The stage right before the festival officially began [Image courtesy of Brenda Wambui]
"African Music under African Skies". That's the tagline for Sauti za Busara, the annual music festival that takes place in Zanzibar at the Old Fort; the just-completed 9th edition ran from Wednesday 8th to Sunday 12th February. The aim of the festival is to promote East African music, in all its wealth and diversity, and judging from the array of artistes we saw over the three days I'd say it succeeded. (For anyone unfamiliar with this part of East Africa, Zanzibar is a Tanzanian island group 25 - 50km off the mainland coast).
Performances, however, are only one half of the equation. The other half has to do with the audience, the intended and the actual. Every festival wants to ensure the two are made up of exactly the same people. But at Sauti za Busara I found this wasn't entirely so. There is a difference between what the international (white) audience wants and what the local (African) audience wants, and the issue seems to go beyond music to touch on differing expectations and perceptions of Africa.
The diversity of acts at Sauti za Busari is one of its key attractions. This is where you can see artists like Nneka and Tumi & the Volume, artists familiar to This Is Africa visitors. But it's also where you will see more "traditional" artists like Mkota Spirit Dancers and Ogoya Nengo. This diversity is an attraction, a tool, but also part of the problem mentioned above.
First, I’ll about the performances, then about the audience gap and the consequences of the imbalance in its diverse offering, issues the festival's organizers will need to address if the festival is to remain relevant to its primary audience. If you’re only interested in the “issues”, scroll down to “Who is this festival for?”
SAUTI ZA BUSARA: “SOUNDS OF WISDOM”
Wednesday was mainly a sort of ‘welcome to Zanzibar’ day, with a tour of Stone Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the chance to see some last-minute rehearsals.
The Old Fort, Stone Town
The actual festival began on Thursday with a carnival parade following a 2-kilometre route from the Kisonge grounds to the Old Fort, the pride of Stone Town.
The carnival parade included traditional singers, dancers and acrobats, and the music was energising. Got everyone in the mood for the stage performances to come.
The Carnival Parade [Image courtesy of Masoud Khamis]
Not just any performer who happens to be available is allowed to perform here. We were to see 31 acts over the course of three days, but this was from the 560 acts who’d applied and been vetted by the committee. According to festival director, Yusuf Mahmoud, and assistant director, Rosie Carter, it is extremely important that the music at Sauti za Busara remains relevant and true to the local culture, with half of the artistes coming from Tanzania, three-quarters from East Africa and the rest from wider Africa.
Carnival Street parade arrives [Image courtesy of Masoud Khamis]
Sauti za Busara directly translates to “Sounds of Wisdom”, so the selected acts had to be politically conscious with a relevant message, be of interest to the local population and have created original music of high quality. Gender balance is also taken into consideration, as well as the age balance. The organizers strive to maintain this balance every year.
The mix of artistes on the Thursday especially went down well with the Zanzibari crowd. It featured Swahili Vibes, a group that fuses Zanzibari and Western sounds using acoustic instruments like the oud and bongo drums as well as guitars and other electric instruments.
Kozman Ti Dalon [Image courtesy of Masoud Khamis]
We also saw Shirikisho Sanaa, a traditional dance group; Tandaa Traditional Group, whose music is defined by the sound of the tandaa, a traditional flute, and Wanafunzi wa SOS, comprised of a group of children from the local SOS Children’s Village whose sound is a mix of traditional and roots music.
Just in case you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of most of these artists, rest assured you’ll find the answer when we get to the ‘Who’s this festival for?’ section.
The Camirata Group [Image courtesy of Masoud Khamis]
The Mkota Spirit Dancers, a traditional dance troupe from Pemba, and the most energetic one that day, followed. Their performance was an eye-opener, to say the least. It included a possession dance known as kumbwaya, which features chanting, drumming and horn blowing. And at one point during the performance, one of the members bit off the head of a chicken. I looked away, and when I looked back the chicken was gone, thankfully. The night ended with a performance from Ary Morais, an artiste from Cape Verde based in Norway, and his band. His music was mellow and soothing, a good close to the first night.
On the days that followed we were treated to an eclectic mix of artistes from both within and outside of Tanzania. On Friday, we had Hanitra, a singer and guitarist from Madagascar – her style is acoustic with touches of Caribbean influence, her sound relaxing; legendary folk artiste Ogoya Nengo, from Kenya; Kozman Ti Dalon from Reunion Islands came on with their energetic maloya style of music, which could easily be mistaken for a rugby chant; Super Mazembe a popular soukous band from DR Congo that’s based in Kenya; and the highlight of the night, originally from Congo but based in Brussels, Fredy Massamba and his amazing band, with a blend of soul and funk that got everyone dancing.
The local artistes included Tausi Women’s Taarab, featuring the legendary Bi Kidude with a blend of taarab and kidumbak, and the Utamaduni JKU traditional dance group whose performance featured several dance styles from across Tanzania.
The weekend is where the magic really happened. More people came in for the festival, seeing as the work week was over, and the crowds were fuller and more energetic. The atmosphere was simply fantastic. The group Skuli ya Kiongoni, made up of children from a local school, opened Saturday evening’s performances with traditional song and dance, and Juhudi Taarab, the other group from Pemba, followed. Others included the Tunaweza Band from Tanzania, an inspirational group made up of people with various disabilities; Ndere Troupe from Uganda, a 27-year-old traditional dance group; Jembe Cultural Group, also a traditional dance group, but based in Dar es Salaam; The Camirata Group, a traditional music group from Sudan, with an amazing, hypnotic sound.
