I’ve always loved a good talent show. Doesn’t matter what time or how far, if there’s a talent show, I’m there. Admittedly, I’m not usually the one performing, but I am a devoted audience member with the enthusiasm of a thousand parents.
Maybe my love for talent shows comes from my years as a teaching artist, or from that day in 4th grade when friends and I rocked an amazing dance to the Pointer Sisters’ hit classic, Jump! It’s all a blur. From rehearsal to performance, though, I remember feeling like a total star.
As much as I love talent shows, they’re hard to come by unless you run in school circuits or underground dance scenes. When I was living in Chicago, I tried to convince my education friends to help me put together a talent show calendar of all the amazing shows, dances, demonstrations, jams, and talent competitions happening in Chicago Public Schools.
Never saw the calendar. But maybe that’s just it – the talent show phenomenon is just so super local and homespun, amateur and raw, that you kind of just have to be in the “know” to hit the talent show circuit.
That’s why I was stunned, surprised, and freakishly delighted when, by sheer accident, I stumbled upon a midnight talent show at a local bar in the rural village of Nungwi, on the northern most tip of Zanzibar.
On Saturday morning, my love and I rented a Vespa and zipped out of Stone Town, swishing past palm trees, turquoise oceans, a fierce sun, Portuguese ruins, and lesso-clad village ladies carrying water buckets on their heads. Sounds like paradise, true, but we were having our moments, and I was eager to let the road diffuse our stress. Just an hour away, Nungwi is a great refuge from the noise and insanity of Stone Town.
Along the way, we stopped roadside by mango stands and mosques, indulging in fresh lime-splashed grilled squid, and marvelling little children dressed in evening gowns and torn suit pants climbing boat skeletons. Sipping on icy ginger sodas, we watched baby goats gallop under enormous baobab trees.
By nightfall, we were sun-drenched, well-rested, and looking for a place to have a drink and hear some music. We could have gone to the beach-side MTV-style bar that attracts every kind of traveller, but I wasn’t feeling it, so we scooted on our Vespa down smoky, pitch-black, pitted roads, scoping alternatives.
At the end of one scraggly road stood two bars, one with a name to the left and a few feet down, to the right, a nameless bar with blaring speakers. After a quick peek in the fancier bar with a name, we opted for the one without, and started winding our way down the narrow footpath that led to the side entrance.
And who is just sitting there bird-like and regal, in a plastic white lawn-chair, near a smouldering garbage dump in the pitch-black, except for the flood light by the door? None other than the legendary, lone Bi Kidude, Zanzibar’s most famous Taarab singer, often dubbed the “Queen of Taarab,” Taarab being Zanzibar’s classical musical styling of heartache and unrequited love. (If you know Portuguese Fado, Taarab is kind of like the Afro-Arabic version). Yup, there she was, dressed in swaths of shimmery gold chiffon, headscarf loosely tossed over her silver plaited hair, hands folded around a pack of cigarettes in her lap, waiting quietly for her turn to sing.
Bi Kidude is a musical force whose voice bends an arch of pain, sorrow, and beauty across the universe. She is renegade and unruly, passionate and kind, a woman who never followed Zanzibar’s strict social norms, is known to drink and smoke, dance and curse, and even piss on parliament, so the story goes.
What in god’s name was Bi Kidude doing there in the middle of the night, mouth a jumble with toothless grin? I called out her name and greeted her with the respect of an elder: Shikamoo (I touch your feet). She seemed to remember me vaguely from last summer, when she came to the university to sing for American students. She kissed me, answered Marhaba (You are welcome) and held my hands, swinging them back and forth. We briefly held each other’s heads in a quick embrace, until the “bouncer” intervened and announced that there would be a talent show tonight. Bi Kidude was a featured act, and did we want to pay the entrance fee?
Though we needed no urging, she encouraged us to stay for the whole show, which started at around midnight and would go until early morning. We handed the pimpled bouncer our few thousand shillings and walked into this nameless bar, still surprised that we’d walked into not only a talent show but a talent show featuring Bi Kidude.
Who brought Bi Kidude to Nungwi that night and what inspired her to trek all the way from Stone Town to this little bar?
A bar where, when we walked in, one drunken lady wearing blue skinny jeans and a white ribbed tank called out, “Hey DJ! Your mother’s pussy is rotten!”
We stepped into a large open space dotted with young people wearing jeans and t-shirts lit up by black-light. African beats were blaring from the crackly speakers, and everyone was either buying beers or dancing to the eardrum-popping music. The faint smell of shit and stank wafted subtly from nearby toilet holes hidden behind crude white walls.
Who would be performing at this talent show? What was the context, the premise? We found a few plastic chairs and settled them into the sandy ground, waiting for things to get started.
Well, not all talent shows are good talent shows. There are talents shows that bring out the best in people, shine a light on our humanity. And then there are talent shows that are just painful, reminding us of life’s ugliness and madness. I guess that’s the bitter-sweet charm of the talent show — you never know when one’s raw talents, unchecked by training or fame, will reveal the exalted or cursed in each of us.
