In the hot glove of a sticky East African night, the last act of the annual Sauti za Busara festival takes place. ‘Local’ outfit FM Academia – with over twenty members in the band – are rocking the open-air venue (an old walled fort in the centre of Zanzibar Town) with their unique ‘muziki da dansa’ rumba style, when, suddenly, on stage come literally dozens of the festival’s crew. The now over-crowded hugely enthusiastic stage dances out the last number of the 2012 event. Mark Stewart reports…
Yes, the ninth festival so far has been the biggest ever, and is clearly losing none of its joy.
The moment sums up this friendly festival. The support workers see themselves as integral to the festival – this is not just about the music, it’s about the vibe, the commitment, almost the mission.
And that commitment is vital, for there are rumblings of, if not disquiet, then at least concern, about just what the future of their festival should be.
Billed as ‘African Music Under African Skies’, Busara reflects the feelings and ambitions of its founder and artistic director, Yusuf Mahmoud. The English-raised music enthusiast travels the world as a dee-jay and promoter of African music. Speaking to journalists as the festival began, his desire is clearly as strong as it was ever – which is to give the continent’s music its proper showcase.
There’s little doubt he’s succeeded. The festival now is one of very few that the world-music magazine, Songlines, organises reader-trips for. The organisational side is now as good as anything in Europe.
Yet, its very success has hemmed in some of the choices.
There’s a desire to bring in a local audience, so pricing structures are lop-sided, and security more lax than it might be. To please locals, half the bands (there were over thirty acts in all across the four nights) are Tanzanian.
The international visitors though want more familiar fare, so fusion music – that which incorporates European rhythms – is also featured, using African acts which are often from thousands of miles away. The international visitors make up the bulk of ticket revenue.
And what of the purists? They demand from this festival the obscure, virtually unheard sounds of deep Africa. Mahmoud spoke proudly in this context of securing the Camirata Group, a little-known but skilful Sudanese outfit, but their traditional sound bemused the local audience and puzzled the internationals. It says much for the open-mindedness of this audience that they decided to cheer Camirata on nevertheless.
In many ways, the biggest hit of the four days, Nneka, summed up the contradictions. This Nigerian-raised singer is clearly being groomed for global super-stardom. Now based in Germany, and singing and speaking in English, Nneka really does deserve stardom – she has the passion of a Sinead O’Connor, and the stadium sassiness of a Bono. A capacity crowd of 5000 jammed into the old fort’s space, and went wild. But… her music is not ‘African’, laced as it is with the sound of American-rock and guitar solos, and while purporting to speak for her generation, one wondered how much her eyes were on America.
In other words, is she really part of the Busara’s mission?
It’s a tough one for Mahmoud. He is disturbed by the imbalance of numbers: the proportion of European & American visitors is clearly rising to unwanted levels – despite the pricing structure that favours locals.
He spoke with sadness of the fact that the major donors, who provide fifty per cent of the funding, feature not one African organisation. The major sponsors in fact are all based in Scandinavia. The main sponsor, the Norwegian government, signed a major agreement in Tanzania just months before Busara 2012.
Sauti za Busara, as it looks ahead to its tenth version in 2013, is clearly at a crossroads. Mahmoud talks vaguely but firmly of moving it out of Zanzibar Town, where he says the size of the venue is restricting expansion. Finance is a big issue too; already the festival is down to four days from last year’s five.
Certainly, if he moved the festival, that would bring in more sponsorship, as he could concentrate on attracting more internationals, whom sponsorship would follow. What’s more, he could lose some of the ‘local’ bands which, frankly, were of poor musicianship, albeit popular.
And he could more easily satisfy the purists (among whom he counts himself).
Of course, the downside is obvious. Mahmoud has stressed in the past how much it should be a marriage of festival and locality, but by moving out of Zanzibar Town – to, say, an out-of-town football stadium – the intimate side of the festival could be lost.
One of the most marvellous moments in the festival was one of the fringe events, when a small band of visitors (yes, purists!) were led though the dark and mysterious back-lanes of the town to witness a Sufi group in action in their own rehearsal rooms. That kind of intimate occasion only works, surely, when town and festival are one.
And to see a hip-hop act like the South African Tumi singing of Africa’s troubles surely only works properly in a ‘town’ atmosphere.
But to end with my best moment. It’s 4pm on the Friday, and the unremitting sun is blazing down on the stage; it’s probably around 35 degrees there. The small audience, for this is the first act of the day, is huddled into what shade there is. A diminutive figure appears on the platform, with just a guitarist for support. Hanitra, from Madagascar, had said she would take any spot in the billing under any conditions, just so she can say she appeared at Busara.
With a soulfulness that belies the situation, she sings with emotional moodiness in an Afro-Latin style. She is a revelation: no bottom-of-the bill artist at all.
The fact that she simply wanted to be here, under these conditions, says much; and, as Mahmoud thinks about the festival’s future, it will hearten him to know that he carries that kind of huge good-will with him.
By Mark Stewart