And then came the Saturday performance everyone had been waiting for: Nneka.
Nneka [Image courtesy of Pernille Baerendtsen]
Her performance was energetic and full of passion, and the crowd totally ate up her blend of hip-hop, soul, rock and afrobeat. She really engaged the crowd, talking about the inspiration for her songs and her feelings about vices like corruption.
The night ended with a faceoff between two mchiriku groups (Mchiriku is a traditional style of music indigenous to Tanzania), Jagwa Music and Seven Survivor, and the undoubted winner was Jagwa Music.
Nneka full house [Image courtesy of Peter Stanley]
Sunday, understandably, had fewer performers, it being the last day of the festival. Nonetheless, the performances were superb. Qwela, an Afro-fusion band from Uganda, was the day’s first act, and their style was reminiscent of the current musical revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa where fusion between various styles of music has become very popular. Other performers were Leo Mkanyia from Tanzania, with his blend of Jazz and acoustic music; Lumumba Theatre Group from Tanzania, who performed a very well choreographed mix of song and dance; Chebli Msaidie from Comoros, with a blend of rumba and Comorian taarab; Kidumbaki JKU, another taarab and kidumbak group from Tanzania, and what was undoubtedly the best performance of the festival: Tumi and The Volume.
I haven’t seem many rappers captivate and engage the crowd the way Tumi and his band did, with him encouraging the crowd to sing along to the hooks of the songs they performed, and the crowd gladly obliging. The lyrics were conscious and inspiring, and the music had groove, and people just couldn’t stop themselves from bobbing their heads, waving their hands and jumping the whole time. There was a mix of exhilaration and sadness when their performance ended.
The final performance was by FM Academia, a Tanzanian rumba band with their ngwasuma dance style, ending the festival on a high note.
WHO IS THIS FESTIVAL FOR?
With this exciting mix of artistes and the amazing performances, the festival gaining wider international appeal. However, it’s also losing its appeal to locals, which is ironic because the local audience is the primary reason the festival was set up for in the first place, and each year the organisers find themselves having to fight harder and harder to attract this audience.
So what’s going on? One reason for the mismatch between the primary and actual audience is that young people in Zanzibar, as in the rest of Africa, find listening to traditional music like mchiriku “uncool”, and in extreme cases, backward. They would like to see the more popular artistes, the “hits of the moment”, perform, but one of the reasons the festival exists is to promote Swahili music to a generation of Tanzanians raised on Western Top 40 hits. In other words, good but non-commercial music of the sort you don’t normally hear on radio because is isn’t deemed “radio-friendly” or sufficiently catchy. Which is why you will not have heard of most of these groups (it doesn't help matters that most of them are yet to embrace the possibilities of the internet, let alone social media). These groups aren’t “crowd pullers”, but their music is, after all, also a part of our culture. And if you don’t find ways to expose youngsters to their culture, even if it’s not something they’d automatically rush to see, you’re not actually doing them any favours in the long term.
Thus it’s a delicate balancing act between “traditional” fare and some modern African music to “sweeten the pill” as it were. Speaking to some of the residents of Stone Town though, I found that they are tired of seeing the same groups at Sauti za Busara, such as Jagwa Music, and as a result don’t see any reason to return each year. Which means that even with acts like Nneka, Fredy Massamba, Ary Morais, and Tumi and the volume, and in previous years X-Plastaz and Fid-Q, the organisers probably need to tinker with the balance a bit more.
Tumi and The Volume [Image courtesy of Masoud Khamis]
To attract local audiences the organisers arranged free dala-dalas (share taxis) for residents after performances ended at 1am each day, and free entry before 5.30pm. And even after 5.30pm locals were only charged a $2 entry fee while foreigners are charged $26. Despite all this, the annual increase in visitors from outside Tanzania is exponential, with only slight increases in local attendants. You walked through the crowd and met people from all over Europe and America, and from other parts of Africa, but not enough from Tanzania.
Traditional African music seems to fit tourists’ idea of Africa and what African music should be like, so it is not entirely surprising that Sauti za Busara, with the best of intentions, appeals more to tourists. But what many refer to as “World Music” simply cuts it a lot less with youngsters in Zanzibar. You could even see it in the way the different audiences responded to such performances, with many of the Zanzibaris staring at the stage while performances were going on but hardly moving at all, in stark contrast to many of the tourists who danced until they could hardly move.
These factors combined lead Zanzibaris to think the festival is for really tourists. It doesn’t help that the festival is held in Stone Town, which is inaccessible to most residents, hence the free dala-dalas.
Busara Festival Organizers [Image courtesy of Stephanie Tinga-Baron Wilson]
Still, the festival is treasured by Zanzibaris as well as tourists. Zanzibar comes alive during Sauti za Busara. There is a 400% increase in tourism in February, and local businesses benefit directly from the influx of people. The food market at Forodhani Park has many more customers, as do the taxis, shops, hotels and dhow owners. The atmosphere is one of excitement and possibility. As a Frenchman called Antoine told me, rather excitedly, “Where else would I go and meet a Kenyan, an American and a Dutchman all in one night, within minutes of each other? I have to attend Sauti za Busara next year!”
Coming in Part 2: African arts in changing times