Sheba of Zanzibar: Bi Kidude

Bi Kidude

Bi Kidude

The east coast of Africa, from Mogadishu down through Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam is home to unique melting pot culture that encompasses South Asian, Arab and African influences. Spices and the slave trade were, for centuries, the engine house o the economy but today those exotic things have been replaced by an ever more avaricious global tourism mono-culture.


In terms of music, taraab, is king. Blending the small stringed ensemble sound of Egypt, with the oud, local drums, European accordions and less frequently, Indian harmonium, singers from Zanzibar and Tanzania have created a very special and sweet form of music. Taraab’s first superstar was a Zanzibari teenage sensation named Siti binti Saad, a girl who sang saucy songs that made fun of and admonished men.  Following in her wake was Bi Kidude, the subject of tonight’s post.


Bi Kidude, died about 2 months ago at the ripe old age of 102, though this figure should be treated with some looseness.  I first heard her sing on the stunning Taj Mahal album with the Zanzibar Culture Musical Club (which you can find here).  When I discovered that she’d passed I got this equally wonderful collection put together by the folks who brought us the Ethiopiques and Zanzibara series.


I’ve also included her obituary as published in the UK’s Guardian broadsheet.

The Zanzibari singer Bi Kidude (Kiswahili for “Little Granny”), who has died at the age of around 102, had a haunting voice and enigmatic stage presence. In the last 30 years she came to be widely recognised as one of the finest musicians from an island famous for spices and open to influences from the east.

She grew up in the village of Mfagimaringo, where her father was a coconut seller: of her age, she said, “I cannot say that I know it myself, but my birth was at the time of the rupee.” The Indian currency was used in east Africa up to the first world war, and a near-contemporary calculated that Bi Kidude was born around 1910.

Along with the pioneering teenager Siti binti Saad (1880-1950), Bi Kidude was one of the first Zanzibari women to lift the veil and sing in public. This was a courageous move in a society where women were confined to purdah. The two were the first female communicators on the island and in mainland Tanzania, of which Zanzibar is now part.

Their original music was dumbak, based on a drum rhythm and performed in small groups. This was blended with an early form of taarab, an Arab/Swahili fusion introduced to Zanzibar in the early 1900s. Taarab combines violins, flutes and Arabic instruments including the zither-like kanoon and the oud, the ancestor of the lute, with a variety of African drums.

There are several taarab variants throughout Kiswahili-speaking east Africa. The Zanzibar style owes most to Egyptian firquah orchestras of the 1930s, but prior to that the Indian influence was more pronounced.

The women’s messages were provocative, often ridiculing men’s sexual behaviour and sometimes decrying the abuse of women. In 1928, Saad travelled to Bombay to make some of the earliest recordings by an African artist. Bi Kidude set out in the other direction, starting a marathon tour of east Africa. She travelled to the mainland by dhow and moved around occasionally by train, but mostly on foot. Her repertoire was based on Saad’s songs, adapted and embellished to fit her own purposes.

imagesFollowing this journey of personal liberation, Bi Kidude returned home. She married but was unable to conceive and was divorced by two husbands. Then she moved into a small clay house in the Shangani quarter of Zanzibar town. She went to small taarab social clubs, usually run by women and, most importantly, became involved in unyago, the initiation procedure for Swahili women.

The ritual washing and the social and sexual education that follow a girl’s first menstruation are accompanied by traditional songs, drumming and dancing. This drumming ceremony is one of the rare occasions where African women play instruments. The unyago women discuss with their charges many issues that are otherwise taboo in African society. The climax of unyago ritual is the wedding, a colourful event at which Bi Kidude and her friends would play their drums and sing provocative songs to an audience of hundreds of women. She helped initiate so many girls over the years that she acquired the nickname that became her trademark.

Bi Kidude also made and applied wanja, a black cosmetic which, combined with henna, is used to paint elaborate designs on the arms and legs of young women. She was also a practitioner of herbal medicine, producing remedies on request for doctors at the local hospital.

Her singing career lay dormant for almost 50 years, but in the 1980s there was a revival of interest in her music when she performed with the Sahib El-Ahri band. Later, she joined the Zanzibar-based group the Twinkling Stars and toured Germany, Scandinavia, Japan and the Gulf.

In the early 1990s she was recruited as an occasional member of Shikamoo Jazz, a band of elderly musicians from Dar es Salaam who were sponsored by the British organisation HelpAge International. This collaboration created a unique development of pop/taarab which saw mixed couples dancing socially to what had been a formal and constrained music. A tour of Britain in 1995 took in the Womad festival at Reading, where Bi Kidude was a major attraction. Her deep, wailing voice expressed the raw emotion of a lifetime’s experience.

She never consciously composed new songs. All her material was based on a limited number of Saad’s compositions, around which she improvised so liberally that they became her own. However, in later years she would confuse and combine the material, so that members of the band would need to skip adroitly from one tune to another at any moment. Though she made some recordings, her output was not great.Unknown-4

A small, frail-looking woman, Bi Kidude had enormous stamina and a rugged sense of humour. In Zanzibar she lived in a modest breeze-block house with some of her “grandchildren” and their pigeons. Each Saturday she would perform with the Twinkling Stars at one of the luxury hotels.

In 2005 she won a Womex (World Music Expo) award, and the following year the documentary As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude was released. She continued to perform until recently.

  • Bi Kidude (Fatuma binti Baraka), singer, born around 1910; died 17 April 2013

Bi Kidude sings in a broad, powerful style that pushes its heterodoxy to the fore. This is music that has not been learnt and voice without training.  And all the more forceful and compelling for it.  She instantly brings Mai Bhaggi, the mighty elderly singer of Pakistan, to mind. “Shut up and listen to what I’m singing about,” they both say.   Ignore them at your peril.


The Diva of Zanzibari Music

Track Listing:

01 Alaminadura

02 Beru

03 Khaifu (khaifakolil)

04 Kijiti

05 Msondo

06 Jua toka

07 Ya laiti

08 Muhogo Wan Jang Ombe

09 Pakistani

10 Suhuba Ya Dai







4 thoughts on “Sheba of Zanzibar: Bi Kidude

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