Camirata Group, Sudan. Photo credit: Robin Batista
The performing arts in Africa are changing. We as producers and consumers of these arts also have to change with the times, as was evident at the recent Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar, Tanzania, which is representative enough of what’s happening across Africa for us to use as a case study here.
In Africa, as in many parts of the world, culture is a big part of our daily lives, as evidenced by our fabrics, carvings, paintings, film and inevitably, our music. Speaking to the festival director and assistant director of Sauti za Busara, respectively Yusuf Mahmoud and Rosie Carter, it was evident that the music scene in Tanzania, and in Africa at large, is developing fast and positively. The challenge for artistes remains finding opportunities to build an audience for their work.
Music consumption habits are changing; tapes are becoming obsolete, CDs are no longer selling much, music is easily available on the internet, the array of artistes to choose from is much wider and the audience has much higher standards for what they consider to be quality music. Therefore new channels must be created where performing artists can flourish; both by building their skills and having access to an audience. One of the best ways to do this still remains the music festival, where little known artistes like Skuli ya Kiongoni get a chance to reach audiences that were attracted by well-established names like Nneka. Still, it is becoming increasingly hard for the festival (and other performing arts festivals) to raise the funds necessary for organizing it each year.
A sign of this at Sauti za Busara was that it had to be reduced this year from the usual five days to four. With the world’s economy in a long dip, sponsors need to feel more than ever that they are getting value for their money. For Sauti za Busara, this is a problem, as a significant number of their sponsors aim to reach the local audience, yet the festival has far fewer Tanzanians attending relative to tourists. These tourists can only possibly use the goods and services of the sponsor organizations during the week they are there, and due to the challenges in relevance to local audiences mentioned in Part 1 of this article, sponsors prefer to seek out festivals and arts events that offer greater “value for money”, such as 100% Zanzibari sponsored by Zantel whose customers mostly come from Zanzibar.
This presents festival organizers with a dilemma: stay true to your goals and African culture and keep inviting performers like Ogoya Nengo (below) who represent what you stand for even if they are not crowd pullers for the local audience, or go the easy route and select performers on their ability to attract massive crowds, even if said performers don’t quite fit the core aims of the festival.
50% of Sauti za Busara's income comes from foreign sponsors, 30% from local sponsors – most of whom target the local crowds – and 20% from ticket sales, reflecting the potential problem of local sponsors not finding the festival relevant to them. Since this is a common problem for festivals, it’s not surprising that cost cutting is always high on the task list, with the aim of becoming less dependent on sponsorship. This is just one of the challenges facing festival organizers.
Other challenges facing Africa’s indigenous music makers and festival organisers:
At Sauti za Busara, festival stakeholders such as the organizers, crew, artistes and press were invited to the 3rd Movers and Shakers forum in the lifetime of the festival, and over the four days the festival took place, attendees got to meet and quiz the organizers, interact with performing artistes, explore new ways to build markets for African music and discuss how the internet can be used to level the playing field for Africa and its music.
Movers and Shakers. Photo credit: Bob Sankofa
I found it amazing that a wide array of nationalities was represented, with people coming all the way from Rwanda, Austria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Zimbabwe, USA and Canada, a reflection of the huge international interest in indigenous African music. The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs had sent several members to see what they could learn from Sauti za Busara so as to improve their own cultural activities. Organizers from Roskilde, the Danish festival, were also present to assist the organizers in fine-tuning the event and offer tips on how to make it better (Roskilde is quite a success in Denmark).
The sessions provided a window into the current state and concerns of the performing art scene, its challenges as well as its opportunities.
Challenge #1: How do we make it possible for young audiences to hear new music from relatively new artistes when there are so few places for artists to perform?
The lack of spaces for new artistes, both contemporary and traditional, to actually perform, was one of the first to be mentioned. The obvious solution is more festivals, venues, stages, but who’s gonna pay for that?
One popular idea was for performing arts “markets”, and Faisal Kiwewa of Doadoa, spoke about a new one set to happen in Uganda in May, so that’s a start.
Kheiri Jumbe and Mahsin Basalama of the Swahili Performing Arts Centre also spoke about its organization’s aims, which are to restore and elevate cultural identity in Zanzibar and the Swahili coast, empower artistes and conduct various outreach programmes to this end, for example by providing venues for the artists to perform in and make it affordable for the local audiences to attend events. They brought the Mkota Spirit Dancers and Juhudi Taarab to the festival, part of an effort to promote authentic Swahili performing artistes.
