Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Living Tanzanian Legend Bi Kidude

Taarab Legend Siti Binti Saad 1880-1950

Dishonoring the Markers of Cultural Heritage

By Salma Maulidi


The Zanzibar Arts and Music Council (BASAZA) recently held a festival at the famous Ngome Kongwe amphitheatre to mark the life of a legend of Taarab music Sitti binti Saad whose melodious voice and sonnets revolutionized Taarab and public speech.

The event held almost a week after the Festival of the Dhow Countries, ZIFF, attracted far less local and international participants. The audience comprised of Zanzibaris living abroad, home for the holidays, as well as small number of tourists. At the official level the Deputy Minister for Culture Hon. Mahmoud T. Kombo graced the event accompanied by his wife. The Mayor of Zanzibar Town was also present and was joined by Hon. Mohammed Seif Khatib, the Union Minister for Sports and Culture and also a patron in the Zanzibar Media Corporation part sponsors of the event.

For about three hours the musical world of Sitti Binti Saad was recreated. The arrangement of singers and songs very much reflected the Taarab experience of the times with female singers concealing their faces, as they sang, with the back flap of their buibui pulled over their face. The covering restored respectability considering that women singing in a Taarab ensemble defied local public- private sensitivities of the time. However, when a woman had a voice such as Siti’s, such conventions could be relaxed to allow the high and mighty to indulge in a spectacular acoustic sensation in the languages of the time- Kiswahili, Arabic and Hindi.

I felt a great sense of sadness watching the event as soon after ZIFF I would not have imagined that only a handful of locals would attend an event to recognize the life and music of a Taarab legend who was and continues to be a cultural ambassador of her region. Surely, Siti’s audacity on the Taarab stage did not only prove defining for upcoming female Taarab singers but to local artists generally. After all she made it possible for any ‘commoner’ to claim the stage (or airwaves) to wide acclaim and enjoy super star status hitherto impossible by virtue of their social positioning.

In my view, the low turnout is a reflection of a deeper malaise in our cultural appreciation as well as in how we view and value local talents and productions. To contextualize what I mean I wish to demonstrate using the example of Fatuma binti Baraka popularly known as Bi. Kidude, one of the singers who paid tribute to Siti binti Saad. Bi. Kidude, well in her nineties, gave a thunderous performance. Her song lasted over ten minutes and unlike much younger singers, who also sang at the event, her voice did not falter. She sang verses in both Kiswahili and Arabic clearly, loudly and rhythmically.

There was a small mishap when trying to fold the song: poor communication between the lead instrumentalist and the singer resulted in the latter missing the cue to end the song. In all fairness, Bi. Kidude tried to make contact on two occasions but no one paid her adequate attention. Thus, as a true performer that she is, she instinctively saved the situation by continuing with the verse to its completion rather than end prematuarely eliciting laughter from the crowd.

While this laughter was innocent and prompted by what was happening on the stage it is not isolated. Numerous conversations and observations indicate that a section of the general populace do not see Bi. Kidude as the cultural icon that she is but as a kituko (an anomaly). The reaction she elicits from the crowd therefore tends to be a mix of pleasure and scorn: generally, there is more kumsanifu than there is genuine praise. Many do not see the entertainer but want to be entertained at her expense. Her age and liberal personality is the basis of ridicule she attracts.

Now well into her nineties she can be anyone’s great grandmother but she chooses to continue with her passion performing with rigour and keeping her spirit alive instead of leading a reclusive existence acting out the social expectation of her age and sex. Bi. Kidude does not conform to any standard of social expectation: she refuses to be defined by any one. Her rebellion makes people uncomfortable and rather than accept or respect her choice, they would rather dismiss her behaviour as a rowdy (or spoiled) old woman’s ‘antics’. At most she is something you put on a show to amuse the crowd and in many cases you try to create a situation where she will act up and live up to public expectation of irrational behaviour. There is little attempt to appreciate that at her age she is sharper and more in touch than people half her age. But because the assumption is to view old people as senile and unstable many relate to her as such.

Bi. Kidude is a cultural attraction who has not only marketed Zanzibar internationally, the way Siti Binti Saad did before her, but as a performer who continues to inform a cultural form across generations. She epitomizes a living tradition with all its greatness and contradictions. At another level she is testament to the official and public neglect our cultural heritage endures surviving by the sheer will and dedication of individuals who single handedly develop and fund it with imagination and love. And what do the likes of Bi. Kidude get for their service? Scorn, jeers and periodic tributes?

How can it be that a cultural icon revered internationally is negatively perceived locally? How could it be that a figure of Bi. Kidude’s caliber is not supported and her dignity protected. Indeed, allegations abound about how scrupulous individuals and promoters use her to market their business ventures with very little credit or benefit to her. This was clear when she recently performed in the closing of the women’s panorama.

I was aghast by how a throng of local and international photographers descended on the center stage, as she performed, sticking long and short camera lenses up her face, denying her the space to perform her art as they tried to capture her from different angles. It mattered little to them that we were in a middle of a sacred function. The message from their actions was clear: Bi. Kidude was an attraction and everyone wanted a piece of her but at what cost to her? To us? To what she represents?

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Late Honourable Amina Chifupa (above), was the youngest member of the Tanzanian Parliament ever. She passed away last week at the age of 26, leaving Tanzanians in shock and feeling a sense of loss because she proved she had so much potential as a leader in such a short time.

Amina Chifupa – A Dream Deferred

Hers was a mission – a revolutionary mission
Hers was a dream – a liberating dream

Each generation, said Fanon, must discover its mission
Then, it must fulfill it
Or, else, betrays it

Amina had discovered a mission
With the passion of youth, she aimed to fulfill it
But, alas, now it remains a mission postponed!

How long shall we deter the zeal of youth?
How long shall the wisdom of age let things just go?
How long oh daughters and sons of the soil?

Like Brother King, Sister Amina had a dream
Her dream is not dead
It only remains a dream deferred

But, as Hughes asks, “what happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

Chambi Chachage
Base for African Studies Enhancement (BASE)

c/o P. O. Box 4460

Dar-es-Salaam Tanzania