Photos of our last Zanzibar visit

At 95 she sings risqué Swahili love songs replete with innuendo. She is a small, birdlike woman from Zanzibar and a legend. Tran tra la… roll out the red carpet for the “barefoot diva of taraab and unyago traditional music” – Bi Kidude.

We are at Sauti za Busara – Sounds of Wisdom – a popular and growing music festival, both in numbers and reputation, in Stone Town, held every year in February. We had heard of this event in Canada from one of our world music aficionado pal and had resolved to go.

But February 2006 saw us wilting from work stress and the intense summer heat. We promised ourselves we’d go this year. Now we are in Stone Town’s historic fort, watching the world premiere of “As old as my tongue,” – a cinematic tribute to Bi Kidude.

How can I describe taraab music? It combines the slow, gentle, achingly nostalgic with the peculiarly robust (specially with Bi Kidude at the mike) – and sounds like a mixture of Kiswahili, Arabic and old Indian Bollywood music from the 1940s-50s. I find it beautiful, enthralling.

When Bi Kidude was a chit of a girl, she learnt taraab songs by hiding and listening to another famous exponent – Siti bint Saad – who, like Bi Kidude, lived in one of the old houses in the narrow lanes of Stone Town. Bi Kidude was not encouraged to sing, but she swore she would sing bint Saad’s songs all her life and she has done so! Bint Saad, said to be of slave origins, sang veiled; women were hardly seen or heard in the conservative, Islamic milieu of Stone Town.

But Bi Kidude was determined that she was going to be heard. She would run off from Koran school to the Stone Town docks, and as the Arab ships came in bringing unheard of luxuries – carpets, silks, perfumes – she would stand up in harbour front bars and belt it out! In the 1920s, the heyday of taraab, she travelled all over East Africa with an ensemble, singing unveiled! A few years of this, and two broken marriages later, she found herself in Stone Town, without work.

Hamna shida (no problem)! She turned her attention to drumming and singing at “unyago” – a traditional, pre-marriage, women-only, ritual, which teaches the bride-to-be how to please her husband sexually. And furthered her knowledge of traditional medicine, establishing herself as a healer.

With her raspy voice, uninhibited vocalization, smoking and drinking in public, fondness for witty repartee, she was way ahead of her time. Her music was not taken seriously until she was rediscovered when quite old, pitched into the international circuit and increasingly recorded. The movie shows her touring, with élan, in Europe.

Mostly illiterate, she continues to be poor as a church mouse, exploited by promoters and her community alike. (She is no financial planner and gives out of her own generosity as well.) Does she give a damn about her poverty? Not at all! All she cares about is singing.

She exemplifies the spirit of “doing your own thing” and how! I have become a great admirer, as is Shailja Patel, a talented Indo-Kenyan, spoken word poet, who performed “Drum Rider”, a poem dedicated to Bi Kidude, at the opening ceremony. Patel says in her poem, that thanks to Bi Kidude, she is no longer afraid of aging. As an ad for “As old as my tongue” puts it, Bi Kidude “challenges our perception of aging and stardom.”

We shook hands with Bi Kidude at the festival. (Due to a recent hernia operation she was not on stage.) I was so overawed, that wanting to offer the traditional, respectful greeting for elders – “Shikamoo” – I blurted out the response – “Marahaba” – instead!

That Zanzibari vibe again!

Stone Town was rocking! Though I did not like the cell-like confines of our budget hotel room (claustrophobia struck again!) I loved the musical vibe all around. It was set in a residential part of the town and the neighbours played muted music late into the night.

I woke up to a low, strumming guitar and love lyrics in English. In the hotel dinning room were a handful of young, good looking, African men, hanging out, while a powerful and distinctly dishy Kenyan performer – Makadem Ohanglaman – jammed away. (We heard his political songs later that day on stage.)

Every time we headed out of our hotel we had to go past the former office of the Culture Music Club, an eminent, local taraab band. We had spent a memorable evening listening to them, at a Stone Town restaurant, on an earlier visit.

The Stone Town waterfront is studded with elegant, white-washed, historic buildings, some fancy hotels, a well-used public garden which houses food stalls at night, and my favourite café – Archipelago – with open windows on three sides through which wind, light and the sound of the surf come rushing in.

We got to the Old Fort in time to catch Ellika and Solo, who commenced an inspired dialogue through their respective instruments – a fiddle and a kora. She is Swedish, he a Senegalese from the griot (storytelling) tradition that his country is famous for. A couple of bands later came “Dhow Crossing”, another enjoyable meeting of cultures. The band consists of teachers and students of a Zanzibari and a Norwegian music academy and combines taraab with Norwegian folk and western pop.

