Our Global Hit today takes us somewhere we don't often go. It's Zanzibar...off the east coast of Africa. The islands of Zanzibar are part of Tanzania. They have a long history. And their music reflects centuries of contact with the Middle East. The World's Marco Werman looks at one singer from Zanzibar who is something of a keeper of the cultural flame.
Bi Kidude is in her late 80s or early 90s. She doesn't know for sure. She was born sometime in the early 20s on Unjuga, the main island of Zanzibar.
Her earliest memories were of the sailors who poured into Zanzibar City during the monsoons. Their boats or dhows would dock and it was like fleet-week there, only it would last several weeks. The air of the Zanzibar nights was filled with sounds like this.
The style of music Bi Kidude first learned to sing is called sumsumia. Egyptians created sumsumia music. But because it became widely popular among sailors who travelled the Indian Ocean, sumsumia found its way to Zanzibar.
Sumsumia singing welcomed many types of accompaniment: percussion, accordion, violins. It could even be performed a cappella. Bi Kidude began singing sumsumia in the cafes of Zanzibar.
She wore wearing a veil since women couldn't show their faces in public. At the same time, another musical style was becoming popular in Zanzibar. Taarab music, like sumsumia, also draws heavily on Arab influences. But taarab is typically performed by large ensembles, and the lyrics are usually in Swahili.
Bi Kidude learned taarab from the mother of Taarab singing. Her name was Siti Bint Saad, and she lived right in Bi Kidude's neighborhood. Bi Kidude took what she learned from sitting on a bench outside Siti Bint Saad's house, and developed it in her own way.In the 40s, Bi Kidude moved to the Tanzanian mainland.
Her residency in Dar es Salaam at one of the city's main music clubs lasted for nearly a decade. When Bi Kidude returned to Zanzibar in the fifties, she gave up taarab. Instead, she became a ritual singer for girls' initiation rites. And until recently, that's how she's mostly been known.
But in the past ten years, Bi Kidude has returned to taarab music. Quite often, Bi Kidude performs for female-only audiences. Sometimes, when there are men performing with her, it's they who now wear the veils...over their eyes. The audience doesn't want to be disturbed by the men's gazes.
For The World, I'm Marco Werman.