How to enjoy a music festival on an African island with a troubled past

How to enjoy a music festival on an African island with a troubled past


Insights from the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzinbar, Tanzania: ‘Culture is the fountain of our progress and creativity.’


Grace Matata from Tanzania at Sauti za Busara 2018. Image credit Imani Nsamila Photography via Sauti za Busara Flickr.

“Sauti Za Busara” means “sounds of wisdom” in Swahili. The annual festival, which happens every February in Zanzibar, aims to show that music can be much more than a collection of tunes. The festival manager, Ramadan Journey, says Busara definitely isn’t escapism for international tourists, and aims to spotlight mainly local and regional musical cultures.

Participating artists do not shy away from difficult subjects in their music — using songs, poems, talking drums and rhythmic rituals to touch on subjects such as childbirth, initiation into adulthood, farming, HIV, Ebola, hunting, marriage and decision-making of both an individual and collective nature.

Image credit Markus Meissl via Sauti za Busara Flickr.

Kenyan musician Maia Von Lekow enthuses about the festival’s diversity: “It’s actually very hard for musicians to get established in the first place, and then for us to work with each other, find out which instruments we’re using, or what styles we’re playing in or borrowing, is very difficult. Outside of Nairobi, where I live, I rarely see local live music. Festivals like this are great.”

For Tanzanian farmer Vanessa Ruabara, 23, from Bukoba — a town situated several hundred miles away from the Stone Town, where the annual event takes place — the festival is a major blast; a holiday after months of tough agricultural work.

“This festival is completely different. It’s missing all the macho shit with drunken guys hassling me yelling ‘yo-yo.’ I love the exposure to different cultures, to non-mainstream, more arty bands. I love Isack — he sings about farming, or greeting his parents after a long trip! He’s traditional, modern and relevant, he loves Tanzania and so do I. I actually prefer the Tanzanian and Zanzibar music, over say Rwandan or Algerian music because it’s my culture and my traditions.”

Two Swiss tourists — Leina and Jasmine (20 and 21 respectively) are on the continent for the first time. “It’s completely unlike any festival in Europe I’ve been to. There’s women in hijab, not much drinking, really friendly, lovely atmosphere. It’s obvious that people aren’t that wealthy. No-one is getting off their face or being obnoxious…”

Segere Original from Tanzania at Sauti za Busara 2018. Image credit Markus Meissl via Sauti za Busara Flickr.

Not everyone is impressed. Noriko, a Japanese PhD student told me: I think it’s just a not-so-thinly veiled excuse for Westerners to party in an exotic space where no-one knows their name, and there’s no consequences. Maybe it’s the pricing, but I see many white faces.

Vanessa agrees that “there are a lot of white people here — more than last year — but everyone is very respectful, they are restrained, and… they don’t act like they own the place.”

Visitors (actually, invaders) have wanted a slice of Zanzibar since at least the seventh Century when Chinese navigators of the Tang dynasty traded with Monomotapa (Zimbabwe), and Kilwa (Southern Tanzania). The Dutch, Germans, Portuguese, English and Middle Eastern traders all wanted to claim Zanzibar as theirs. They were aided by excessive brutality and creating local laws to suit themselves. Excellent trade winds, fertile soil and good rainfalls also helped.

From the 9th to the 20th century Zanzibar was a place to drop off diseased sailors, recruit new ones, stock up on supplies, trade cotton and guns as well as pick up human cargo and spices. Also, it was a place associated with fantasy: Fifteenth century Portuguese descriptions of the Indian Ocean and inshore, describe hot boiling seas, elephants of every color, and women whose vaginas spat out snakes.

Image credit Markus Meissl via Sauti za Busara Flickr.

The city doesn’t shy away from its role as a major slave trading port. There are caves where slaves waiting for auction were held (and often died). The slave narrative emanates from a European perspective, something Professor Ali Shariff, a Zanzibari historian, is not keen on. He prefers a more nuanced version of history that includes arts, music, architecture and traditions: “Culture is the fountain of our progress and creativity. It is not a means to material progress: it is the end aim of ‘development’ seen as the flourishing of human existence in all its forms and as a whole.”

Yaseer owns a restaurant in the house he was born in, on the edge of the market in Stone Town. He opened it after working 20 years in the corporate world in Dar es Salaam. He welcomes the visitors/tourists, but he’s very clear that they need to stay within boundaries. He doesn’t want to see tourists in town walking around with bare shoulders, swimming costumes, or shorts. “We do have a conservative culture here, and there is a saturation point. We do copy Westerners, up to a certain point, but I also think that it must be very clear, in schools, families, madrassas, amongst our own communities, that what have is very special. It’s fine to welcome tourists, but let’s also take pride in what we do, who we are.”

* With many thanks to the Busara TeamYaseer of Msh’Allah restaurant Mikunazini, Farid Hamid, Sibylle, Amanda, Saphia and Serena Hotel Dar es Salaam.


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