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 1930â€™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!