An amazing band that played that evening was Chibite, from central Tanzania. We had heard about the great musical tradition of the Wagogo tribe and this Wagogo group gave a wonderful performance that featured haunting singing, instruments such as the balafon, mbira and drums and energetic dancing by men and women in flamboyant, traditional costumes.

Truly mesmerizing were the sinuous, graceful movements of the smiling Rwandan women clad in flowing white and yellow robes that belonged to a troupe called Imena. The group gave a truly riveting performance with virtuoso drumming, singing and the charming display of easy athletic prowess by the men. Oh la la! I was struck by the Arabic-Asian feel of the dance and would love to learn it! Imena use their work as therapy and for cultural renewal, as a way to heal the deep scars of the genocide, says the festival brochure.

In stark contrast was Zemkala, a brash band from a brash town – Dar es Salaam! Their music came across as “modern Swahili” and youthful, and was accompanied by almost pornographic dancing by the two women! These lithe young ladies kept their clothes on, but their movements were so sexual that there was no need to take them off.

Sea and land

The next morning I escaped from the clamour of Stone Town to the Mbweni Ruins Hotel, 5 km South, with my Canadian colleague and friend, Kellie. Set in a lovely botanical garden, the hotel grounds also lay claim to the ruins of a 19th century Anglican mission. Here there used to be a chapel and a residential school for freed slave girls.

Lunch followed a walk in the grounds. The cliff top restaurant was the perfect spot for gazing at the sparkling, blue sea. The hotel itself is tastefully decorated and felt like heaven after ours.

Marc-Antoine, meanwhile, was pursuing his own love – diving. On his refresher diving trip off the coast of Stone Town he saw, and here I quote, “besides the usual shoals of colourful fish and corals, a small ray and a sizeable crab that was hiding under the debris of a shipwreck.” He stayed longer than me in Zanzibar and went diving off the North coast of the island where he saw a giant turtle, a lion fish, and another ray, besides incredibly beautiful fish. The lion fish is striking (google it!) and poisonous. He also saw a few cow fish, which are large and square. (Naming fish after land animals shows a singular lack of imagination, don’t you think?)

After Mbweni Ruins, we headed back to Stone Town for yet another fancy hotel – the Serena, where we had been promised a dhow race. The dhows were all lined up at the edge of the beach and looked picturesque enough but a strong wind was a blowin’ and this delayed the start by hours.

Some locals were dancing on the beach as part of the opening ceremony. A crazy Japanese tourist, in a black hat with holes in it, joined in. I decided to follow his good example. I have had compliments on my dancing here. My colleagues even gave Marc-Antoine and me money for our efforts, on one occasion! (Giving money to singers and dancers you like is a custom here.)

Thus ensued some wild dancing on the beach! We left after that. The dhows were still beached. I was sweat drenched, with sand in my hair and on my skin, which seemed so right.

Interesting encounters

At our hotel we ran into Pat, a Canadian who runs a centre on the island offering useful things like English classes, medical and educational services, with plans to expand into tourism training.

At a local café we ran into Errol, an Indo-Canadian who was travelling around the world. His last stop, India, had blown his mind, and I immediately commiserated! Errol and Jason, his Chinese-Canadian travelling mate, passed through Dar later and we had a great time at dinner with them.

Marc-Antoine met a Flemish couple while diving. They live for the time being in the nearby town of Morogoro. She is a chemist working with a demining (land mines) research project. They stayed with us overnight in Dar, enroute to a meeting in Mozambique.

On the last night, the hotel had no electricity. (This is getting repetitive.) The next morning, it ran out of water. It was clearly time to leave.

After booking my ferry ticket to Dar, I walked over to the local fish market. On the floor of the open-air market, lying in the dirt, were dead rays, still majestic. Some of them had flesh wounds. They were being sold for 8000 Tsh a piece. It made me sad. I think they are too big and interesting to be caught and eaten.

At another café with a sea view James; a crazy Irishman and world traveller, befriended me. We agreed that what holds humans back the most is fear, which is all in the mind. We compared notes on our African experience. James confessed that his heart was not really here and seemed relieved when I said mine was not either. Perhaps fear held us back? It could be that fear was one factor amid a jumble of complex reasons. James also spoke about having faith, how, if we need something, we may get it just a few hours before we need it, and perhaps not days before, when we want it to be there, to boost our comfort levels.

The festival had delivered wisdom in so many ways.

I boarded the overbooked ferry and sat on the deck, the wind in my hair, thinking of the gifts of song, dance and music. The gifts of the open sea and sky. The gift of life.

I resolved to try and attend one music festival every year. (The sounds of the festival were to reverberate in me for days.) I decided that one has to keep going, keep celebrating, despite fear, which I have experienced so viscerally lately. Because alongside fear, and because of it, lies immense beauty, and miraculous possibility.