As glittering disco lights filter through puffs of scented smoke, Aisha Bakary moves her vinyl wheels back and forth on a turntable to produce rhythmic sounds.
Dressed in a buibui — a traditional Muslim gown worn by the majority of women in Tanzania’s semi-autonomous archipelago — with a cloak to hide her long braids in line with Islamic tradition, Bakary adeptly fade between two soulful melodies simultaneously on a DJ mixer, provoking whistling from the enchanted crowd at the iconic stone town amphitheater.
While the entertainment industry is increasingly becoming a hard place for women to carve out a career, Bakary easily makes her own way through a misogynist landscape to earn her income.
“I consider myself a successful DJ who loves what I do,” she said. “I eat, sleep and breathe my career. I have what it takes to keep a young and energetic crowd on their feet.”
While most women in Zanzibar are accustomed to staying at home while their husbands work and earn money for the family, gender roles are slowly changing as more women gain financial independence through entrepreneurship and seaweed farming.
Talented and energetic
Brimming with talent and energy, Bakary’s unique mixing skills have impressed many and raised her stature to become an iconic turntablist in Zanzibar.
Even if her name means nothing to you, her ability to turn the scratch back and forth to produce distinctive sound would undoubtedly dazzle you.
Introduced to music from her early teens, Bakary is paying her dues and making a name for herself playing at private events and clubs in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.
With almost five years behind the turntable, she is known for a technical style, blending good music with various tricks of the trade to interact with crowds.
“I always try to bring a different technique and implement it in a way to have the crowd react to it,” she told Anadolu Agency.
From her humble beginning as a young girl coming of age, Bakary did not help her parents much with domestic chores as is the case with other girls. She instead developed a keen interest in traditional Zanzibar Taarab music.
“I would hide myself in the bedroom to listen to music, instead of helping my mother,” she said.
The 25-year old disc jockey has since made music her career.
As the only female DJ in a male-dominated music industry in Zanzibar, Bakary is determined to break the patriarchal circle and inspire young girls to unleash their potentials.
“I encourage young girls to take a career in music despite all the negative gender stereotypes. There’s a lot of perks in the business.”
When she started her career in 2015, there were no female role models in Zanzibar and no clear path to success.
Despite sexism and harassment, there has also been many supportive men who nurtured and encouraged her, she said.
But Bakary said there is an array of glamour girls flooding the market as DJs, although most of the fake DJs take advantage of technological advances to impress crowds but they do not always have the necessary skills.
“This devaluation of genuine DJ skills and a career that people like me pursue is heart-breaking,” she said.
The award-winning performer, also known as Hijab DJ, is among Zanzibar’s leading techno artists, respected by her peers, the media and thousands who flock to see her playing music at clubs and festivals.
But for some, her passion for music was something to be used against her, as a subject of ridicule or a means of extorting sexual advances.
Bakary, whose skills were honed over the years, is hoping to change gender roles and fight stereotypes on the spicy archipelago.
After a stint at Zanzibar University in 2017 to study computer science, Bakary also worked as a master of ceremony and a radio presenter.
Although she initially wanted to study journalism, a friend linked her with a local recording label on the island to learn song mixing.
Wearing a cloak at work
Unlike other female DJs in Tanzania, Bakary, who often carries her mixer whenever she is invited to perform at a wedding, birthday or other festivities, shroud herself with a hijab to keep with Islamic values.
“If you don’t wear like this, people will always find a reason to discourage you and brand your work immoral,” she said with a grin.
The devout Muslim wishes to rise in ranks as an international DJ while maintaining her Zanzibar’s cultural values.
While a DJ career is largely perceived as a male-oriented job in Tanzania, the East African country has lately attracted talented young women who have increased their presence on the music scene.
To help other girls enter the music career, Bakary is currently running a training club at Zanzibar’s iconic Stone town to impress young girls to learn transferable DJ skills.
Hailing from a strictly Muslim family where alcohol is a taboo, Bakary’s parents support her career.
Bakary won the 2019 Women of the Year Award in Zanzibar in recognition of her distinctive ability to navigate challenges in a hub of misogyny in a patriarchal society as a female disc jockey.