Afrobella of the Week – Bi Kidude, Afrobella for the Ages

Elderly women rock.

I’ve always had an affinity for older ladies. I didn’t grow up around either of my grandmothers, and because of that I have always enjoyed and sought the company and wisdom of older women. It’s worth noting that age doesn’t always bring wisdom, but you can definitely learn a lot from those with life experience. I think there’s a freedom that comes with age, particularly with women who embrace and celebrate their longevity. These are women with stories to tell and lessons to impart. Women who have seen change and the passage of time. Bi Kidude is such a woman. She’s considered by many to be the oldest living musical performer on the world stage.

The exact year of Bi Kidude’s birth is unknown, which helps to add to her mythical aura. Some web sources say she is 93, others speculate that she’s at least 100. Either way, her musical career has lasted for over half a century.

In the 1920′s, she was already singing taarab music with popular local troupes in her homeland of Zanzibar. Bi Kidude has always lived the life of a rebel. At age 13, she fled Zanzibar to escape a forced marriage. According to World Music Central, she journeyed to the mainland of Tanzania, where she collected stories and songs, and explored the land by walking barefoot. “Fleeing a second unhappy marriage, Bi Kidude boarded a dhow, the ancient sailing vessels of the Swahili coast and journeyed north to Egypt where she became a renowned singer in the foremost dance bands of 1930’s Egypt.” According to National Geographic, Kidude learned from the best in this period of her life: “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.” Her travels stoked the fires of her rebellion. By the time she returned to Zanzibar in the 1940′s, she had chosen to shun her traditional veils and shave her head.

She lived in a clay house where she practiced traditional herbal medicine and cultural practices, married and divorced, and taught the ancient ritual of Unyago to the young girls of her village. Unyago is a female initiation ritual that can last from a day to three months, and provides education in the ways of womanhood, ranging from detailed sexual education, avoiding abuse and oppression, as well as the finer points of clothing, hygiene, and cooking. Kidude is among the most famous female initiators of the ancient ritual.

A resurgence of traditional Swahili culture brought renewed interest in Bi Kidude in the 1980′s. She joined a popular band, Mohammed Ilyas and his Twinkling Stars, and toured Europe and the Middle East. The unusual spectacle of an elderly woman drumming and singing and leading a band brought her no end of attention. And no wonder – she’s a show stopper! Check her out doing her thing right here.

Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Bi Kidude’s legend grew. She recorded her first solo album, Zanzibar in 1999. In 2005 she was presented with the prestigious WOMEX award for her lifetime achievement in world music. In 2006, the documentary As Old as My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude hit the film festival circuit, and has won tremendous acclaim. The documentary follows Bi and her entourage for three years, from her home in a township of historic Stone Town, Zanzibar, to theatrical performances in Paris.

Let the record show, Bi Kidude is not considered a hero by all. She is considered an outsider to her own culture, because she rebels against Muslim beliefs and challenges the traditional woman’s role in society. In the film, she’s seen downing beers, enjoying smoking, and flirting with men a fraction of her age. In her own words: “I drink, I smoke, and I sing. I do not need a microphone, I just sing.” And she dances with abandon and clearly enjoys living her life.

Check out this seven-minute excerpt from As Old as My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude.

In a society that tends to view the elderly as burdensome or helpless, Bi Kidude stands strong and offers an opposing perspective. Her demeanor reminds me of the elders I have known and admired in my own life – my great Aunt Aggie, who I adored, and my aunty Bertha who was a family friend – not a blood relative. These women filled the void of grandmother in my life, and I loved their sagacious stories and ribald humor. When I grow up, I want to have that kind of chutzpah and strength. If you’ve got an older bella in your life like that, cherish her. Listen to her stories. Help her celebrate her history.

Congrats to Bi Kidude, Afrobella of the Week!

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Comments

  1. Bella, thanks so much for making Bi Kidude AfroBella of the week. She’s amazing! A few scenes from the documentary reminded me of watching Daughters of the Dust as a girl and being mesmerized by the beauty of us.

  2. AmiJane says:

    Wow!!!! I don’t know how you found this but it was totally heart warming! Amazing!

  3. Trinichica says:

    Wow Bella! You have opened my mind yet again! Fantastic posting. TriniChica

  4. I discovered Bi Kidude when the Women’s International Film Festival screened her documentary here in Miami. She’s incredible. And there are so many wonderful world music singers and artists that we tend to sleep on, because they’re not getting mainstream press. Do you have a suggestion for Afrobella of the Week? Let me know!

