By Sarah Sadian
I am very excited as my friend Mohamed suggests to invite Bi Kidude to my home. I feel honored when she agrees. So I drive to her house in the early afternoon.
On the way, lots of people recognize her in my car, come close to the window to greet her, and I can only drive slowly in order not to hurt anyone. And that’s when she says: “Whoever doesn’t know Bi Kidude, doesn’t know Zanzibar!”
The thin old woman who has never walked in shoes and whose teeth have fallen out since long – so long that new teeth would probably grow soon – seems full of strength and full of confidence. She doesn’t know the year of her birth, but she still remembers the infamous slave trader, Tippu Tip, whom she has seen as a child, and who died in 1905. She has lived life, and against all the odds, a young girl in Zanzibar, so many years back, she has succeeded. She has become Bi Kidude, Zanzibar’s most famous singer!
At last we reach the main road that leads to my house. My guests are impatiently waiting. Mohamed has gone to fetch another two old musicians to accompany the old lady, and already reached the gate with his car. The watchman opens, and we drive into my yard. There is something dignified about the way Bi Kidude gets out of my car and walks toward the entrance. I would not even dare offer her my help. We enter the house. She sits down on my old leather sofa, whereas the two old musicians sit each on a chair. We others stand, forming a circle around them.
“Listen,” the old musician with the thick glasses and the round belly insists as he tries to convince the taller, slimmer one with the shaky teeth to tune his Oud according to his violin. But the other insists that his Oud is tuned, and he should adjust his violin. I go to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee after handing Bi Kidude the packet of cigarettes that I have bought for her. Bi Kidude, with apparent pleasure, lights a cigarette and tells me: “You see, I smoke a lot, I drink a lot, and I have walked barefoot all my life… This is what keeps me healthy!”
The two old men keep quarreling about who is to tune whose instrument according to the other’s. Bi Kidude loses her patience. She asks for a Ngoma, and a young boy, the son of one of my guests, goes to the other room to take a little drum. Bi Kidude grasps it with a professional move and immediately begins to beat a rhythm on it. Ngoma… My guests slowly move with it. Bi Kidude gets up from the sofa, drumming, then suddenly starts to sing… an improvisation on Oum Kalthoum, the greatest Egyptian singer of all times, ‘Enta Omri’ – ‘you are my life’.
And while the tune and the rhythm of the song make the images of the dunes in the desert rise in my mind, I feel the strange contrast the lush green in my garden outside forms to the song. The humidity here in Zanzibar is so strong that instead of cleaning the dust every day, I am cleaning the fungus from my furniture, and once I have even had big mushrooms grow on one of my pillows. If this modern house had been built according to ancient tradition, there would be air coming in and no fungus could grow, because there would only be mosquito grills in the windows, and no glass!
Bi Kidude’s version of Oum Kalthoum’s song seems to be enriched with the lush humidity of Zanzibar, an easiness and flexibility, a lightness of tune that replaces the heavy steps of the original Egyptian tune…. Suddenly Bi Kidude stops in front of the young boy who has brought her the Ngoma and says with a jokeful spark in her eyes: “Can I marry the boy?”
Bi Kidude who received numerous international awards for her lifetime achievements is probably the most famed representative of Taarab music in Zanzibar and a regular artist at the famous Sauti za Busara Music Festival.