[7 November 2007]
Bi Kidude is only a nickname but she’s had it for ages and it sticks. It’s a reference to her size. Bi Kidude, you see, is short and thin. She’s the little one, the little thing, the little granny. Her real name is Fatma binti Baraka. As for her date of birth, it’s a mystery but the people at Buda believe they’ve narrowed it down to somewhere in the 1920s. Several sources say she’s in her nineties, others shake their heads, no, she’s only in her eighties.
Eighties or nineties, her voice on Zanzibara 4 sounds better than the voices of some other female performers of a slightly younger vintage. Miriam Makeba in her seventies sounds as if she’s singing through a mouthful of split straw. Bi Kidude’s voice is still intact, though harder and more ferrous than it must have been in her youth. It won’t appeal to everybody. In 2006 Screenstation and Busara released a documentary about her named As Old As My Tongue and on the Youtube page dedicated to this documentary’s trailer someone has posted:
“this is an embarrasment to the zanzibar culture and muslim community and two she cant sing!!!”
Bi Kidude is “an embarrasment” because she drinks, smokes, and, many years ago, decided not to cover her face when she sang as women were supposed to. Yet when she won the WOMEX award in 2005, it seems likely that at least part of the applause from the non-Zanzibarian, substantially non-Muslim, audience stemmed from their approval of her shameless embrace of these embarrassments. “And I hope I’ll still be doing things like that at her age,” some of them must have said to themselves. The applause was like a form of karmic insurance.
Sometimes on this disc she sounds as if she’s just bawling out words but then her voice manipulates its way around one of taarab‘s twisty corners and the singer in her emerges, the mirror of what we have to assume was her former elegance, now transformed into a snaking, commanding smoker’s creak. This is the kind of voice that Tom Waits might have imagined for himself when he was still in his twenties. It’s initially startling to hear this toughened sound join the sinuously rich taarab bands that play behind her. The bowed strings slide into the song, the drums beat with almost a slither, and then comes this voice which, it seems, would be more at home in a field recording than accompanied by what is clearly a modern, well-trained, well-behaved group of instrumentalists. The singing in taarab is often sharpish, but hers is unusually so. After a while the strangeness fades and it seems reasonable, normal, as if this is how things should sound.
She sounds harshest when she hits the hard notes on long “Msondo”, a ritual song among women, and smoothest on the shorter love songs “Ya Laiti” and “Jua Toka”, which were recorded in the 1980s. (The tracks on this album have been sourced from recordings made over the past two decades. “Msondo” was recorded in 1997 and the most recent songs, “Alaminadura” and “Beru”, in 2006.)
Zanzibara 3 is something else completely. If Bi Kidude’s album is taarab-flavored, sea route-flavoured, and Arab-flavored, then Zanzibara 3 is mainland-flavored and Africa-flavored. These recordings from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s do everything but shout, “We love Congolese rumba! We swoon before its awesomeness!” The diamond-picked guitar on the tracks from Atomic Jazz Band adds, “Oh, and we love Franco and other musicians like him!” The inlay insists that this Tanzanian muziki wa dansi is “generally sweet and laid-back if compared to dance music from neighboring Kenya or Congo, possibly an expression of the laid-back Tanzanian life of the 1960s/70s”. The inlay then goes on to enumerate differences between the different countries’ styles, but everything in Zanzibara 3 sounds as if it was built on a bedrock of rumba appreciation and there’s no way to explain it entirely away.
The interesting thing here is the presence of sometimes small but always-distinct differences between the bands, a reminder that a musician or a group can never be summed up by their or its genre alone. There are five groups on Zanzibara 3. Nuta Jazz has the best male singing, nice and deep, giving them a loamy underlay that sets them apart from Atomic Jazz whose singers are higher and less sure of their timing. But Atomic Jazz has that scintillating guitar and Nuta Jazz doesn’t. The Dar Es Salaam Jazz Band relies on a genial saxophone and a relaxed twang. The members of Jamhuri Jazz sound relaxed as well until they start spiking their songs’ low swing with upward notes as if afraid that their audience might be drifting off to sleep and require waking. Morogoro Jazz, led by the prolific Mbaraka Mwinshehe, sounds as if it was inspired by an earlier kind of rumba than the one Atomic loves. Its songs are close and complicated compared to Dar Es Salaam Jazz’s mellow drift.
Zanzibara 3 is Afro-retro comfort food, hot soup for chilly evenings. Zanzibara 4 asks more from you. Bi Kidude is piercing and insistent. There will be those who listen to her old voice and echo the poster on Youtube, groaning, “she cant sing!!!” as if singing, like marathons and miniskirts, is the preserve of the young. How dare she? But that’s the thing that people like about her, the astonishing, award-winning thing: she dares.