Queen of the taarab

A. H. Saleh

Tanzania’s traditional dance, music and art form part of the rituals of daily life – the professional arts scene is small. But one singer has won international acclaim. The late Bi Kidude was popular across Africa and beyond, and known as much for her rebellious nature as for her captivating singing voice 

Tanzania’s culture, in common with most Sub-Saharan African countries, finds expression in language, dance, music, sculpture and ceremonies, but very little of this is conducted in formal institutions such as theatres, art galleries or concert halls. Instead, culture is very much interwoven into the everyday fabric of life and rites of passage – although of course there are the exceptions that prove the rule, for example the fabulous Bi Kidude, the Tingatinga school of painting and the Makonde carvings. 

However, while these icons stand out like elevated plateaus, the country’s cultural landscape is shaped by a bewildering diversity of influences. Some of these clashed, but most others mingled with the local ethnic cultures to become new, unique forms. For example, legend has it that the first people to settle on the islands of Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba) were Persians from the city of Shiraz who intermarried with locals to form a distinct ‘race’. 

In 1955, Sir John Gray, former Chief Justice in Zanzibar, wrote: “…for want of a better name, it has become customary to call the era preceding the advent of the Portuguese, the Shirazian era.” This belief was to take political expression as the Afro Shirazi Party before the independence of the islands in 1963; it opposed the ruling regime (comprising largely Swahilis, Omanis and Indians) and eventually staged a revolution (see article on Tanzanian politics, page 62). 

The Persian new year, Nawroz, is still celebrated in some areas of the country and before the revolution the largest contingent of Persians in East Africa was concentrated on Zanzibar. Nevertheless, perhaps the most profound cultural influence was Islamic and Arabic, emanating largely from the Omani rulers of Zanzibar who also controlled large chunks along the Tanzanian and Kenyan coasts. This gave rise to the Swahili people with their distinctive language, Kiswahili, composed of Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese and Bantu words. 

Later, Christian missionaries, especially in the hinterland, advanced an alternative culture that was sometimes hostile to the predominance of the coast. Exquisite examples of Persian, Indian and Arab architecture can still be seen and enjoyed in Zanzibar’s Stone Town and older parts of the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. The Bait al Ajaib (House of Wonders), built by perhaps the most dynamic of the Omani monarchs, Seyyid Barghash, dominates the old harbour where dhows from the Gulf still collect during the annual monsoon season. Several buildings from this era are on UNESCO’s world heritage list. 

Zanzibar, which had become a major Indian Ocean commercial entrepôt during the 19th century, also organised the largest slave-raiding expeditions into the interior until the trade was halted by the British later in the century. This created a cultural schism between the ‘civilised’ Zanzibaris and the people of the interior. Tensions came to a head during the violent revolution in 1964 and continue to surface to this day. 

However, faced with a mainland in which there were at least 100 different language groups, Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere, promoted the widespread expansion of Kiswahili as a unifying factor. He translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Kiswahili and academic committees were set up to find Kiswahili equivalents to English expressions, including technical terms. As a result, the best and most grammatically correct Kiswahili in East Africa is spoken and written in Tanzania, although Zanzibar still maintains its reputation as the source of the purest use of the language. 

The country has produced a clutch of excellent Kiswahili poets and writers, including the likes of Shafi Adam Shafi , Chachage Seithy Chachage, Amandina Lihamba, Edwin Semzaba, Penina Muhando Mlama and Euphrase Kezilahabi. 

The musical tradition in Tanzania can be split into three distinct styles: the rural rhythmic ngomas, which vary from ethnic group to ethnic group; the urban taarab, deriving from Persian, Arab, Hindi and Swahili styles; and the more modern Bongo flava, favoured by bands such as Ottu and Sikinde. Perhaps the best known Tanzanian musician is the ‘queen of the taarab’, Fatma binti Baraka, known as Bi Kidude, who died in 2013 – reportedly at the age of 113. 

The slightly hoarse, sexual quality of her powerful voice and the sheer energy she brought to her performances made her perhaps the most sought-after artiste for weddings and naming ceremonies. She is reputed to have broken all the rules of the polite Muslim society she was brought up in, discarded the veil early on in her life and enjoyed smoking and even the occasional shot of alcohol. The intensity she brought to the often beautifully composed lyrics won her admirers all over the country and invitations to tour around the world. She drew rapturous audiences and dedicated fan followings wherever she went, even to places such as Helsinki in Finland. 

A documentary, As Old As My Tongue, made her something of an international celebrity. “What was special about Bi Kidude was she lived the life that she wanted to live,” DJ Rita Ray, who worked on the documentary, says. “She followed her own spirit. She ran away from two husbands, she was childless, she drank, she smoked, she really broke their rules, but at the same time she embodied all the great cultural aspects of that island.” 

Although Tanzania has produced a few mainstream graphic artists, such as Stephen Ndebalema, Elias Jengo and Mohammad Raza, it is the colourful, cartoon-like character of the Tingatinga ‘school’ that has travelled beyond its borders and now seems to have become a staple for storybook illustrations and T-shirt decoration. The Makonde people of the interior have also achieved international fame for their carvings of intricate, intertwined scenes from life, which are so suffused with vigour and energy they seem to leap into frozen life as you look at each tableau. 

Culture in Tanzania is a complex, many-faceted, shifting and ever-changing phenomenon that seems to have effortlessly linked the past to the modern, the Muslim to the Christian and animist, and the mysterious and sometimes frightening world of the spirits to the digital age.


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