We are halfway through the closing night of Sauti za Busara and an audience of thousands holds its collective breath, moved as it is by the powerful voice and performance of desert soul queen Khaira Arby, accompanied by a guitar that howls with gale force. The show is a display of passion and devotion, and as the lady opens her heart and engages in a spirited call for peace in Mali, her war-stricken homeland, two audience members behind me tear up. Khaira and her band respond to those intent on destroying her country with a defiant cry, and it is as though the accompanying distorted guitar solo is meant to drown out the distorted thinking of those who wish to ban creativity and the fruits of culture.
Two days earlier, another lady, the grand dame of taarab, had fooled us all. An announcement had been made before the event’s opening day to inform festival-goers that Bi Kidude would not be able to perform this year due to illness. Bi Kidude is a regular fixture at Sauti za Busara, having graced the stage at all editions since the first in 2004 and being – according to Zanzibari student Abeid – “the biggest crowd favourite each year”. So when a singer of her taarab orchestra announced a “special surprise” during their show, a buzz of excitement went through the crowd. And, suddenly, there she was, enchantingly dressed, barefoot, and not just there to smile and wave. When Bi sings, her voice carries the timbre of nearly a century of song. People were on their feet immediately, making rapidly for the front row with open mouths and cameras rolling, so as not to miss any of the action.
Bi Kidude gracing the Sauti stage once more (Photo by author).
Both Khaira and Bi offered powerful displays of full mzuka, which served as the festival’s tagline this year; it translates from Swahili as “(a)live”, “wild” – “off the hook”, if you will. The 100% Live – Full Mzuka!!! maxim was in full effect, emblazoned across most of the event’s merchandise and acting as the magic words for festival staff and masters of ceremony. Indeed, Sauti za Busara 2013 spoiled its record-high audience with a wave of top-notch live music. Seasoned stage tigers such as the amiable Atongo Zimba from Ghana, Guinean ‘Jimi Hendrix of the kora’ N’Faly Kouyaté and headliner Cheick Lô from Senegal showed the crowd exactly why they are the real deal, while a number of exciting cross-continental collaborations like the London-Kenyan collective Owiny Sigoma Band, Swedish-Senegalese kora duo Sousou & Maher Cissoko, and Burkinabé-American blend Burkina Electric set the Fort alight. On top of this, Culture Musical Club (Zanzibar’s most prolific taarab orchestra), Lumumba Theatre (a band of talented musicians, dancers and actors hailing from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), and Super Maya Baikoko (an energetic song-dance crew originating from Tanga) gave us a full-course sonic meal seasoned with the finest local flavours.
It doesn’t always work out as planned, of course, and several bands struggled with sound issues on the opening night: the much-anticipated show by DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra, arguably Tanzania’s most legendary Muziki wa dansi band, known for their long and heated live performances, had to be cut off after some thirty minutes. It was disappointing to see a band that embodies what this year’s festival was all about being forced to march off stage way before it reached its peak.
Not with standing such hiccups, Sauti za Busara deserves plaudits for what it pulled off this year. An oft-voiced critique of the festival’s line-up has to do with Bongo Flava – the Tanzanian style of Hip-hop/R&B that rules the local dancehalls and is wildly popular with large numbers of youth; the complaint, that it is virtually absent from the musical menu, with Peter Msechu being this year’s only representative. The fact of the matter is that, however popular its songs may be, Bongo Flava can’t boast an impressive record of live performers. A good number of the genre’s stars rely on playback for their performances, and the ones who do play live – such as Banana Zorro and Mzungu Kichaa – have featured at Sauti za Busara in recent years.
