At 11am on April 17th I sat at my desk in Newcastle, wearing my red t-shirt in protest at Margaret Thatcher's state funeral. As I watched her coffin being carried pompously into St Paul's Cathedral, an email from a friend in Zanzibar popped on screen telling me that Bi Kidude had just died.
Less than 24 hours later I was still wearing that same red t-shirt. Having scrambled to the airport, I joined a vast crowd, clutching my camera as we squeezed into the narrow streets surrounding Bi Kidude's house in Rahaleo. Thousands of people had gathered to mourn the passing of one of the world's most remarkable women. Within a few hours, her body was laid to rest in Kitumba village, with showers of red soil shovelled into her grave by the assembled presidents, dignatories and hip-hop stars.
As the monsoon rains soaked us all, I couldn't help but smile at what Bi Kidude would have thought about the great and the good tramping through the deep mud in order to pay her their last respects. And I couldn't spare myself the thought of how a white boy from a Wolverhampton suburb had ended up here. But then was it any more bizarre than a woman leaving her humble island home to tread the boards of some of the world's greatest musical stages?
...always commanding an audience, always adjusting her age to suit her mood, one day 105, the next 117!
I'd first met Bi Kidude in Zanzibar 13 years before, watching agog as she strapped a chest high msondo drum to her waist and beat out a rhythm with such fervour that I feared her arms might fall off. Over the next six years I would return 5 times to Zanzibar to meet with Bi Kidude, and would follow her journeys to England, France, Belgium and Holland as our small team, working on a shoe-string budget, filmed what became As Old As My Tongue.
In the years since we completed the film, our paths continued to cross, at screenings or concerts, in places as far apart as Antwerp and Maputo. The film and Bi Kidude developed a symbiotic relationship, sometimes the music would lead the way, and sometimes she would follow the film, to Poland perhaps, or to Nairobi, always commanding an audience, always adjusting her age to suit her mood, one day 105, the next 117!
I last saw Bi Kidude alive in February of this year. We spent many days together as we recorded some new footage with her, a final performance and some touching personal moments. We've decided now that there will be a new tribute to her on the anniversary of her death next year, a new film to record her final years, and months, with new conversations and controversies never far away.
As with this film, I hope that what remains in people's minds is a memory of a woman who cared more about people than she did about money. Whose time on earth was dominated by a desire to sing, and to share. And a woman who truly had to keep singing to survive.
Captures every note of a Zanzibar legend.
Jason Richards, Now Toronto
A remarkable documentary.
Simon Broughton, Songlines
Impressive and engrossing.
A delight from beginning to end.
Howard Male, The Independent
...epic myth making. Stunning.
Craig Duncan, Link Magazine
...imagine Bet Lynch impersonating the Queen.
Sandy Bettison, The Times
It wasn't hard to be drawn to Bi Kidude. The first time I saw her perform, I was transfixed. Earlier that day I had seen her sitting silently as a panel of ‘experts' discussed Bi Kidude's role in African Feminism. She had seemed disinterested, distant. But her performance I witnessed later that night was something special, a raucous rhythmic workout, in front of an enraptured crowd.
Three years later we began filming in Zanzibar. It would take another four years and many more journeys to complete AS OLD AS MY TONGUE but right from the very first screening, at MOFFOM in Prague, with the audience clapping along to the credits, we realised that we had managed to do what we had set out to achieve: To make a film which would celebrate Bi Kidude, which people would watch, and then remember this remarkable, strong and generous woman.
Bi Kidude challenges our perceptions; of age, of stardom, and of the role of women play in an island which embraces both Islam and African heritage. She would never call herself a rebel, but neither was she bound by the traditions which formed her. She broke the rules ever since she was ten years old and ran away from Koran school to hang out with travelling sailor musicians at the Stone Town docks.
In a world where the old are often seen as useless and dependent, Bi Kidude gave us a counterpoint. When she had money, which she often did after a concert tour or a recording session, she was surrounded by hangers-on looking for a handout. Those closest to her often grew frustrated by her generous nature while she herself drew strength from her ability to care for people around her, however tenuous their family connection.
So join us again as we celebrate Bi Kidude's life. I don't want to give the ending away, but if you've read this far you'll either know what a special woman she is, or you're about to find out. Enjoy, Kufarahia, and please do help share her story with the world.
Ben Mandelson and Roger Armstrong of Globestyle records both appear in the film with their memories of meeting Bi Kidude in Zanzibar in 1988. This pair of fearless pioneers recorded four albums during a month long stay on the island, an essential introduction to the musical period which saw Bi Kidude catapulted onto the world stage.
An influential figure off-stage for many years in Zanzibar, and the woman who can claim responsibility for ensuring Bi Kidude was on the bill when 'Twinkling Stars' headed for Germany in 1989. In her 'retirement', Maryam has become the first Zanzibari woman to play the qanun in public and is leader of the wondrous women of Tausi Taarab.
For years a musical innovator on Zanzibar, Mohamed Ilyas was by Bi Kidude's side as she took to the stages of the world. After years where the bottle brought more joy to him than the fiddle, he's back on song now, and released one of the great Taarab albums on Chiku Taku records in 2009
The largest and best known Taarab group in Zanzibar started out as the youth organisation for the Afro Shirazi Party during Zanzibar's struggle for independence back in 1956. We travelled with Culture to WOMAD and captured their unforgettable performance with Bi Kidude, just before (false) rumours of her death began to spread.
'The True Brotherhood' orchestra were formed in 1905, making them slightly older than Bi Kidude, and one of the oldest orchestras in Africa. Their centenary tour, which we were lucky enough to film in Paris, forms the climax to As Old As My Tongue with a soaring performance of Muhogo wa Jang'Ombe.