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THE MYTH AND MYSTIQUE: Andy Jones with Bi Kidude


ention the name Bi Kidude to anyone outside of Zanzibar – with the exception of devotees in mainland Tanzania or Kenya, as well as fans of the world music scene – and there is a good chance they might not recognise the name. Yet, on the island that was her home for over a century, she achieved almost mythical status. Bi Kidude, born Fatuma binti Baraka, was the undisputed queen of Taarab – the distinctly East African music genre that blends the traditional sounds of the Great Lakes region with influences from the Middle East and the Maghreb. She was also a respected practitioner of unyago ceremonies and their related music and dance styles (in Swahili culture, unyago is the celebration of girls’ passage into adulthood, with older women teaching them how to navigate the approaching vagaries of womanhood, marriage and sex.) A singer, drummer and raconteur, Kidude was loved and respected for her musical talent and her maternal position in her community. She also drew both criticism and admiration for her rebellion against some of Zanzibar’s traditional views on the roles of women. She abandoned two unhappy marriages at a relatively young age and remained single for the rest of her life, she never had any children, was often to be found holding court backstage with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other; as a young girl, she played truant from Koran school to hang out with travelling musicians on the docks of Stone Town – all quite scandalous by the standards of conservative Zanzibar. In 2000, English filmmaker and activist Andy Jones attended a panel discussion at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), regarding feminism in Africa and Bi Kidude’s role in it. The woman herself was in attendance, sitting quietly and looking rather bored with the proceedings. Just a few hours later, Jones saw her again in

very different circumstances. “She got on the stage, strapped a chest-high msondo drum to her waist and starting pounding out a rhythm with such fervor I feared her arms might fall off,” Jones recalls. “It was just the most remarkable transformation; I was captivated.” Jones decided to make Bi Kidude the subject of his debut documentary feature. As Old as My Tongue was shot over the course of four years, on a virtually non-existent budget, with Jones and his crew returning to Zanzibar three times and following Kidude on tours to England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The finished film examined the life and work of a unique artist and the myth and mystique that had been built up around her. As Old as My Tongue was well received at festivals around the world, from Atlanta to Abuja, and acclaimed as a masterful combination of biography and mythmaking. Jones’ association with the Zanzibari legend might have ended there were it not for an intriguing development that occurred in 2012. Through his connections in Zanzibar’s music scene, Jones heard that Bi Kidude had disappeared. Rumours began to circulate that the singer, then already over 100 years old, had been kidnapped. Not long after, a man appeared on Tanzanian television claiming to be a relative of hers. He said that he was keeping her in his home for her own protection and wellbeing and he lashed out the music industry for having exploited her over the years. Jones set off to Zanzibar once again, camera in hand, to start capturing what would end up being the fascinating final chapter in a truly extraordinary life. His second film, I Shot Bi Kidude, began to take shape. He and his crew, which included South African cinematographer Natalie Haarhoff, eventually caught up with Kidude and her ‘captor’ – her nephew Baraka. The story that unfolded,

| Documentary

and is related in the film, is a unique take on a familiar theme of stardom and its trappings. The lady herself, it seems, was relatively unaffected by her local and international fame. Those around her, however, were not. The title of the film is cheekily misleading; there is no violence in this story. Rather, the name Jones chose reflects his long personal investment in the life of his subject. He did indeed ‘shoot’ Bi Kidude, frequently, on and off for more than a decade. In so doing, their lives became more entangled than Jones could have expected. Not to reveal too much, the film begins with Jones relating how he heard of Kidude’s death and how it coincided with the passing of two other women who had made a marked impact on his life – in different ways, for better and for worse. I Shot Bi Kidude is therefore not only a documenting of the dramatic final years of a music legend, but also a recursive examination of Jones’ own, increasingly personal, involvement with the project and the complex web of reciprocal interactions that developed between himself, his subject and the films they created together. Having started his career in the NGO sector, Jones began making short films to complement various activism campaigns. He is the founder and creative director of independent film collective ScreenStation, based in his home city of Newcastle in the United Kingdom. Both As Old as My Tongue and I Shot Bi Kidude were shot piecemeal on shoestring budgets, offering a heartening example to any prospective documentary filmmaker: all you need is a subject you’re passionate about, a camera and time. I Shot Bi Kidude was presented as a work in progress at the 2014 Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) and the completed film premiered on the closing night of the 2015 edition of ZIFF. For this version of the film, Jones re-recorded his narration in Swahili, though he confesses to having limited knowledge of the language and learned much of the script phonetically. The effort was applauded by the home crowd at the Old Fort Amphitheatre. Following a UK festival and semitheatrical run and a screening at iREP in Lagos, the film had its official Zanzibari cinematic release on the third anniversary of Bi Kidude’s death in April. I Shot Bi Kidude will premiere in South Africa at Encounters and DIFF in June. As Old as My Tongue is now available on VOD at bi-kidude/. – Warren Holden May 2016 | SCREENAFRICA | 27

Screen Africa May 2016