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mercredi 6 juin 2007

The Nightingale of Zanzibar

On my first visit to Zanzibar, I had journeyed there from South Africa. At the end of a long flight from Atlanta to Cape Town, my good friend was waiting at the airport, who had arrived a few days earlier.
We both had read in the inflight magazine of South African Airways about a nearly forgotten relic of Taarab music, the native music of the Swahili speakers of the coast. We made a mental note about Bi Ki Dude.
After the initial excitement of Stone Town and staying an extremely cosy hotel in old town and savouring the arab atmosphere of the unique island of Zanzibar, we asked around for Bi Ki Dude. Every one has heard about her, but no one could give us the exact location where we could find her.
It was good to visit the art gallery and meet the photographer Jaffri, well known locally and with some international following. He suggested an itinerary of the other coast of the island, Unguja as it is known in Swahili, also to take in a taarab show at the hotel, built with the aesthetics of the former east germany..
The music, Taarab, is infectious and we were swaying to the beat and trying to understand various nuances of singers and dancers on stage.
Mohammed was the name of our driver, smoking thin cigarettes, with a cap on his head, he walked in crooked steps , scissor steps in medical parlance because of a congenital anomaly. He gave us a tour of the island and were quite happy with his directions and descriptions. We thought Mohammed might have heard of Bi Ki Dude, he was delighted at our question. If you want, I will take you to her house. We jumped at this opportunity, soon we were going through narrow alleyways of a township. We came to a small concrete house and from it emerged, a frail lady with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. We entered the house with her, and sat down amongst memorabilia of her life, including a plastic suitcase with a luggage tag still attached of her last trip to Europe many many years ago.
What a lovely afternoon it turned out to be. Bi Ki Dude regaling us with her hilarious past, rather savoury considering the Moslem nature of her community and country. The presence of alcohol was betrayed by the various cheap bottles. All in all it looked liked a place, a souvenir of a glorious past but as the conversation proceeded, Bi Ki Dude was anything but of the past. Close to 80 years old, she was vigorous in her energy, remembered clearly her many lovers including some well placed officials in Oman and also her travels. There was a small tape recorder which could play some of the tapes of her music, which we devoured with love and respect.
Today is 17th May 2007. I am sitting in front of the computer at the residence in the UmonHon Indian Reservation, and listening to BBC Radio over the Internet when a news item about Bi Ki Dude came over the waves. A documentary has been made and it would be soon released.
That bit of news item, took me back to the summer days of a year past, the stone town, gujerati stores, walk along the beach and the omnipresence of dhows and their demand on our memories and nostalgia.
On an impulse I opened the iTunes web site and looked under Bi Kidude, sure enough they had three CDs of her songs and I downloaded a few of them and listened to them. Her nightingale like voice,was the same I remembered, in that stone cottage ..
A little pleasure in this gift of a life…
Bi Kidude
Bi Kidude is an institution on Zanzibar, and remains East Africa’s greatest living musical legend. The doyenne of Zanzibar taarab, she also plays other musical styles including more ngoma-based unyago and msondo. Kidude started out her musical career in the 1920s, and learnt many of her songs with Siti bint Saad. As Bi Fatuma binti Baraka (Bi Kidude) herself says, “How can I stop singing? When I sing I feel like a 14-year old girl again.”
This intriguing and inspiring woman is a repository and leading exponent of Swahili culture. Bi Kidude’s shows last year at the Swiss EXPO were a national sensation. Her artistic talents were acknowledged by ZIFF at the second festival in 1999, when she was awarded “Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to the Arts.”
Recordings: ‘Zanzibar’ (Retro Afric), ‘Machozi ya Huba’ (Heartbeat Records)Contact: Tel: 0747 475001