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Bi Kidude
'Zanzibar' (RETRO12CD)

'Little Granny' of Zanzibar

Bi KidudeBi Kidude the 'Little Granny' of Zanzibar, born Fatuma Binti Baraka in the early years of the 20th century, is a veritable musical memory bank. Her musical career started in the 1920s, when she walked from gig to gig across the length and breadth of what is now Tanzania. Hers is a truly remarkable story and these recordings, drawn from her vast repertoire, convey the essence of her magic.

They represent a communicator at the peak of her powers, whose presence at a wedding or state occasion commands attention and respect. Bi Kidude is both a repository and a leading exponent of modern Swahili culture.

These recordings (Berlin 1988, Zanzibar 1993 and 1995, the UK 1995 and Finland 1996) bring together for the first time Bi Kidude's full range and versatility as she performs everything from cultural drumming, through classic Zanzibari taarab to modern Tanzanian 'dansi' jazz.

Bi Kidude was born in the village of Mfagimaringo, daughter of a coconut seller in colonial Zanzibar. Her exact age is unknown with any certainty. 'I cannot say that I know myself, but my birth was at the time of the rupee.' (The Indian currency was used throughout East Africa up to the First World War). 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.

Their music was 'dumbak', based on an African drum rhythm, and early forms of taarab, the ubiquitous music of the Swahili Coast which combines the violins, ouds and ganoons of the Arabic tradition with the drums and flutes of Africa. The messages were provocative, often referring to men's sexual behaviour and sometimes decrying the abuse of women.
'I learned all my songs from Siti Binti Saad, the first woman singer in Zanzibar,' She recalls. 'We both had to cover our faces with a fine cloth. Then she passed away but her voice was still in the air. She had a very powerful voice, like mine. There was no difference. So people, some of the highest in the land, said you must do something to show who you are. . . and so I raised the veil.'

Bi Kidude toured mainland East Africa with a taarab ensemble, visiting the major coastal towns and inland as far west as Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika. She returned home after many years and, following two broken marriages, she found herself on her own, with nothing to show for her musical career.

She acquired a small clay house in Zanzibar Town and settled down to a life grounded in the traditional cultural roots of the society, becoming part of 'Unyago', the initiation process of young Swahili women. Preparations for marriage include the application of elaborate henna designs to the arms and legs of the intended bride. Bi excelled at this art, not only applying the 'wanja' but manufacturing it herself from age old recipes to “make the rainbow shine”. Bi also drew on her vast knowledge of herbs and remedies to establish a reputation as a healer.

 

Bi kidude
Bi Kidude with Unyago Troupe
Photo: Werner Grebner

The turbulent 1950s and 1960s saw Zanzibar change from colonial entrepot to an independent Arab sultanate and a communist nightmare. In the 1980s, however, Zanzibar emerged from its closed society and, with a renaissance in traditional culture, Bi Kidude joined Mohammed Ilyas and His Twinkling Stars as the star attraction. Her career enjoyed an unexpected and welcome upturn as she toured the Far East, the Middle East and Europe.

Bi Kidude has approached her renewed stardom with a calm and studied demeanour. Most astonishing is the transformation which occurs when this venerable and virtuoso performer appears to reverse the ageing process and changes from a wrinkled old granny into an exhuberant and vital cultural star. Make-up, attention to appearance, and a committed professionalism underpin this remarkable transformation.

'Zanzibar', her first solo album, demonstrates Bi Kidude at the peak of her performing power. The first two tracks, recorded in Zanzibar, typify classic small-band taarab. Tracks 4, 5 and 6 were recorded during a tour of Finland with a similar line-up. Tracks 3 and 6 exemplify the Unyago drumming style, and are Bi Kidude's first commercial recordings of this important social music. The latter track, however, is 'culturally incorrect' as she is accompanied by men in what is an exclusive women's format. Track 7 was recorded with an 'All Star' band during a tour of Germany.

During the mid-1990s Bi Kidude joined forces with the Dar es Salaam band Shikamoo Jazz, whose musicians of Zanzibar origin - Ali Rashid, sax and Madar Mselem, trumpet - provided a solid base for her exploration of taarab/jazz fusion. Track 8, an experimental recording which combines two orchestras, is followed by two tracks recorded at Womad in 1995, during the 'East African Legends' tour of Britain.

Bi Kidude
'Zanzibar' (RETRO12CD)

 

 
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