  5. jerseybred says:

    I drink, I smoke and I sing. She has earned the right to…thanks for introducing me to Bi Kidude.

  6. What an inspiration
    That is amazing. Excellent Monday post!

    Thank you

  7. Bella,

    Great way to kick the week off.

    Thanks Much

  8. WildMagnolia says:

    Wow, what a grand dame! I only hope that I should be so productive and inspirational at that age. She rocks.

    X

  9. TheBeautifulOne says:

    Thank you for introducing me to this remarkable woman, remarkable spirit!
    She is a true artist.

  10. Bella, I love your website (need a daily dose!!) and I am SO excited about this post. Being in Kenya, its fantastic to see one of our own East African showcased as Afrobella of the Week. Loves it! And Bi Kidude is a fantastic example of and African Afrobella.

    Suggestions: Miriam Makeba and Angelique Kidjo. Also, I watched an absolutely enthralling performance by a young South African Artist Thandiswa Mazwai and she’s definitely an Afrobella of the week candidate.

  11. westindiangal says:

    Wow! I love to see when people embrace life and don’t just exist through life. In that short clip of her dancing, I think it speaks volumes about her life and her attitude towards life. I want to be like her when I grow up.

  12. LBellatrix says:

    Posts like this one are why I keep coming back to your site. :)

    As someone who regularly finds herself on the outside, I am always happy to find other people (particularly other black women) who are on the outside and HAPPY with their choices. Thank you for inspiring me today.

  13. Lovely post, extremely inspiring! I’ll have to smile for the rest of the day now :o)

  14. Mrs. Lindo says:

    Bella, I too love older people. We should always honor and respect them.

  15. soleil.sula says:

    Again, thank you .. bi kidude is an iconic figure in zanzibar.. my mom had the pleasure of knowing her and having her sing at her wedding 25 years ago. It is really cool how you searching things out like this. It shows how connected we all are! xx

  16. DancerByMoonlite says:

    Hi bella,
    I’ve been a constant reader for the past year after a referral from the motowngirl website. I truly adore each topic you’ve created as weekly installments. I just simply wanted to suggest CORINNE BAILEY RAE for afrobella of the week. She is a phenomenal artist, gorgeous, classic, and her voice is very distinct. I love your site and keep doing what you’re doing mama.*

    DancerByMoonlite

  17. Hey Bella,
    It’s me again. I just perused your website to see whether or not you’ve done a piece on JANELLE MONAE for Afrobella of the Week. And I’m very surprised to see that yu haven’t. Please check her out and let me us know what you think.

    DancerByMoonlite

  18. Hi DancerbyMoonlite, I did write about Janelle Monae! Read it here:
    http://afrobella.com/?p=35
    She’s the coolest!

  19. muslimahlocs says:

    greetings bella:
    quick question regarding this statement: “In a society that tends to view the elderly as burdensome or helpless, Bi Kidude stands strong and offers an opposing perspective”. which society were you referring to? hopefully, not to hers. b/c that view tends to be more prevelant in the west where elders are relagated to nursing homes; and less prevelent in african/traditional societies where elders are respected and cared for. please advise. thanks.

  20. Hi muslimahlocs, yes, I’m referring to a Western society, where elders aren’t treated with the same respect in which they are in traditional African societies. The adage always used to be, “age brings wisdom.” I don’t think that everyone believes that in Western societies any more. It’s rare to see a woman of Bi Kidude’s age performing, dancing, inspiring others with her music and knowledge. Sadly, it is far more common to see women of her age in nursing homes, or being taken care of by their children.

  21. Hi Bella

    just found your article while searching online – what a great read. we actually produced the documentary and thought your readers would like to know that they can stay up to date with screenings and more at our myspage page – http://www.myspace.com/screenstation

    hope to find you all there – thanks again

    ps – Bi Kidude is performing in Japan this week and by all accounts the people are loving her performances!

  22. muslimahlocs says:

    thanks for that clarification. it should be an honor to take care of our elders but unfortunately that is not the case here in the so-called “developed” world.

  23. i read this last week and enjoyed it so much i had to read it again.. a beautiful being

  24. arielle says:

    i didn’t know who Bi Kidude was until today now. Thank you for opening my eyes to another postive wome who we can call our own. Her music is so soulful and spirt felt that i feel that to go through what she did to get where she is today is a great accomplishment and my generation should be educated about her…time for research ^-^

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