BI Kidude is an institution on Zanzibar, and remains East Africa’s greatest living musical legend. The diva of Zanzibar taarab, she also plays other musical styles including more ngoma-based unyago and msondo.
Born Bi Fatuma Binti Baraka, Bi Kidude grew up in a family of seven in the Zanzibari village of Mfagimarigo. Her father was a coconut seller.
Bi Kidude's exact date of birth is unknown, much of her life story is uncorroborated, giving her an almost mythical status.
Kidude started out her musical career in the 1920s, and learnt many of her songs with Siti bint Saad.
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.
Bi.Kidude has worked with various Taarab groups and many of her songs describe men/women relations in unbridled terms. Her songs remain in great demand at ceremonies and festivals.
“Life without love is nothing,” she says.
Her tracks include 'Bomwanzani Wa Mahaba', 'Machozi Ya Huba', 'Unyago' (A) and (B), 'Muhogo Wa Jang'ombe', 'Arebaba Pakistan', 'Beru' and 'Kijiti'.
Bi Kidude has performed in countries all around Europe, Middle East and Japan and recorded her first solo album 'Zanzibar' while in her mid-eighties.
She later released a second locally-produced album 'Machozi ya Huba', 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 has 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.
Her role as 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'.
To this day, Bi Kidude performs traditional unyago music and is still 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'.
In 2005 Bi Kidude received the prestigious WOMEX award for her outstanding contribution to music and culture in Zanzibar.
Bi Kidude's is a remarkable story, one which challenges our perception of age, and of the role of women in Islam. She has 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 is a unique experience. To witness the transformation as she reverses the ageing process and changes from a wrinkled granny into a vital shining star is nothing short of revolutionary.
In 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 rumour spread fast through the island that Bi Kidude had died.
From the narrow streets of Stone Town to the barazas of Ng’ambo and throughout the villages this was the only topic of conversation as the island rapidly acquired the atmosphere of mourning.
This rumour 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:
"Sijafa 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," said 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 live footage."
This intriguing and inspiring woman is a repository and leading exponent of Swahili culture. Bi Kidude herself says: “How can I stop singing? When I sing I feel like a 14-year-old girl again.”