What do you do when Sauti za Busara calls your name? Well, you answer. Especially if it’s the second time in a row. You drop everything you’re doing and make your way to Zanzibar as soon as possible. After all, this is the biggest music festival in East Africa.
It’s your first time using Tahmeed to travel from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam. You pay the same ticket price as other bus companies but it’s more luxurious with 3 instead of 4 seats per row. Everyone has enough leg space and an armrest, it doesn’t matter if you’re VIP or regular.
As a solo traveller, it’s tempting to take the solo seat like an independent lone wolf. But there’s a high risk of getting lonely along the way. So you end up sitting next to a woman who quickly reminds you of your mother – short hair, brown skin and cheery nature. By the Namanga border, you learn her youngest son attended the same high school as you, is learning his mother tongue as an adult, and loves driving fast like his mother once did.
You agree with your new mother on many things. For example, fruits are the best snacks when travelling: you can eat as many as you want without getting fat, they are cheaper than your regular chips and chicken, and there’s a lower risk of food poisoning.
Conversation and food keep you going through the 16-hour journey with a few bathroom breaks. Of course, flying is faster and more convenient than being stuck on the road all day long. But you will miss the beauty of God’s creation, which you have a front-row seat to thanks to the wide clean windows. You marvel at the carpeted rolling plains, green wrinkled hills whose tops kiss the clouds, natural rivers flowing underneath the road, and lone baobab trees punctuating the long sentences of sisal plantation.
Tanzania is not only vast but also beautiful.
As if on cue, the bus driver plays Tanzanian music throughout, from taarab to bongo flava. You wonder if Kenyans do a similar thing on road trips traversing Kenya. Taarab is musical poetry laced with timeless wisdom about love, God, family and humanity. Basically, the things that matter most in life. You find yourself singing along with the choir of Swahili women, and swaying in your seat to the sound of the African guitar. So this is where Kenyan female musician Zaituni Wambui gets her inspiration from.
The new-school bongo jams all sound the same. Their flashy music videos playing on the multiple TV screens on the roof have the same setting in fancy hotels or nightclubs. And it’s the same script throughout: Boy wants girl – even a 10-year-old schoolboy.
But it’s okay because you know you will get more African flavour at the Tanzanian music festival.
Welcome to Tanzania
You finally arrive in Dar at 11 pm, tired to the bone of being tired. You spend your first night in a cosy Airbnb which doubles up as an Iranian restaurant called Chattanooga. And before you leave the next morning, you check out the artsy walls decorated with spectacular images of ancient Iranian people. There are also black and white photos of Hollywood actors, some whom you recognize.
After one and a half hours of rocking on the Indian ocean aboard the Azam ferry (sitting on the outside deck cures any motion sickness), you land in Zanzibar that afternoon. A local meets you at the arrivals like you’re at the airport and leads you to your new Airbnb. This one is in the heart of Stone Town – which doubles as a home for a Zanzibari family.
Naturally, you’ll get lost in the labyrinth of ancient white buildings every time you leave the house, and have to ask locals for directions to the festival site.
Sauti za Busara 2020
Just like last year, the 17th edition of Sauti Za Busara is 4 days of 44 performances with over 400 musicians. These “Sounds of Wisdom” have called over 20,000 other people from all corners of the world. The aim is to show the musical diversity of the continent while promoting African music with cultural identity.
Sauti Za Busara 2020 also emphasizes a new theme: Paza Sauti. You come across giant posters that remind you to raise your voice against sexual harassment. Meanwhile, the daily ‘Movers & Shakers’ forums at Monsoon Restaurant allow local and visiting artists, managers, and media professionals to meet, get to know each other and exchange ideas.
Diverse African Music
The African music festival kicks off on Thursday 13th February with a carnival street parade from Mapinduzi Square to Forodhani Park. This colourful celebration comes alive with break dancers, stilt walkers, acrobats and musicians entertaining the crowd. Which you miss again, like last year, because you arrive one day late. At least there are pictures to feast on Sauti Za Busara’s website.
For the next four days, the small Forodhani stage is open at 4.20 pm to the public. The main stage and amphitheatre stage inside the 300-year-old Ngome Kongwe take over from 7 pm till 1 am.
Every night, you show your wrist band at its giant entrance and enter a new world bursting with live music and flashing lights. Unlike most of the African music festivals you’ve attended, it’s impossible to miss a performance – unless you choose to. Because when one stage is on a break, the other one is on fire.
You do your best to catch as many as possible and discover African music you would never have found on your own.
Charity truly begins at home. Zanzibar presents Tarajazz, who as the name suggests, fuse taarab and jazz – which your fellow music journalist praised on Jazz Symphonic. Siti and the Band, who are both Sauti and Nairobi regulars, perform on both stages.
