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Under Review: ‘Zanzibar Musical Club’

— by BEV QUESTAD —

I watched this film the first time without knowing anything about it. Big Mistake. Before you are able to appreciate it fully, you must know three bits of crucial information.

“Zanzibar Music Club” is one of the last films in the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival. It was produced and originally released by a French crew in 2010. Even though the entire work takes place in Zanzibar, a consortium of islands by the equator and off the shores of Tanzania.

There are two major ways to watch this film. One is as a voyeur.


TABULA RASA

Play this film without subtitles and appreciate Zanzibar as if you were a tourist viewing typical scenes of fishermen, beach troubadours, country motorcyclists and locals messing around with various instruments that may look familiar (or not). As you wander about town you’ll maneuver through a narrow street, duck under an arch, buzz down a wide boulevard without much traffic, and navigate at night on a wavy dirt road.

Whether outside or inside, during the day or night, sometimes you may be lucky to hear a traditional Zanzibari music. Other times you will simply walk into the Zanzibar Musical Club and catch a rehearsal.

Without subtitles, you would find your sunny journey comforting, slow moving and geared to the laziness of a long warm day – gaining energy at night, where you bustle for errands and hear wisping through the air various songs and melodies in Arabic half-flat/half-sharp tones.

But if you want full exposure, if you want to appreciate the film in its total glory, if you want to travel on as a participant, you must know a little about three crucial things:
1) Zanzibar ‘s history
2) Taarab music
3) The story of Bi Kidude.


HISTORICAL

The first bit of information you need has to do with the magical make-up of Zanzibar. Comprised of islands, it initially gained importance because of a protected harbor on its dominate isle. While it figured as the romantic-mystery setting of M.M. Kaye’s “Death in Zanzibar,” its exotic mystery has also intermingled with its reputation as a trade mecca.

Physically independent from the East African mainland, it has been a staging center for commerce in spices as well as slaves, ivory and political intrigue. Arabs, Indians, Europeans and Asians have co-mingled their treasures and customs. In addition, known for its accessibility and ability to keep a secret, the islands have also served as a haven for pirates through to present-day.


MUSICAL TRADITION

This intermingling spawned the Swahili language and a surprisingly rich cultural composite that brought violins and cellos into harmony with African drums and the Greek/Turkish oud, Arab qanun and ney flute. This potential cacophony evolved into the spectacular taarab orchestra tradition made famous in Zanzibar.

One of the ironic characteristics of taarab lyrics, originating in this predominantly conservative Muslim culture, is that they are laced with stories of abuse, seduction and promiscuity.

At one point in “Zanzibar Musical Club,” a blue-eyed black woman with headscarf, sings of modest love:

    I love him for his beauty
    He is perfection personified
    His humbleness invites me to love him
    I am enthralled by his character

However, at another point in the film, we meet up with a man hanging out at a sheltered street booth. He sings (excerpts) a more edgy soliloquy:

    The crow is a cunning bird

    No other can compare

    No smarter bird than he will you find

    He has become a legend

    Use what skills and tricks you like

    You’ll surely never catch a crow

    Because he’s extremely smart

    When you try to lure him

    He makes like he’s not interested

    All the better to make it his

    For finally he approaches

    Takes the bait and off he flies

    Until now, no man alive

    Has ever tamed the crow

Sometimes chairs are set out in the town’s street and men casually sit down to play and sing while women sensually undulate, with scarves tied around their hips. Other times the setting is more formal with people sitting on chairs in a formal hall — but still, the women cannot resist and rise up, without the men, to move to the music.


BI KIDUDE

All of this is a prelude to what is the most remarkable part of this entire film that has no narration. There is no sign that would alert you to the fact that the skinny, obviously plucky, bent little lady central to the singing is an international phenomenon.

In her nineties, Bi Kidude is the renowned international mistress of the taarab vocal tradition. Her story began as a child when she was singled out for her fine voice. However, when she was forced to marry at 13 years of age, maybe in the 1920s (there are no records of her birth year), she took flight and headed for mainland Africa and joined a taarab group that performed throughout what is now known as Tanzania.

At some point, she married a second time, but it was an unhappy venture and she escaped once again. She is known to have walked across Tanzania barefoot, from Lake Victoria to the coast, in her desperation to free herself from another bad situation.

Eventually, she joined up with another taarab troupe in Dar es Salaam, the present capital of Tanzania. However, by the 1940s she had returned to Zanzibar where she set herself up in a mud hut. She became known as a midwife and healer. She also became known as an expert in an ancient female rite that prepares young girls transitioning into puberty to pleasure their husbands.

While Kidude is an amalgam of the cultures that have influenced her country, she also fiercely upholds her own sense of individuality and respect. A Muslim, with some humor and sparkle in her eyes, she freely ties her scarf up on top of her head in a bow. She lectures on sexual abuse and oppression and remains fiercely independent. Here is a section of a song for which she is famous:

    Look – Look
    See the crime Kijiti committed

    An unknown girl he enticed

    His game he forced her to play

    Into the bushes he enticed her

    And her innocence he abused

The ending song to the film has us back with the blue-eyed black woman singing:

    I also try not to think
    of what goes on in your homes

    From showing such hostility

Though from a conservative culture and an old tradition, the courageous honesty of the music in “Zanzibar Musical Club” is a great reminder of the challenges between the genders we all have despite time and national identity. It is also a tribute to a courageous doyenne, a Muslim feminist, who sings it like she sees it.

“Zanzibar Musical Club”

NW Film Center, Portland, Ore.

Sat, Oct 22, 2011, at 4:45 p.m.


Production Credits

Directors: Philippe Gasnier, Patrice Nezan
Writers: Patrice Nezan, Philippe Gasnier
Country: France
Language: Swahili with choice of subtitles, including English
Year: 2010
Runtime: 85mins.
Genre : Documentary

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