Ben and I first encountered Bi Kidude in 1988 when we recorded on the island of Zanzibar. She was part of the women’s Taarab group Sahib El Arry and dressed in the group’s floating pink (see photo) she looked frail and very old. When her turn came to take over vocals, our engineer Adam placed the mic slightly closer to her than with the other singers and she proceeded to nearly blow it across the room with a vocal power that would have put her compatriot Mr Mercury to shame. This was a woman used to singing without artificial aids like microphones and PAs.
Truth to tell there was a certain amount of disapproval, particularly among some in the male orchestras about this woman representing Zanzibari music. But with the support of Mariam Hamdani and Bi Nasra Hilal we went on to record 5 songs with her. One of these ‘Juwa Toka’ (as Sahib El Arry) is available from the usual download vendors on the Taarab 3 compilation and all of them are available through Ace here for download.
At the end of our visit to Zanzibar the ladies of the women’s Taarab groups cooked up a massive meal in our honour and while our team and many of the men from the orchestras sat down to eat Bi Kidude and her singers played for us. But this was not Taarab and featured Bi on a huge hand drum (see photo). This was Unyago which is played as initiation music for young women about to get married and some of the male diners were uncomfortably amused by the lyrics. Up to very late in her very long life she was able to strap on that enormous and heavy drum and groove for 2 hours, slapping the skin with hands of leather in a feat of endurance that few could match. When you shook hands with Bi Kidude your hand stayed shook for quite some time.
In her long long astonishing life, Bi Kidude went from learning at the feet of the legendary Taarab singer Siti Bint Sadi to winning an award at WOMEX in 2005 for her outstanding contribution to music and culture in Zanzibar. A lifetime achievement award that for once celebrated a life that achieved way above and beyond what most could have hoped for and within the context of Bi Kidude’s life, truly remarkable.
With her death a whole library has been burned.
By Roger Armstrong