Last summer when we were planning a trip to East Africa, our Safari operator mentioned a music festival in Zanzibar. The Sauti Za Busara Festival is in its 17th year and includes performers from all over Africa. The schedule coincided nicely with our Tanzania national parks tour. Representing WORT, we received press credentials and were all set for four days of warm weather and fantastic bands in mid-February.
Zanzibar is an island of Tanzania, set just off the African mainland in the Indian Ocean. Cashing in on the spice and ivory trade, the island was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century. By the late 17th century, local elites invited the Omanis to kick out the Europeans and set up rule from Arabia. In 1890, the island became a British protectorate. Independence and consolidation with mainland Tanganyika occurred in 1964, producing Tanzania.
Sauti Za Busara (Swahili for “Voice of Wisdom”) is one of the largest music festivals in Africa. Attendance was expected to be about 27,000 people over the four days. The festival and supporting activities inject about $10 million into the local economy. Festival organizers use the event to campaign for social causes and change. This year’s emphasis was to highlight problems of sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Stonetown is the historic center of the island. The Old Fort, built by the Omanis using materials from demolished Portuguese buildings, provided the venue for the two main stages of the festival. In addition, each day of the festival included two free showcases in the city park across the street from the Old Fort.
We managed to see twenty of the roughly forty bands. The artist list covered the entire continent – from Morocco to South Africa and from Guinea to Kenya, with several local groups from Tanzania mainland and Zanzibar. The complete list of performers can be found on the festival website: www.busaramusic.org
One feature that became evident as we got deeper into the festival is that Sauti Za Busara is not exactly a World Music festival representing traditional African music. Instead, it is a festival of contemporary African bands. Since many of the bands showcase ethnic sounds, it’s easy to be led astray, expecting even more cultural music. However, the artist list included a fair amount of jazz, hard rock, and hip hop.
A few of the bands that we heard are worth a special note.
On the main stage, the first night, was Lulu Abdalla from Kenya. A school teacher in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Nairobi, Abdalla presented a well-crafted mix of acoustic songs including some roots and jazz fusion with his full band. He spoke and sang of the importance of educating our youth as a mean to escape poverty. Separately, he offered a tribute to his own heroes: Hugh Masekela and Nelson Mandela. A few songs from his performance at Sauti Za Busara can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDIuvq0VrXQ
Several taraab-style groups were on the program and on the second evening we caught Nadi Ikhwan Safaa from Zanzibar. Their MC made a point of explaining to the audience that they were not a band, but an orchestra. Their sixteen musicians and singers featured five violins, kanoun, accordion, hand percussion, bass, and both male and female lead and background singers. The Orchestra is celebrating its 115th year.
When East Africans tired of the Portuguese hanging around, the local powers asked the Sultan of Oman to come rule. The new Omani Sultans of Zanzibar brought Middle East taraab music, as well as the Islamic religion with them. Exchanges of goods and cultures on the Indian Ocean dhows brought up a unique mix of Arabian, Swahili, Portuguese, French and Indian influenced music. Zanzibari taraab dates back roughly 140 years, yet it is still a living crossover between classical and traditional music forms. A nice sample of Nadi Ikhwan Safaa music can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7L-KynQfdk
One of the Saturday evening headlining groups was Mannyok from the island of Rodrigues, part of the nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. While all the main stage acts were crowd-pleasers, it was nice to finally hear a group that used more traditional instruments and didn’t rely on the bass-keyboard-drum kit formula for its rhythm section. Instead, we were treated to accordion, bouzouki, guitar, hand percussion, and a home-made bass guitar. Mannyok had a familiar upbeat island sound that could easily place one in the Caribbean. Their music is heavily French-influenced and one song featuring accordion, triangle, and French lyrics took us half-way around the world, to southwest Louisiana Cajun country. Here is a nice sample of their sound: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gl3YvjlLYTs
Some other notable groups that we enjoyed, with links to their music include:
Oumar Konate (Mali) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux4Zn4y2_w0
Bebe Baya (Guinea) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQvjPjI2cV4
Mamy Kounaté (Senegal) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXqOA4bkTCE
Mehdi Qamoum (Morocco) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0NIu5SKrII
Tarajazz (Zanzibar) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IluqmgRwAEg
Overall, the festival was well-attended and well-organized with a great artist list. We can recommend Sauti Za Busara to any world music enthusiast. With its well-appointed location in the ornate and exotic Stonetown, Zanzibar, we may well need to attend again sometime in the near future.