A cherished singer is gone
IN SUMMARY She lifted the veil off the Zanzibari woman
- “I cannot say that I know myself,” she once told a journalist, “but my birth was at the time of the Rupee.” The Rupee, which replaced cowry shells as a medium of exchange, was introduced by Asian traders on the East African Coast before the German invasion.
Many, many years ago, somewhere in the Mfagimaringo village of Zanzibar, a baby girl was born on a date that remains a mystery. The birth was premature, and so the tiny baby girl, wrapped in the clothes of the time, struggled to survive the first few days of her life.
And survive she did, even though her uncle had reservations about that. The man had been among the first who trooped in to see the new bundle of joy, but what he had seen had deflated his hopes.
“This is hardly a baby,” he is said to have exclaimed. “It is just a teeny-weeny little ‘thing’”.
The uncle, however, did not say those words in English, but in the Kiswahili tongue of the people of Mfagimaringo. ‘Teeny-weeny little thing’ translates to kidude in Kiswahili, a word used to describe anything that is so small that the speaker lacks the adjectives to explain it.
Yes, Fatuma Binti Baraka was that tiny, and that kidude description stuck on her until her death last week, only that this time it was not used in the quasi-derogatory manner of her formative years, but as a stage name for a woman who had become the face and voice of Zanzibari music.
Despite a career that span across decades, much of Bi Kidude’s life story is uncorroborated. There are numerous fables about her exploits in Oman and other Arab countries as she toddled her first steps in the world of music and entertainment, but few of these have been backed up by material evidence.
Also worthy of note is the fact that her age, estimated at about 100 years, had not been confirmed by the time she died and was only based on her accounts and the guesstimates of Swahili historians.
“I cannot say that I know myself,” she once told a journalist, “but my birth was at the time of the Rupee.” The Rupee, which replaced cowry shells as a medium of exchange, was introduced by Asian traders on the East African Coast before the German invasion.
As a child, she quickly gained prominence courtesy of her fine voice and, in the 1920s, sang with various cultural troupes, combining an understanding of music with an equally important initiation into traditional medicine.
In the 1930s, she ended up in Dar es Salaam, where she joined the Egyptian Musical Club before returning to Zanzibar in the 1940s and acquiring a small mud hut that was to become her home for years to come.
But, her age and formative years aside, Bi Kidude was no doubt a musical marvel, seen through her first performances and compositions by Siti Binti Saad, the first female singer on the Isles who singled her out in her teens for her vocal ability.
The “Grand Old Lady of Taarab”, as Bi Kidude was known, went on to carve a major effect on the music and culture of Zanzibar. Singing in Arabic and Kiswahili, she influenced the evolution of Taarab, a music style that originated in Egypt and is usually accompanied by fiddles, flutes, drums and rattles.
From the teachings of Siti Binti Saad, she went on to conquer the world through her songs, such as Muhogo wa Jangombe, which was later re-done by Lady Jay Dee.
In 2005, Bi Kidude received the prestigious WOMEX Award for her outstanding contribution to music and culture in Zanzibar; and, in a documentary titled As Old As My Tongue by Andy Jones, she was depicted as a living legend of Zanzibar.
Rebecca Corey, the managing director of Busara Festivals in Tanzania, says Bi Kidude will go down history as an artiste who advertised the country’s rich cultural heritage and history.
“She was exceptional in promoting the country’s identity wherever she went and was a great role model to many,” says Ms Corey, adding that the fallen star was the greatest musician to ever have graced the Taarab genre, and that she was “unstoppable”, not even by age and poor health.
“Nobody could stop her,” says Ms Corey. “She would take to the microphone no matter what.”
In one of her many interviews, Bi Kidude admitted that her earliest performances were for Arab traders on the Isles, and that she would dress as a sailor boy. She never wore shoes because she “was born barefoot” and believed wearing shoes “would weaken her”.
Bi Kidude was an active participant in initiation ceremonies, where she prepared young Swahili women for their transition through puberty, taught women how to live with their husbands, and lectured against sexual abuse and oppression.
She never had any children, and whiled away her time smoking cigarettes and, every now and then, swigging her favourite gin, Konyagi.
But alcohol and Islam do not mix, so this obsession with the bottle irked many of her family members and close friends. She, however, explained that she only did it “for fun”, and that her religious beliefs and morals were still intact.
Bi Kidude owned a small house in Zanzibar where, towards the end, she settled down to a life grounded in the roots of the society.