Lumumba Theatre delivered an energetic and highly danceable show (Photo by author)
The first discussion, titled “What’s New in African Music?” brought forward questions on how to raise the exposure of East African music in these days of downloads, blogs and podcasts, while the second session “Speaking Truth to Power” was devoted to the issue of censorship. With a line-up featuring artists like Khaira Arby and Comrade Fatso, who are up against power-holding bodies desperate to silence them, the latter [discussion] was particularly relevant and resonant. The omnipresence of the internet and its accompanying wealth of technological possibilities can present itself as both friend and foe to today’s artists. During the third and final Movers & Shakers - a Q&A with various artists - a member of Owiny Sigoma Band spoke of the difficulties of making money: “Nowadays, it’s not easy to generate income from album sales, for people have a lot of ways to access our music freely. That’s why it’s so important to be on stage regularly, to give genuine live performances. Obviously, in our case, with half of the group being based in Kenya and the other in England, that’s quite a logistic challenge.” Then again, inventive use of both modern and ‘old-school’ distribution possibilities can prove instrumental in exposing your music, to get it ‘out there’. For instance, Comrade Fatso, whose politically loaded songs are banned from Zimbabwean state radio and TV for being deemed too critical of the establishment, distributes copies of his album in shops, cafés and independent stores. A team of “comrades” spreads his work and word in kombi’s – public minibuses – and townships, making his voice heard in virtually all corners of the country.
Comrade Fatso & Chabvondoka, flanked by Ammara Brown, giving their all (Photo: Peter Bennett)
Live music festivals like Busara play an important role in battling censorship, turning over the mike to musicians who struggle to make themselves heard due to political, religious, or social pressure, even as the festival organisers exercise a degree of curatorial control with regard to programming, as they must. Founder and director Yusuf Mahmoud asserted that Saiti za Busara will not stage artists who propagate hate or incite violence against women, and that the organisation is not likely to invite performers whose music is soaked in bling-bling lyrics. Fatso, about to take the floor as a panellist on the censorship session, responded wittily: “Wait, before I speak, lemme go out and write some songs about hot babes and fancy cars!” His joke captured the paradox, but, as a representative of FreeMuse – an international organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians and composers – rightly stated, censorship and curation are two different matters, and a festival with the power and exposure of Sauti za Busara cannot do without a sensible measure of the latter.
Musicians talk during the Movers & Shakers session. Left to right: Sousou, Maher and Nawal (Comorros) (Photo by author)
If there is one thing to be concluded from a decade of Sauti za Busara, it is that the festival continues to live up to its reputation as “the friendliest festival on the planet,” and is proof positive of the binding power of music. On top of that, it has played – and continues to play – a significant role in exposing East African music to a worldwide audience – live, loud, passionate, real, the product of not just the organisers’, but also musicians’ blood, sweat and tears.
The Q&A session with the artists brought to the fore some of the challenges they face in getting a spot in the limelight and getting their music to the public. Sousou (part of the kora duo with Maher Cissokho) spoke of the many administrative hurdles she had to pass just to get to the festival: “I sent out three applications, two of which to the Swedish Arts Council, before we were finally allowed a grant. It’s hard work, but when you realise that the show is good, that the crowd is feeling your love and energy, you know it’s been worth it.”
Another issue that bothers many of the artists in attendance was the fact that their music is often mislabelled or put in “boxes” they do not agree with. When I asked about their thoughts on the importance of successful cross-continental collaborations, Sousou and Maher exclaimed: “We’re just two people loving the kora! People think too much in national constructs, while music is there to make geographical borders obsolete,” said Sousou. The duo – whose energetic performance was indeed worth it by any standards – condemn the “world music” label that’s still [in 2013!] often attached to their work and story, as does Lukas Ligeti, is Burkina Electric’s percussionist: “African groups oftentimes have to battle existing ideas and pictures of Africa. As Burkina Electric, we fall in-between categories with members of many different backgrounds. African music is so innovative, but it’s so often put on the pile of “world music”. That bothers me.”
Although Sauti has successfully made it to ten editions and in the process has grown to become East Africa’s biggest music festival, it knows it must continue to innovate. Recurring issues such as the global (festival)-local (audience) nexus need to be studied carefully, and involves the question of how to make sure the event draws a growing number of local revellers and that fruitful collaborations with Zanzibari businesses are worked out. Whatever happens, the festival’s guiding spirit – the idea that African music can and will continue to bring people from around the globe together, and that artists thrive best when they bring the real thing, that roaring solo, that scream from the top of their lungs, that bassline that enters you from below and belts the belly – should be protected at all costs. Long (100%) Live Sauti za Busara!
The dates for 11th edition of Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar are provisionally penned as 13 – 16 February 2014. See you next year.