In August 2011, I welcomed Bi Kidude to my home in Zanzibar to perform at the wedding celebration of some friends. It felt like half the village had come along to hear her sing, drum and most of all to shake her hand and be photographed with her. The centenarian singer was helped up the stairs and looked remarkably frail. She was tiny. She wasted no time in telling me that she had met the Queen of England – I assumed Elizabeth II but given her age it could just as easily been Queen Mary. She then lay down on a couch and went to sleep.
As it was already late I assumed she was just too tired and weak to perform and left her to rest. Most people were happy just to have her presence at the party and in the village. It was an honour for us all.
At midnight she woke and demanded first a cigarette and then a bottle of beer. As soon as these had been finished with relish, band members helped her tie a large drum to her waist and she began. Bi Kidude’s singing voice is never forgotten. It has been described as ethereal, haunting, tear-jerking and piercing, but most of all it was always uniquely hers. It echoed a different age and you almost heard the crackles of an ancient 78 record as she sang. She also drummed and danced with a stamina that would have been amazing in someone less than half her age. That night, an enthusiastic group of dancers in their late teens and twenties were exhausted just keeping up with her rhythms.
It was one of those performances that will always be with me and, I suspect, everyone else there that night. But Bi Kidude was more than an entertainer:she was an educator. Her songs were full of stories about life, particularly for Swahili women, from which lessons could be learned. The words constantly evolved in response to the audience or the message of the day. Her very success as a female performer in a highly conservative society, while making no secret of her sexuality and celebrating her independence, was in itself an education for many. For generations of Swahili women, Bi Kidude was also a leader of their unyago initiation preparation and ceremonies.
It is worth remembering Bi Kidude as we prepare for eLearning Africa 2013. She represents the very best in the African oral learning tradition. She created a vibrant live and interactive social network long before smartphones, but she was never afraid of change and was always an innovator.
You can read some more about Bi Kidude’s life in this obituary from The Guardian or you can listen to her album Zanzibar, available from Amazon or iTunes. A documentary film about her As Old as my Tongue was made in 2006. Bi Kidude recently performed with Zanzibari rappers Offside Trick on their single Ahmada.