Swahili Encounters is a continuing project by Busara Promotions and Zanzibar’s Dhow Countries Music Academy (DCMA). This year, it invites artists from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Ghana, UK, Morocco and Algeria to create new music and perform it together on the main stage.
When it comes to pure taarab, Zanzibaris know best as seen by Nadi Ikhwan Safaa and Rahat Zamaan Taarab Orchestra who play seated with their ouds, qanuns and violins. But this magical island is not stuck to the past. Newcomer Ison Mistari delivers his conscious hip-hop taarab flow aka zenjiflava on Forodhani stage, and Mapanya band thrill the crowd with their eclectic pop fusion on the Amphitheatre stage.
From Tanzania, your favourite performance is by Sinubi and Zawose Spirit group. It’s the way this musical group from Dodoma blend traditional and contemporary music and dance – all the instruments are traditional except the drums. They introduce you to the ilimba (cousin to the thumb piano mbira), zeze, ngoma and other Gogo instruments.
As Sinubi leads the band, two ecstatic female singers shake giant feathers on their shoulders to everyone’s delight. They even play African drums on the last song. Together, they proudly continue to sing the legacy of Dr Hukwe Ubi Zawose, one of Tanzania’s music legends.
You miss Mopao Swahili Jazz but catch a bit of The Mafik at the amphitheatre stage. The boastful duo perform bongo flava hits which the local crowd sings along to.
In case you thought Khaligraph was the best rapper in Africa, here comes Makazi. The confident Tanzanian rapper is flanked with three background female singers and one petite dancer on the main stage. He makes all of you bounce as if you’re in a Biggie concert.
Uganda offers not one but two female musicians. Apio Moro is the Afro-soul singer wielding a guitar and lots of love songs. And Evon steals your heart with her heavenly voice even though you only catch one of her reggae-dub songs.
During Sauti Za Busara 2019, Cameroon was the closest thing you got. But this year, West Africa is well represented. Malian Oumour Konate brings his bluesy rock whereas Mamy Kanoute – who was featured in Black Panther’s movie soundtrack – charms the audience with her boisterous dancing. Also from Senegal, Guiss Guiss Bou Bess fuse traditional with electronic music that sparks wild energy throughout the crowd
But on that Friday night, you are in the mood for 100% live African music. And Seun Olota from Nigeria delivers it on the smaller amphitheatre stage. He oozes Fela Kuti vibes from the beginning – he also shares a name with the legend’s youngest son.
According to him, music is not just for dancing but for thinking too. Other than playing the saxophone and keys, he shares some wisdom about African politics and society in sweet old pidgin. His band backs him up, Afrobeat style. The only thing missing from this Nollywood drama is his female dancers whom you watched at ACCES 2018 music conference in Nairobi.
Not far away, Ghana’s FRA! bring a vibrant fusion of highlife, pop and traditional music on the main stage. And Onipa makes sure you don’t forget their name – or their bright orange costumes either. Coming from London and Accra, they send the whole crowd into a frenzy with their electronic meets trap meets Afrofuturism energy. The lead singer keeps declaring “This is the Nu Africa!” and you can’t help but thrust a passionate fist in the air.
There’s another music performance that completely rocks your world. You miss Kaloubadya’s animated maloya music from Reunion but Pigment blows you away with their psychedelic Afro-rock music. You would not mind watching this thrilling punk-rock duo again.
Mannyok represents the nearby island of Mauritius. Sibusiso ‘Mash’ Mashiloane brings the world-famous South African jazz to Zanzibar. Up north, Mehdi Laifoui Trab Project carries the Algerian flag high with their Arabian sounds.
The closing act of the festival on Sunday night is Mehdi Quamom. The Moroccan musician rocks long beautiful locks and his 3 backup male singers/ dancers are equally in colourful outfits. They clash their metallic krakebs as Mehdi plays his gambri – a traditional bass guitar which he made. Together, they make you dance and sing along like a choir even though you have no clue what you’re saying.
Representing Kenyan music
As a Kenyan, you look most forward to one thing. Since you missed Lulu Abdalla on Thursday, there’s no way you’re missing Blinky Bill on the following night. He looks like the cool kid he is in a white tee written “Africa Your Time Is Now”, black jeans, sneaks, and a black and white fanny pack on his waist. He also has a cool pendant hanging from his neck – which you later find out is a design of the Mayan calendar.
Not far away, Tugi shows off his chest in a half coat looking like a rockstar on his lead guitar.
With a group of ecstatic Kenyans right on the front row, you dance along to Atenshun and sing your soul out to Mungu Halali (which has miraculously reached Tanzanians). Performing the Just A Band classic Probably For Lovers seems so perfect on this Valentines Day. His midnight set also includes an unreleased song and plenty of encores, that ends with old and new fans chanting “Blinky! Blinky!”
