One of the first words you will hear when coming to Zanzibar is ‘Karibu’. Like the breeze of the Kaskazi trade winds, it is a warm Swahili welcome to the coast of East Africa. Already I can feel a sense of excitement in the air: the Sauti za Busara “Sounds of Wisdom” festival is about to begin
In its fourth year, the ‘friendliest festival on earth’ aims to bring together people of all ages and backgrounds in celebration of the wealth of music from the Swahili region in a five-day event. Yusuf Mahamoud, the festival director, explains that the main focus is to promote the richness of the music of the Swahili-speaking region. This year, more than half of the 400 performers and 40 groups come from Tanzania and Zanzibar.
Musicians from very different backgrounds and experiences have the possibility to jam, slam and perform
Over the next three days, the Old Fort will be the main venue for the people of Zanzibar, the mainland, tourists and world music travellers alike. It is a wonderful setting. Stalls offer food and drinks, local handicraft, clothes, CDs and t-shirts. Those wanting seating, can pay a little extra to gain access to a VIP area. It is a relaxed, and as the organisers promised, friendly atmosphere. For Busara, it is important that the music is accessible to all: Entry before sunset is free for everyone, after sunset it is 1,000shillings (US$0.80) for residents and US$8 for non-residents.
On Saturday, Ellika & Solo’s kora and fiddle blend the griot music of Senegal and polska tradition of the Nordic countries. Abaraka!/ Tack!, which won the best folk music album of the Swedish Grammy 2006, is the duo’s latest album. Their debut album, Tretakt/ Takissaba, was awarded the BBC World Music Award 2003.
Another highlight is the performance of the Swahili Encounters group, a dozen musicians who came together three days before the festival for a workshop at the Dhow Countries Music Academy. It is a unique project where musicians from very different backgrounds and experiences have the possibility to jam, slam and perform.
A similar crossover project is Dhow Crossing, a collaboration of Norwegian and Tanzanian-Zanzibarian musicians. Their performance is a laid-back fusion of taraab, Norwegian folk and western music much applauded by the audience.
People are running to seek shelter by the stalls, cursing the interruption but enjoying the refreshing rain
I am very curious to see Olith Ratego from Kenya, who is very popular in his own country, receiving massive airplay on local radio with his song ‘Mamano Daa’. A lot of people have turned up, and we are all ready for some dancing. But before he can convince us, we’re caught in a sudden downpour. People are running to seek shelter by the stalls, cursing the interruption but enjoying the refreshing rain. Only once we are informed that the performances cannot be continued for safety reasons, do we reluctantly leave the venue.
Despite these ‘heavenly’ interruptions, the next day the festival continues as scheduled. People are very excited when Netsayi (right) comes on stage. She was born in London, at the age of eight her exiled parents moved back to an independent Zimbabwe. Netsayi has a strong presence on stage. Her powerful, beautiful voice draws you in and compels you to listen. Her lyrics are personal, often political, as with ‘Like’ and ‘Refugee Song’. Her folk version of ‘Malika’ in Swahili is just outstanding. Last year, Netsayi released her first album, Chimurenga Soul, which was widely acclaimed.
Local interest is focused on Juma Nature — one of the most popular hip hop artists of the bongo flava scene and much admired for his word plays and lyrics. I am very curious to hear how his music style has developed after TMK Wanaume Family split up last year. This new formation, TMK Wanaume Halisi, introduces a new dance style, Ma-kung fu flex to the festival and confirms he is still one of the stars in the East African hip hop arena. At Busara, featuring P Funk on the turntables and DJ mixer, Juma Nature is at his best. Last year, Juma Nature won the best African act at the MTV awards. Look out for his latest recording, Ndege Tunduni.
With ‘Africa Unite’ and ‘One Love’, even the exhausted stage crew join in and sing along
Day four, pre-dawn. I wake to the call for prayer. There is a fresh breeze from the sea. I am lying on the bed, just listening. It is beautiful. Last night’s impressions are still very vivid, the excitement of the performances, the singing and dancing of the crowds.
Rather embarrassingly for the organisers, the Kenyan group Yunasi were turned away at Nairobi airport as their flight had been overbooked. Instead, we get to see Tamarind Band (who could not perform the other night due to rain). Tamarind soon get the people dancing with their confident mix of traditional music with new elements, playing muziki wa dansi, modern guitar music and East African coastal rhythms.
Next up is Didier Awadi & Phat 4. Didier Awadi is a highly acclaimed rapper on the West African music scene, and beyond. He released several successful albums with Doug E Tee under the name Positive Black Soul. Since 2003, he has been working solo. Didier’s rap is very dynamic, which he mixes with traditional elements. In particular, the combination of rap and kora / djemble play was fantastic. For me, this was the gig of the evening, though many Tanzanians and Zanzibaris are saving their cheers for the evening’s final performer.
Jose Chameleone, from Uganda, has been very successful in East Africa, and increasingly is developing an international following too. His style is a combination of Ugandan folk music, rumba, zouk and ragga and tonight he’s pleasing the crowds with some of his most popular songs, ‘Jamila’, ‘Mama Rhoda’, ‘Kipepeo’, and ‘Mama Mia’. With ‘Africa Unite’ and ‘One Love’, even the exhausted stage crew join in and sing along. Chameleone’s performance is energetic and enjoyable. It’s no wonder he holds the stage for more than an hour.
And then? As urgently as it started, it is suddenly all over. Many thanks to the Busara crew of over 100 helpers for a well-organised festival. I have had a fantastic time, have seen many great bands and met a lot of nice people. I cannot believe it is already over – well at least for this venue. Tomorrow there is “Taarab Tuesday” and on Wednesday, up on Kendwa beach, there is the Festival Finalé Party with DJ Yusuf and DJ Eric Soul on the decks. And I am sure it will be another chance for ‘dancing the night away’.
–Photos: Main photo and picture of the Old Fort by Masoud Khamis, Netsayi photographed by Peter Bennett–
The Guardian, ‘Sultans of swing‘
Documentary: As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude
Busara Live — Reviews, pics and video clips from the festival
Ellika & Solo