For starters, there was no M.C. at this talent show. Without any warning or introduction, two young men wearing homemade t-shirts that read “SUPER CREW” hopped onto the humble stage and started dancing in sync, throwing out all their moves to the beat of Zenji-Flava (Zanzibar’s top-40). They had a super feminine-flair and their signature moves seemed to be simulated-sex groin-pops and slow circles, along with other random acrobatics.
When their act was up (ending in an anti-climactic synchronized walk away from the audience), they scurried off the stage and into the adjoining room where the D.J. controlled the music and other performers were getting changed. Between acts, the audience continued to slam down Kilimanjaro’s and Safari’s, heckling the D.J. to play more music.
Next up were a trio of Tanzanians from the mainland wearing “ethnic” African costumes. Think: muddy brown loincloth, cowry shells, white speckled face-paint, and head feathers. It’s possible that their look was genuine, researched, real – but honestly I questioned whether their moves had anything to do with a specific tribe or culture. Their look bordered on caricature.
Still, their energy was high-octane, and with music pumping, the lead singer and his crew of two began to dance and sing to an old folk song with a remixed beat. The lead singer was missing his right leg but still danced naturally with his home-made worn wooden crutches as extensions of his dancing body. He poked them emphatically in the air as he lip synced while the back-up dancers busted out dramatic gestures that were part-ballet, part Tai-Chi.
If the audience was growing restless, they woke up when this trio broke out their fire sticks and started flame-throwing and flame-eating as they cart-wheeled around the stage and onto the floor space shared by the audience. People cheered and heckled. When they started rubbing these fire sticks all over their heads, arms, and legs, nearly setting themselves on fire, I got a little nervous, and hoped the female dancer would not flame-dance anywhere near me.
When said fire was thrown to the max, we were really tired and restless. A glance at the cell phone read 1:30 a.m. but no sign yet of Bi Kidude.
Next up, an excruciating performance by a young man wearing a shiny purple dress-shirt, fancy black pants, and white pointy leather shoes. This hyper-groomed man stood front and centre, belting out accapella Taarab lyrics while gripping the mic way too close to his eager mouth. The audience bubbled with impatience while he attempted to serenade us. Then he waited for the invisible D.J. to cue some Taarab classics, to which he painfully lip-synced for the next fifteen minutes. The music stopped abruptly mid-cry, and he stepped off the stage with nary a clap or cheer. I felt sorry for the guy, but I was also eager to get on with the show.
Finally, the venerable Bi Kidude hobbled into the bar from outside, back hunched, escorted by the bouncer and his friend on either side. I had high hopes for this moment, but it was all a bit of a devastating disaster, even before she started singing.
First of all, that cussing, drunken girl wearing her blue skinny jeans was so wasted by the time Bi Kidude appeared that she went up to the ancient woman and started waving folded paper shillings in her face while sticking her own round ass out and shaking it back and forth for the audience. Bi Kidude kept walking, attempting to step on stage, but the girl insisted on kissing her hand, blocking Bi Kidude until she was shooed away half-heartedly by the bouncer.
Still, Bi Kidude wasn’t fazed. Honestly, she seemed a bit out of it. Maybe at 2 a.m. this aging diva (a stone’s throw from 100 years) was a bit sleepy?
On stage, Bi Kidude faced her audience of young people and with arms outstretched she asked, How are you, my children? Without much pretense, the DJ started playing her songs, to which she started swaying and proceeded to lip-sync.
Oh, Bi Kidude! She was just off — her strong voice belted out a different pitch than the one blaring from the fuzzy speakers. She stood there swaying slightly, clutching the mic in one hand and a fistful of paper shillings and coins in the other, brought to her by audience members who sauntered up one by one to press money into her palms.
That’s usual for Taarab performances, to encourage the singer with alluring swirls of cash-in-hand, tucked somewhere on the singer’s body mid-song. But this increasingly wasted gaggle of youth bordered on mocking Bi Kidude. Then they started talking over her thunder-bolt voice of sorrow.
She kept on singing.
I was saddened by this scene, Zanzibar’s national Taarab star being treated with such disrespect, but just as soon as I wanted to reprimand, her last song was over. She only performed three songs in total, said a quiet, scraggly Ahsante sana and was escorted again to a plastic white chair waiting for her in the wings.
This midnight talent show rolled out into early morning, so we hear, but we left at around 3 a.m. with new acts still heading up on stage.
On the way out, I leaned down to kiss Bi Kidude again on her knobby hand and told her I’d come to visit her again. She mumbled something about coming by her studio, and I assured her I’d try to visit. I asked her if she had everything she needed – a ride home, a place to stay for the night. She assured me she was fine and planned to sit and have a smoke and a drink before the night was over.
That night, our Vespa swept us back to town. I kept hearing Bi Kidude’s belting voice in my ears. Why had she agreed to lip-sync when she’d performed all over the world with live, professional orchestras of one hundred or more behind her?
Night stars shone abundant.
Morning light was just starting to curl up and unravel at the island’s edges.