Why Sauti Za Busara Music Festival 2019 was worth attending

Travelling to another country is tough. Especially when you’re the one organizing all the travel arrangements. You have to adapt to a new language, new currency, find cheap motels in the area and stand being stared at by the locals like a foreigner. Even if you’re still in the same East African region.

You spend so much money, energy and hours on the road (and the Indian Ocean) for just one reason. That is, to watch an exceptional Kenyan artist perform live at Sauti Za Busara 2019 Festival.

This Kenyan artist is Fadhilee. Fadhilee Itulya. And his case was a special one. The Afro-fusion musician with the 2018 album KWETU under his name has been trying to get on the Sauti Za Busara lineup for 4 years now. 

Even when the organizers rejected his application, he still attended the annual music festival to see what was missing. What he needed to add to his own live performance. And in 2019, Fadhilee finally cracked the code.

Fadhilee Itulya on Sauti Za Busara 2019 poster

This is what led the Vibe Tribe family to travel all the way from Nairobi Kenya to Stone Town in Zanzibar island from 7th to 10th February. Sauti Za Busara is internationally recognized as the biggest music festival in East Africa. The 16th edition included 44 live performances over 4 days and 4 nights on 3 stages.

Yup, it’s been happening since 2004 courtesy of Busara Foundation.

This year, Fadhilee joined a proudly African lineup of artists from Morocco to South Africa, Ethiopia to Cameroon. Playing on this international stage is a huge deal as it exposes these African musicians to regional and local music promoters, booking agents, and festival organisers from around the world.

Other than the live music showcases, the daily Movers and Shakers sessions at Monsoon Restaurant also allows these performing artists and music industry players to connect.

Fadhilee and his guitarists smiling on Sauti Za Busara 2019 stage
Fadhilee, Chris and Onyie on stage

The 4-day festival kicked off on Thursday afternoon with a carnival street parade. Christened the largest street event in Zanzibar, it was a lively celebration complete with acrobats, dancers, fire eaters, and clowns. The live African music we came for blasted off that evening in the performance stages.

The main and amphitheatre stages sat inside the oldest building in Zanzibar. The Old Fort was built in 1699 and still stands strong today, over 300 years later.

Meanwhile, the smaller Forodhani stage was right outside at the Forodhani park overlooking the Indian ocean. This day stage accessible to everyone, even those who could not afford the festival ticket. 

And every night, Forodhani Gardens transformed into a sizzling food market with all kinds of Zanzibari food and delicacy. This is where we found ourselves every day while we were not getting lost in the labyrinth that is Stone Town; traversing wet narrow streets among ancient buildings and intricately designed doors that all look the same.

festival attendees walking outside old fort in zanzibar
Outside Old Fort, Zanzibar

Other than the coastal culture and warm weather, Sauti delivered its promise of diverse African music. We experienced the Swahili Encounters for the first time: a collaboration project between 11 musicians from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria. We were later charmed by the soulful Damian Soul from Tanzania and the young Eli Maliki with his neo-soul R&B vibes from Uganda. 

On Saturday night, the entire audience was impressed by the one man band Faith Mussa. He looped his guitar on top of electronic beats to create modern Malawian folk music, much to our African delight. Hoba Hoba Spirit from Morocco rocked the crowd on Friday midnight with their classic rock-punk vibes. Meanwhile, Sofaz transformed the stage into a happy colorful carnival with their energizing electro-maloya music from Reunion Island.

Sauti Za Busara audience cheering musicians on stage
Music fans having fun

Most of the performing artists were from Tanzania, and rightfully so. We got a taste of everything – from traditional to contemporary Tanzanian music. There was sweet old taarab by the women orchestra Tausi Women’s Taarab plus the new school singeli music, a fast rap genre from Dar Es Salaam’s ghetto delivered by S Kide. Students from the Dhow Countries Music Academy were also given a chance to shine, promoting local Zanzibari music.

You would expect most attendees to also be Tanzanian. Especially when their festival tickets were only 9 US dollars while it was a whopping $70 for Africans. Surprisingly, 60% of the crowd was made up of white people who paid double the amount Africans did. The remaining 40% were Tanzanians and other Africans supporting their local acts on this international music stage, like us. 

