Bi Kidude, the Zanzibari singer known for her intense and powerful performances, has died. Her exact age was unknown, but according to The Guardian, she was around 102. She was one of the first Zanzibari women “to lift the veil and sing in public,” and was known for breaking Muslim taboos “by openly smoking and drinking alcohol,” the BBC reports. Her provocative lyrics derided men’s sexual behavior and spoke out against patriarchal abuse.
Her music was a blend of taarab, which has roots in various styles present in East Africa at the turn of the century, and dumbak, based on a repetitive percussive rhythm. Bi Kidude’s singing career began in the 1920s and, after a long absence, picked up again in the 1980s when she joined the Sahib El-Ahri band and, later, the Zanzibar-based Twinkling Stars. Her songs were rarely composed, generally taking a more nebulous form, using as a foundation a number of compositions by Siti binti Saad, a contemporary and fellow female Zanaibari musical pioneer. In later years, Bi Kidude would reportedly confuse and combine material, making for raucous performances where the band would jump suddenly from one song to the next.
In addition to her music, Bi Kidude was a “practitioner of herbal medicine, producing remedies on request for doctors at the local hospital.” She was also involved in unyago, local rituals that celebrate the coming of age of girls, where music is integral and “women discuss with their charges many issues that are otherwise taboo in African society.”
In 2005, she was honored by Womex (World Music Expo) for her contributions to music. A year later, she was the subject of a documentary, “As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude.”