The following piece was originally published by The Pigeonhole as part of its “Letters from Africa” series on 9th February. The original post can be found here.
On 12th February, the 12th Sauti za Busara (Voices of Wisdom) music festival will kick off on Zanzibar. An audience from all over the world will hear singers and bands from all over Africa. But, sadly, it will not feature the legendary Bi Kidude, who died in 2013. Julian Fisher, Africa-enthusiast and founder of the consultancy Africa Integrity, recalls her final appearance at the festival.
The Old Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar, February 2013: A large and energetic young audience stands in almost-ecstasy, waiting. A tiny, frail old woman is escorted on to the stage where she sits, exuding serenity.
This is the tenth Sauti za Busara festival and her tenth appearance on its stage. But, on this occasion, she is not meant to sing. In poor health and visibly exhausted, she has been forbidden by an over-anxious Government of Zanzibar from performing, for her own good. Instead, she is expected to sit quietly and absorb the adulation of the excited audience. But, offered the microphone to acknowledge applause, she climbs unsteadily to her feet and announces defiantly ‘no-one can stop me from singing’. Then she belts out a song with a voice that sounds like it should belong to someone much bigger but could only belong to her. The audience is now ecstatic.
This is Bi Kidude.
No one knows when Bi Kidude (or Fatma binti Baraka) was born but, soon after, she escaped death by suffocation when an uncle, failing to notice the tiny baby beneath him, sat on her. She began performing in the 1920s, one of the first Zanzibari women to lift the veil and sing. She married severally and left husbands readily. She travelled extensively to destinations as diverse as Finland and Japan. A Muslim, she drank alcohol and chain-smoked; as with her final appearance at Sauti za Busara, she was always defiant, independent minded and head strong. Her nickname translates as ‘little grandmother’ but, little as she was, she was not to be bullied.
On this occasion, she has chosen a song from the taarab tradition, carried by Arab merchants into Stone Town’s port, rich in tradition and lyricism. It is not meant to be danced to. It is a sedate musical form, appropriate to an elderly, wise lady. But Bi Kidude has always been more thanthat. She was the recognised doyenne of unyago, the drumming, singing and dancing initiation ceremony for girls entering womanhood. Closed to men, the ceremonies prepare young women for the challenges of marriage, with lessons in how to stand up to difficult or even abusive men. They also teach the girls, through dance, how to pleasure their husbands. I first watched Bi Kidude’s dance troupe perform an unyago dance at Sauti za Busara in 2005; I realise now that I was watching twerking long before it became a feature of western nightclubs.
Two months after her final, feisty performance at Sauti za Busara, Bi Kidude died. She was granted a state funeral. A voice of wisdom in unyago ceremonies for many generations and a fixture of the Voices of Wisdom festival for its first ten years, Sauti za Busara will never be the same without her. But it will always be an experience unique among festivals and I hope it will be there to honour her memory for many more years to come.