Kenyan flag in air during Fadhilee's Sauti Za Busara performance
Flying the Kenyan flag high

Everyone was here for the music. Nobody had to be told to stand up and dance, they just did. Whenever a performance ended on the amphitheater stage, there was a mass exodus to the main stage dance floor which was equally full. 

During those 4 nights, we danced and sang along to music we had never heard before, young kids swinging on their parent’s shoulders. Indeed, it was a family friendly festival free for children under 12. Because it’s never too early to expose them to raw African music.

And Sauti Za Busara 2019 was a true celebration of live music. Kenyan band Shamsi Music jazzed the crowd when they invited Fadhilee to sing in Luhya and together they created a beautiful Afro-jazz mix.

On Friday night, Wamwiduka band from Mbeya region brought their homemade instruments; they captured everyone’s feet with their energizing traditional music. It sounded like new school rhumba with its simple African stories and repetitive lyrics. The young Tanzanian band was later joined by Prince Ambasa Mandela for a stripped-down version of his dance anthem Mdundiko

Mandela and Wamwiduka performing at Sauti Za Busara 2019
Mandela and Wamwiduka band

We were all waiting for Fadhilee’s performance on Friday night, his much-awaited Sauti za Busara debut. All dressed in matching African print outfits, his ecstatic band set the stage ablaze with a powerful chant “There’s an uprising in Afrika!”. 

Freedom – Fadhilee’s first single from his KWETU album – fired up the crowd from the first beat. We collectively jumped up and down as passionate fists and Kenyan flags waved in the air. Everyone was singing along to his pan-African lyrics without being prompted. 

And what a proud moment it was for any Kenyan in the crowd. To see their own king being appreciated in a foreign land. And even hear people chanting people power later that night on the way to their hotels. 

It was pleasing to hear that Benga star Makadem also wowed the Sauti crowd in 2018. 

Fadhilee Music performing on Sauti Za Busara 2019 stage
“There’s an uprising right now in Afrika”

Another band that left a mark in our hearts was BCUC. Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness is a 7 piece band from South Africa who combine rock and roll with spiritual music to create Afro-psychedelic music. Armed only with percussions, a bass guitar and the powerful voices of their ancestors, they sent the entire crowd into a trance. It was pure African magic. 

The electrifying lead singer Jovi Nkosi was the preacher man, preaching the liberation of African people. And declaring bold statements like “We don’t love ourselves the way we love them”. 

“We all want to be happy and free,” he preached. And their hypnotizing Soweto blues reminded us of that unifying dream. Music for the people, by the people, with the people.

African music fans facing the Sauti Za Busara stage
The power of music

The final performance of the 4-day music festival was one you could not miss. Mokoomba band from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe played an exhilarating mix of Afro-fusion, Zimrock and Tonga rhythms. Even without understanding what they were saying, the crowd went into a dancing frenzy led by their uptempo African rhythms. 

The highlight of that Sunday night was when they performed the African classic Todii. Kenya’s own Fadhilee on guitar and Kasiva Mutua on percussions also joined them. With the precise band arrangement and the lead singer Mathias Muzaza’s husky voice, it felt like the late Oliver Mtukudzi was right there on the Sauti stage.

Those 4 days and 4 nights went by faster than one would think. We missed the official after-party on Tuesday night at Chaza club as Nairobi was calling the vibe tribe home. But it was alright – Sauti za Busara 2019 had already taken us on an eclectic musical journey around the continent. 

All these unique cultures showed us how diverse and blessed we are. Through the international music festival, we united as Africans under the African skies thanks to African music. It gave us hope for a united Africa.

Fadhilee's band bowing after Sauti Za Busara 2019 performing
Take a bow

After witnessing Fadhilee’s dream come true at Sauti Za Busara, the next stop is the Ongala Music Festival in Bagamoyo in August 2019. The first edition in 2018 was highly successful with Fadhilee, Mandela and Afrosimba band representing Kenya amongst Tanzanian Afro-fusion acts. And we got to celebrate the late bongo-beat legend Remmy Ongala, thanks to his daughter and organizer Aziza Ongala.

It seems like Tanzania is the new center of live African music in East Africa with these two international music festivals. Ongala is next on the lineup. Despite all the carsickness, seasickness and homesickness, this pilgrimage will be worth it.




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