This was as concrete as things got on this issue.
Challenge #2: How do we make indigenous music relevant to an audience raised on contemporary urban sounds?
One of the consequences of the scarcity of platforms for performing artists – and hence the limited opportunities for fresh new artists, especially the indigenous ones, to get some exposure – is that mainstream artistes keep getting massive amounts of airplay while little known ones only get to entertain in their villages and neighbourhoods.
The Singing Wells Project is one example of how to introduce a young audience raised on “urban” sounds to “uncool” indigenous music. While their aim is to record and archive East African tribal music, thus preserving the region’s cultural heritage, they go one step further than typical preservation projects by taking steps to share the music and make it relevant to musicians today. With their mobile recording studio, they travel from one East African village to the next to record music, “field recordings”, if you will. This is how young contemporary “urban” artists get to hear the music of some of the more traditional artists, and it has led to some collaborations between the “old” and the new at Ketebul Music.
This was the most interesting idea or initiative mentioned.
Challenge #3: How to get indigenous artists online
There is failure of indigenous artists to embrace the internet. It's a sorry situation for many contemporary urban musicians, as we lamented in a previous article, but it's worse for artists making indigenous/traditional music. There’s no better illustration of this than the fact that until Sauti za Busara created online profiles for the artists who performed this year, few had an online presence, not even a Facebook page. This makes it difficult to find their music anywhere online, which puts them at a disadvantage to artists from other parts of the world.
Tabu Osusa (Ketebel Music, Kenya) and Faisal Kiwewa (Founder and Artistic Director of the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts, Uganda) are among the many from West, East and South Africa working together to establish an online music information platform in order to get indigenous musicians online. It’s still at the conceptualization stage, but the hope is that it will become a leading source of information on African music, i.e. that alongside entertainment, it will educate people about African music – since information about African music and its various styles is scarce – “empower” artistes (though no one talked about exactly how this would be done), and help to develop the market for African music (again, the “how” is still being worked out).
The yet-to-be-named platform will pool available information in one location: African art resources, artiste information, announcements, and arts-related features and stories for fan consumption.
The question is, if indigenous artists aren’t using ReverbNation or Facebook already, what’s going to make them use this new platform? For these artists, there is clearly a barrier to getting online at all, and possibly a failure to understand how important it is that they be online.
But perhaps this platform will work if it is updated on behalf of the artistes. That would require a significant budget for editorial staff though. Like I said, it’s at the conceptualization stage.
Challenge #4: How to encourage volunteerism in Africa where people can't afford to work for free
Festivals rely on volunteers. Most cannot afford to run otherwise. The Roskilde Festival, for instance, is arranged by 25 full-time employees and thousands of committed volunteers, rising to 25,000 during the festival itself. And those are just the ones that made the cut.
Busara Festival Team. Photo credit: Stephanie Tinga-Baron Wilson
But that’s Denmark. With the cost of living in Africa being about as high as most people can bear it to be, volunteering means giving up time that could otherwise be spent earning some much needed income. Besides making volunteering attractive to youngsters from middle-class families, this isn’t a problem with easy solutions.
For the organizers of Sauti za Busara, WOMEX serves as an inspiration, with the organizers hoping to achieve such sustainability, scale and repute that it would make it worthwhile for people, both local and foreign, to volunteer to organize the festival.
Challenge #5: How to digitize music archives before tapes become obsolete
When tapes become obsolete, a lot of valuable music from as early on as the 1960s will be lost. Again, there’s clearly a cost issue here, as well as one of awareness.
I came across a project called the Tanzania Heritage Project. Its representative, Rebecca Corey, talked about how they intend to digitize Radio Tanzania’s archives, over 100,000 hours of music on tape, in real time.
For some reason, the necessity of doing something similar all over Africa is still overlooked in many countries, thus the chance that some of our music will be lost forever is high.
Africa needs its performing artistes as much as they need her. Their work is an expression of who we are as people. They are goodwill ambassadors, showing the world our joys, hopes and dreams, as opposed to our failings. Most of us understand this at some level. The major challenge is converting this understanding into a responsibility for all, rather than leave it all to sponsor-dependent festivals. Because from the mix of semi-concrete and vague solutions on offer at the 3rd Movers and Shakers forum, those who deeply care about Africa’s indigenous arts have a hell of a task on their hands.