Thursday, November 27, 2008

NYADFF: As Old as My Tongue

Mark Twain’s classic quote: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” may have become something of a cliché, but Zanzibari vocalist Bi Kidude is certainly entitled to use it. While touring Europe, spurious rumors of her death produced a genuine outpouring of emotion throughout the Tanzanian archipelago. It was yet another chapter in Kidude’s complicated relationship with Zanzibari society, which Andy Jones explores in As Old as My Tongue (trailer here), a documentary profile of the singer screening at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival tomorrow.

Kidude is thought to have been born sometime around 1915, which would put her near the rather exclusive neighborhood of ninety-three. She still enjoys a nice beer and a good smoke, which is frowned upon for women by many of Zanzibar’s Islamists. Kidude also performs without the veil, which is particularly significant. Her musical inspiration and role model Siti binti Saad did in fact perform veiled. For Saad, simply performing in public and recording in India were enough of a challenge to established tradition.

Kidude is generally considered the greatest living representative of Taarab music, a style derived from Eastern African and Middle Eastern musical forms. Its instrumentation includes violins, ouds, and traditional percussion instruments, like the dumbek. Kidude still interprets the classic songs of Saad, but she also has a repertoire peculiarly her own, like the drinking song we hear at one point.

While she is celebrated abroad, attitudes in Zanzibar seem much more ambivalent. Many come to sponge off Kidude when she returns flush from a world tour, but when the money runs out, so do they. Concerned her music was not better appreciated in her native land, one of Kidude’s most enthusiast fans, Yusuf Aley Chuchu, launched his Heartbeat Studio with a session designed to reintroduce her to Zanzibar. He also explains a certain attitude prevalent among older Zanzibaris, including his mother, that Kidude should retire from music and spend more time at the mosque.

Although Jones did not capture any truly signal moments in Kidude’s career as they occurred, one could argue that at ninety-three years of age, give or take, any performance is noteworthy. Evidently, there is something to be said for drinking and smoking, because Jones often shows Kidude still maintaining a solid groove on hand-drum, despite her advanced age. To her enduring credit, Kidude also remains something of a non-conformist in Islamist Zanzibar, continuing to resist calls for her retirement.

Barely running over an hour, Tongue might be brief, but it gives audiences a solid introduction to Taarab in general and Kidude’s music in particular. Tongue also features some compelling music from its subject, even including “Done Changed My Way of Living,” a Taj Mahal track heard over the closing credits, which features Kidude and her frequent backing band, Culture Musical Club. Overall, Jones nicely balances the musical and the sociological in a very watchable documentary. It screens as part of the NYADFF on Friday at the Cowin Center and Saturday at the Anthology Film Archives.