Apart from singing, she also made a living off body painting and making henna and wanja, the dark-coloured cosmetics used to draw flowery patterns on the bodies of Muslim women, especially for ceremonial purposes.
A favourite of sultans, presidents and sailors, her story is remarkable; a challenge to most people’s perception of age and of women in the Muslim society.
That is why she was, in 2011, nominated for the best collaboration at the Kilimanjaro Music Awards with a local group called Offside Trick for Ahmada, a popular song in Tanzania and across the border in Mombasa and Nairobi.
The following year she was awarded the all-time Sports and Culture award by President Jakaya Kikwete.
Renowned veteran Tanzanian musician Bi Kidude has died.
“We are taking her body to her home at Raha Leo, Unguja. She will be buried today,” said a close relative Baraka aka Rasta. In September last year, word went round that she had died but it turned out she was in hospital. Although Bi Kidude’s date of birth is unknown, many claimed that she was more than 100 years old.
Much of her life story is uncorroborated with claims that she lived in Oman and other Arab countries giving her an almost mythical status.
Even in the twilight of her career and suffering the ravages of ill health, which doctors said was due to her advanced age, she would still pull in crowds whenever she performed mostly taarab songs.
Her last performance was at a festival in February. In the 1920s, she sang with cultural troupes, and was also introduced to traditional medicine.
After fleeing from a forced marriage at the age 13, she moved to mainland Tanzania and toured mainland East Africa with a taarab ensemble, visiting all the major coastal towns barefoot. She never remarried and died childless.
She was well-known for performing the “Unyago” an initiation ceremony that prepares teenage girls for adulthood. She also used traditional rhythms to teach women how to pleasure their husbands.
She went on to conquer the music world through her songs such as Muhogo wa Jangombe which was re-done by Lady Jay Dee her performing prowess.
In 2005, Bi Kidude received the Womex award for her outstanding contribution to music and culture in Zanzibar and she was a favourite of sultans, presidents and the public.
Fatuma binti Baraka (c.1910s – 17 April 2013), aka Bi Kidude, was a Zanzibari-born Tanzanian Taarab singer. She is considered the undisputed queen of Taarab and Unyago music and was also a protégé of Siti binti Saad. Bi Kidude was born in the village of Mfagimaringo, she was the daughter of a coconut seller in colonial Zanzibar. Bi Kidude’s exact date of birth is unknown, much of her life story is uncorroborated, giving her an almost mythical status.
In 2005 Bi Kidude received the prestigious WOMEX award for her outstanding contribution to music and culture in Zanzibar. She died on 17 April 2013.
As a child, she was singled out for her fine voice and, in the 1920s, sang locally with popular cultural troupes, combining an understanding of music with an equally important initiation into traditional medicine. At age 13, after a forced marriage, she fled Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania. Bi Kidude toured mainland East Africa with a taarab ensemble, visiting the major coastal towns and inland as far west as Lake Victoria and Tanganyika. She walked the length and the breadth of the country barefoot in the early 1930s, fleeing another unhappy marriage. In the 1930s, she ended up in Dar es Salaam, where she sang with Egyptian Taarab group for many years. In the 1940s, she returned to Zanzibar, where she acquired a small mud hut to be her home. She is known for her role in the Unyago movement which prepares young Swahili women for their transition through puberty. She was one of the experts of this ancient ritual, performed only to teenage girls, which uses traditional rhythms to teach women to pleasure their husbands, while lecturing against the dangers of sexual abuse and oppression. Moreover Bi Kidude goes down history as one of the greatest music composer characterized by real African tune as featured to African culture, some of commentators considered her to be “the myth” and “the legend”. The very bad lack of her is that, there is no any published book documenting her life apart from the known video documentary “As old as my Toungue-The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude” by director Andy Jones. Some of musical experts call upon the Government of United Republic Of Tanzania to come up with full Biography of this icon.Early life
Fame within Zanzibar
Her fame has been widely acknowledged throughout the local Zanzibari and Zazibari tourism community, with the luxury hotel on the island, ‘236 Hurumzi’, naming their restaurant ‘Kidude’ in her honour. She was often found residing within the lobby of this hotel in Stonetown.
Bi Kidude has worked with various Taarab groups, but her first solo work is called Zanzibar, it demonstrates Bi Kidude at the peak of her performing power.
Awards and nominations
- 2005 WOMEX award
- 2012 President of United Republic of Tanzania awarded Bi Kidude ‘sports and arts award’ of all time
- 2011 Tanzania Music Awards – Best Collaboration & Best Traditional Song (‘Ahmada’ with Offside trick)