Algerian reggae is a thing. Artists all over Africa are still very much at risk of imprisonment and abuse for getting real about politics in their music. Hearing taarab music without the accompanying live hypnotic dances probably doesn’t measure up.
Having recovered from the excitement and misadventure that was Afropunk Johannesburg, I packed my bags again and headed to Zanzibar for a very different festival experience. Sauti za Busara was back after a two-year hiatus to celebrate Pan-African music, consciousness arts and culture and I was ready to experience it for the first time.
Things kicked off a few hours after I landed on the island with a colourful parade of musicians, acrobats, dancers, actors and everything in between bringing Stone Town to a standstill. Every troupe had its own characters and with things like this where I’m sure there’s a cultural significance or meaning behind it, I sometimes forego asking a local what the story is and see where my imagination goes. I had already read about the umbrella dance and it having something to do with escorting a bride to her new home or something. With the four men painted black from head to toe I decided they were probably there to scare away obstacles or evil spirits because they led the entire parade.
I’m not always right but I have a feeling about that one.
I could go on and on about how well set-up the Old Fort was for the different performances every night across two stages with more than enough food and drink vendors and artists who brought the heat playing and singing live, but it really is a 'you had to be there' kind of situation for the most part.
Here's why I loved and would recommend the festival:
- The music itself only went down in the evenings from maybe 4pm until midnight, so your days are free to sleep in, explore Stone Town or even take day trips to the better beaches. We went for a beach-day at Paje on day 2 of the festival, about an hour away and were back in time to grab dinner and catch the music for the night.
- Because it's not a camping-style festival in an isolated area, you need not give up comfort or peace and quiet when you want it - Stone Town being the bustling center it is has tons of hotels, hostels, guesthouses and AirBnB's for all budgets and tastes all within walking distance of the festival activities.
- There'a enough within the Old Fort and Forodhani Gardens if you're waiting around for your fave to get on stage or have just lost interest in whatever random came to chat you up at your viewing spot. Local artisans have their crafts and clothing on sale, you can browse and buy some music and enjoy local street food all from within the festival venues.
- There isn't a single act added to the list of performers who can't deliver live on stage from vocals to instrumentals to dance and even wardrobe. How many festivals do you know often end up presenting a few guys behind laptops on a stage? Too many.
The Movers & Shakers sessions on 3 of the consecutive afternoons shed light on many less talked-about aspects of the music industries in various countries from women in music to social impact and business education in music.
It's rare that ordinary festival-goers get to interact with some of he performing artists in an intimate setting - in the cool, cozy Monsoon Restaurant around the corner from Ngome Kongwe (the Old Fort) we all sat down on cushions and chatted about our concerns and curiosities about the music industry. All you had to do was RSVP online in good time and you were invited to hear about Grace Matata's experience organizing independent live music concerts in Dar Es Salaam, ask Zakes Bantwini why he gave up his career as an A&E at Universal South Africa or hear from Saida Karoli and Siti Amina about their experiences as women fighting for respect in the industry.
That’s been my biggest takeaway from Sauti za Busara. First time or tenth at the festival, whether you’re local or not, the consensus all around is that it always brings something new. Even for the most die-hard aficionado of music from the continent, there’ll be something they haven’t heard before or someone they haven’t seen live yet. Maybe someone they last saw live decades ago who’s still got it.