By Freddy Macha
I am seated in this hall with roughly, fifty people, watching a film. Beautiful, cosy, intimate, Arcola Theatre is based in the Turkish quarter of Stoke Newington, north London.
For several weeks the Africa Mine Music and Movement festival has been here.
This late Sunday afternoon we are looking at a film from Zanzibar and every now and then you can hear me chuckling in the silence of mostly non-Kiswahili speaking audience.
This is because although the movie is sub-titled, most times the translation misses certain moods that you cannot pick up while reading a foreign language.
In other words I am proud to be observing something from my own culture. This is rare and unique, as I am the only Tanzanian in this space.
The other person that would exchange Kiswahili words with me is Englishman, Andy Jones. It took him three years to make this documentary on Zanzibar`s Taarab singer legend, Bi Kidude.
As Old As My Tongue gives a lesson on East African history, culture, music and the role of Swahili women in society.
In their advert flyer, the Screen-Station producers say Bi Kidude (real name Fatma Baraka) is `probably the oldest singer on the world stage today.`
Old? That is the first point. Old has these days become 35 to 50 years in Africa. Poverty and diseases are killing our people prematurely.
But Bi Kidude tells us she was born poor, her father, a coconut climber (mkwezi) and began singing at the tender age of ten in the 1920�s.
She performed with the legendary musician Siti Binti Saad eulogised by writer Shaaban Robert, fifty years ago. Bi Kidude continues singing Siti Binti Saad`s songs.
Both Shaaban Robert and Siti Binti Saad are, sadly, gone but Kidude, which means a tiny thing, (she explains how the name came about) is still here.
While replying to questions, film director, Andy Jones is asked whether Bi Kidude, was affected by the tough politics that we relate to Zanzibar, including the bloody Revolution of January 1964.
`She sang while Arabs ruled. She sang while the British ruled. And she sang around the times of the Revolution and is still singing amidst today�s conflicts of CUF and CCM.`
This makes her as old as modern Zanzibar. That is why her age is so fascinating. Some cynical islanders claim she is cheating, that she is in her 90`s. Others say 105. Bi Kidude herself declared recently, she is 113.
Whatever the number, one truth lingers. Here is a cherished great grandmother still smoking her cigarettes (even the film`s poster uses this image) drinking beer (and Konyagi, some say), sweeping her house and cooking ugali with fish and spinach (as shown in the film). She is also doing the most significant thing.
Touring around the world including (as witnessed in the documentary) Paris and England�s World Music and Dance festival (WOMAD) in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
The portrayal is just as about her music as her life style.
One of the reasons that artists are said to be mirrors of society is the ability to reflect culture and customs.
Bi Kidude plays drums, sings and leads Ngoma ya Unyago ceremonies in Zanzibar.
We see the Women Only rites of passage dancing. It might appear erotic to the foreigner�s eye but it is something fast disappearing especially in East African cultures.
`During Unyago women are taught sex and how to be with husband. Theory and practise.`
Quips a woman in the film. And technically speaking, the best quality of as old as my tongue is that those in it, including Bi Kidude herself, act, freely tell their stories, playing the role of both narrator and participant.
In most documentaries you have the constant interference of the film-maker.
The good thing about Andy Jones is to let Bi Kidude be her own voice, from beginning to end.
Consequently, this work is almost a good lesson for aspiring cinema makers wanting to cast their egos aside and let life narrate it`s own tale.
Plus a subject that has always bothered me.
Reading many warm reviews my attention is especially drawn to London`s Guardian (Sultans of Swing) in January 2007:
`Zanzibar`s music traditions, are it seems, becoming more popular among foreign fans than the young local people who take their home grown music for granted.`
While over a century old, Bi Kidude is certainly a living legend, a treasure of African music, an example of women of great achievement (winner of the international 2005 WOMEX Award), she seems to be appreciated more by foreigners, as exemplified by the one who just made this movie.
We hear a local Zanzibar producer lamenting how her Taarab music is not played in local radio stations especially on Tanzania mainland.
Despite her icon status, the musician is still treated as a nobody, almost a freak.
Sounds very familiar. Another such legend was the late Hukwe Zawose who (unknown to many in his home) used to be the most recognised international figure from Tanzania second only to Mwalimu Nyerere.
Like Bi. Kidude , Zawose was hardly heard in our radio stations.
His Gogo Ilimba (or Mbira) stuff was described as Tanzania`s classical music by London producer Gabriel Prokofiev.
Gabriel, a remarkable musician, speaks Kiswahili and had stage managed Zawose many times; just like Andy Jones became part of the retinue of Wazungu helping value our own exceptional talents, treasures and stars.
The moral? Let us try and applaud, appreciate Bi Kidude and her music while she is still alive. Documentary will soon be out on DVD.