wave, and she responds graciously. Indeed, she says, she once met Queen Elizabeth in her palace, who ‘promoted’ her. It can make it difficult to move around with her on foot, as she stops to talk to everyone who recognises her – she thrives on the attention and it visibly makes her taller.
Although she has been to Europe and around the world (she expresses a fondness for Germany in particular) and has been awarded major prizes, such as the 2005 WOMEX world music prize for outstanding contribution to music, she is still mystified by these parts of the world. In Europe, she says, people do not want to be disturbed, and they do not sleep, only work. “They commit suicide very easily, they kill themselves and they leave their dog, and their dog cries over them.” Singing at a mzungu wedding party back in 2003 – she often sings at weddings – she jokes in Kiswahili and the locals in the crowd guffaw. “What did she say?” the other guests ask. The translation: “I’m not afraid of all these white people, I’ve crapped in every toilet in Europe.”
How, then, does she feel about the recent influx of tourists to her home island? She is broadly positive, saying that it brings business and wealth. However, she says that it can also change the island culture, and this is not good. When you speak to visitors, they are understanding and respect the culture, but too many have not been informed about local traditions and etiquette. “They come in underpants, shouting mama mia, mama mia!” she jokes, but adds more seriously that now even Zanzibaris are seen eating in public during the holy month of Ramadan. She herself has no time to pray, she says, but she does read the Koran sometimes, and she is mindful of both tradition and religion while treading her own path.
Her favourite song seems to be Kijiti – a deeply sad and political song about a pregnant woman who was assaulted and killed, and her body thrown on the side of the road. A lorry driver and passenger stopped to try to help and then took her body to the police, but they were arrested and charged and the real culprit escaped justice. When the song was written, some 70 years ago, the goal was to tell the public about this unfairness. “Most of them just sing about love affairs now,” she says.
When she sings this song, people cry. Even when you can’t understand the words, the emotion and lament that underscore the lyrics are deeply affecting, and it is impossible to remain unmoved. She used to sing this song to her lovers, and it would make them cry also.
On the second day of interview, she is moving everyone in a different way. In chaotic scenes at Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town’s main hub for evening promenading, she and her ladies perform on ngoma (traditional drums) for photos, and crowds of boys and young men teem around in all sorts of strange garb fresh from jumping into the sea, a regular evening practice here for those who can’t afford other entertainment. A miniscule figure, almost lost in the sea of onlookers, Bi Kidude pounds her drum and sings. An official comes to move us on because we don’t have an entertainment licence, but the crowd doesn’t want her to go. She doesn’t want to stop. “I never want to stop singing,” she told us the day before. “Singing is all of my life.”
Later, once the chaos subsides, and we sit around trying to discreetly pour beer and Konyagi into plastic glasses behind a bush for her group, a trio of young men descend on Bi Kidude and she regales them with tales and songs as they hang on her every word like lovers. (The real love of her life, she tells us, is her sister’s grand-daughter, who lives with her, and who she trusts totally.)
Emerson tells one last story about her, his favourite, because it is one that he feels sums her up. He was holding a party at his home – a many storeyed townhouse on a typical twisting street in Stone Town. He received terrible news, that a friend had been killed. Going into shock, he passed out, and when he revived, Fatma Binti Baraka was by his side.
“I’ve lost everyone,” Kidude told him. “When you live long, you lose them all. What you do is open your heart to everyone, and love them as much as you can.”
This interview was originally published in 2011