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African Legends

Bi Kidude

By Tom Pryor
Published November 14, 2006

Zanzibar’s legendary Bi Kidude is one of a kind: a 90-something performer, storyteller and musical repository who’s also a living link back to the roots of contemporary Swahili pop music and the great taarab singer Siti Binti Saad.

Born Fatuma Binti Baraka on the East African island of Zanzibar in the early years of the 20th century, Bi Kidude began performing as a child, recognized for her fine voice. In the 1920s she was initiated into a popular cultural troupe, which combined a knowledge of traditional medicine with a knowledge of traditional music. The music she performed then was called kidumbak and ngoma, one a stripped-down version of classic Swahili taraab, the other a rootsy African drumming tradition. In those days she walked the length and breadth of what’s now Tanzania, traveling from gig to gig, and collecting stories and songs in her wanderings.

In the 1930s Bi Kidude sang in a taarab ensemble alongside the legendary Siti Binti Saad, Zanzibar’s first female taarab singer and a major recording star in the region. From her, Bi Kidude learned a wealth of songs and musical lore, before striking out on her own as the main singer of a touring taarab ensemble. Bi Kidude toured all over East Africa for decades before finally settling down in Zanzibar’s Stone Town where after a few broken marriages, Bi Kidude became well-known as an herbal healer.

But in the 1980s, Zanzibar saw a renaissance in traditional Swahili culture, and Bi Kidude joined Mohammed Ilyas and his Twinkling Stars as the star attraction. Her career enjoyed an unexpected renaissance too, and she’s been performing ever since.

In the past two decades, she’s recorded new material, toured Europe and the Middle East, received international honors, including the prestigious WOMEX award in 2005, and will be the subject of the upcoming documentary film, As Old As My Tongue. The Myth And Life Of Bi Kidude, scheduled for release in 2006.

Recommended Recordings
Zanzibar (Retroafric)
Zanzibara 4: Bi Kidude (Buda Musique) 2006
Waridi (Virgin)