Bi Kidude was an institution on Zanzibar, and East Africa’s greatest musical legend. The diva of Zanzibar taarab, she also played other musical styles including more ngoma-based unyago and msondo.
Her real name has been described as Fatma Baraka Khamis or Bi Fatuma Binti Baraka.
She grew up in a family of seven in the Zanzibari village of Mfagimarigo. Her father was a coconut seller.
exact date of birth was unknown, much of her life story was uncorroborated, giving
her an almost mythical status. Kidude started out her musical career in the
1920s, and learned many of her songs with Siti bint Saad. She performed in
countries all around Europe, Middle East and Japan and finally recorded her
first solo album (Zanzibar, Retroafric Recordings) in 1994, while
in her mid-eighties. She also released a second locally-produced album (Machozi
ya Huba, Heartbeat Records) with her traditional drums influencing the
burgeoning Zenji Flava local hip-hop scene in one of the most remarkable
juxtapositions of musical style in modern World Music.
Since fleeing a forced marriage at the age of 13 and escaping her homeland of
Zanzibar, Bi Kidude led an extraordinary and varied career as a drummer,
singer, henna artist and natural healer. Her first journey was to the mainland
of Tanzania, where she walked the length and breadth of the country barefoot.
With renewed confidence and a new attitude to tradition (by now Kidude had
thrown off her veil and shaved her head!) she returned, slowly to Zanzibar where
she acquired a small clay house in the 1940s and settled down to life grounded
in the traditional roots of society.
Bi Kidude was part of the Unyago movement, which prepares young Swahili women
for their transition through puberty and excelled at the art of henna designing
for young brides, manufacturing her own wanja application from age old recipes
fit 'to make a rainbow shine.' Bi Kidude performed traditional unyago music and
was the island's leading exponent of this ancient dance
ritual, performed exclusively for teenage girls, which uses traditional rhythms
to teach women to pleasure their husbands, while lecturing against the dangers
of sexual abuse and oppression.
Her many talents were acknowledged by Zanzibar International Film Festival
(ZIFF) at the second Festival of the Dhow Countries in 1999, when she was
awarded Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to the Arts.
Bi Kidude's is a remarkable story, one which challenges our perception of age,
and of the role of women in Islam. She never conformed to the media
stereotype of a Muslim woman ever since she removed her veil. To see a
ninety-something year old Muslim woman drink, smoke, flirt, dance and drum was a
unique experience. To witness the transformation as she reversed the aging
process and changes from a wrinkled granny into a vital shining star was nothing
short of revolutionary.
In the summer of 2004 Bi Kidude toured Europe with Zanzibar's illustrious
Culture Musical Club taarab orchestra. Midway through this tour, the whole of
Zanzibar was thrown into shock and disarray when a rumor spread fast through
the island that Bi Kidude had died. From the narrow streets of Stone Town to the
bazars of N'gambo and throughout the villages this was the only topic of
conversation as the island rapidly acquired the atmosphere of mourning. This
rumor continued to spread even long after the offices of Busara Promotions had
disseminated confirmation from Bi Kidude's European promoters that on the
contrary, she was alive and very well. She was surprised to hear that people in
Zanzibar think that she has died:
bado. Labda sababu watu hawajaonana nami sasa karibu mwezi. Lakini bado
tunaendelea na safari na bado safari ndefu ya miezi miwili. Lakini sijambo, sina
wasiwasi miye. Kuimba naimba na nguvu zote ambazo ninazo ili watu wafurahi."
"I haven't died yet. Maybe people are saying that because they haven't seen
me around for almost a month. But we are still continuing our tour which lasts
for two more months. Me, I'm well, I have no problem. Me I sing with all my
strength and continue to make people happy."
In 2006 ScreenStation Productions with Busara Promotions produced a 66 minute video documentary titled As Old As My Tongue: the Myth and Life of Bi Kidude.
"Over the last three years we have filmed with Bi Kidude and her extended
entourage," sayd director
Andy Jones. "From her humble
home in a township on the edge of historic Stone Town to the grandeur of the
Theatre de la Ville in Paris
we have captured moments of love, jealousy, protection and exploitation of a
witty and humble woman.
Musical moments combined with highly personal observation form the trunk of our
story. The music is
extraordinary. From the seemingly poetic but really biting satire of the grand
Taarab orchestras to the
telling rhythms of primal sexuality expressed in her x-rated Unyago the film is
punctuated with sensational
This intriguing and inspiring woman was a repository and leading exponent of Swahili culture. (Bi Kidude) herself said, “How can I stop singing? When I sing I feel like a 14-year old girl again.”
Bi Kidude died on April 17, 2013.