At one point, Blinky picks up a Kenyan flag that has been flying high in the crowd and parades it on stage. That’s when it hits you that there’s a huge difference between watching an artist in your own soil vs in a different country. They’re representing you and you are there supporting them. What a proud moment to be Kenyan.
On Saturday night, you turn up again to support another Kenyan act. Tanzanians seem to love him just as much as Kenyans, maybe even more. And Ambasa Mandela and Last Tribe turn out to be Sarabi. The world-touring Kenyan band who broke up in 2017 reunite on the same stage 3 years later.
In all white, the reunited kings perform old and new hits like Love will rescue us and Mdundiko. You cannot ignore the wise words from Fantastic Love off his Ona Sasa EP:
“You can be loved only when you love yourself
You can be found only when you avail yourself.”
In his second last song, Ambasa Mandela begins preaching like the lead singer of BCUC Jovi Nkosi did back in Sauti Za Busara 2019. Because when you have the mic, you have the power. “Climate change doesn’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor,” he declares unapologetically. “The world is at its menopause. Think about it”.
His conscious words fire up your heart. You love it when he preaches.
And then they finish with their most powerful song to date. Sheria, the Kenyan protest song ignites the entire crowd as Freedom by Fadhilee always does. You all jump as one nation united by the power of music. The whole band dances together like a family one more time. And by the end of the night, you cannot feel your feet.
A Touch of Busara Xtra
One of the reasons for your fatigue is Busara Xtra. These are fringe events happening in Zanzibar hotels, restaurants and Dhows Countries Music Academy during the festival week. Earlier that Saturday, you follow the sound of music to Livingstone Beach Restaurant where DJ Mura told you he’d be playing. This is part of the Urban Music Rebels project between East African artists that started at Ongala Music Festival 2019 and was supposed to end at Bayimba Music Festival 2020 – before Corona happened.
That Saturday evening, the young Kenyan DJ represents Kenyan music from Bengatronics, Makadem, Blinky Bill, Ayrosh and the Afro House genre. He further takes you on a musical journey across the world’s landscapes which you have not seen before. And after taking you to the highest skies, he lands you back safely.
Together with three other free spirits, you leave everything on the dancefloor. The waving Indian Ocean in the background approves as you let your soul free.
The next fringe event you attend is the complete opposite. Fadhilee Itulya and Nuri Bedga – who happen to be on a Zanzibar tour – are playing at Upendo Hotel rooftop. You’re right on time for the Sunday afternoon chill set where Fadhilee loops his vocals and guitar live. It almost feels like there’s a whole band on stage.
Nuri plays the most exciting riffs on his saxophone and they complement each other like they’ve been playing together their whole lives. You think if Africa had a sound, this is it.
As if this Sunday evening can’t get better, they stop the music so that we can watch the golden African sun sink into the Indian Ocean. And Fadhilee’s final song is a soulful blend of Afirika and Mama from his KWETU album. It takes you to heaven and leaves you there.
Truly, nowhere be like Africa.
You will never forget the delicious Zanzibari food that kept you alive during those four days. ZNZ Msuo Juice Bar is the real deal: their Mzee Ongala smoothie – named after the Tanzanian music legend – is just the right amount of sweet and thick. And Melting Point Cafe right next to the ocean has the freshest mango passion juice you taste during your stay.
As per ritual, you visit Forodhani Park every evening to see it transform into a street food extravaganza. You try out the Zanzibari pizza with your choice of fillings, shawarma and fries. As for their fishy assortment of seafood, you look but do not touch.
You also avoid restaurants and coffee houses filled with white tourists in favour of the more affordable ones. For breakfast, your local restaurant serves fish soup with cassava or chapati, but you try it with sweet potato. And it hits the right spot.
But sugarcane juice is an everyday staple, day or night. And on one afternoon, one vendor on a bicycle saves you from the heat with some refreshing coconut water. Sugarcane juice still wins the day.
The Sauti audience
Sauti Za Busara is truly a destination festival. Even though international attendees pay 140 dollars – twice the amount that African citizens pay – they still seem like the majority. You wish you were Tanzanian so you could part with only 9 dollars for the 4-day festival.
The crowd is as diverse as the music, from age to colour. There are people as young and as old as you can imagine, from white retirees who take guided group tours during the day with their cameras and walking sticks to children bouncing on their father’s shoulders at night. Meanwhile, the energetic youth take over the dancefloor jumping and screaming their hearts out.
But really, there are only two types of audience. The first is the random raver lost in the music – dancing and singing along to words they don’t comprehend. And the second one stands still watching this strange band play strange music on stage. You shuffle between both groups during the festival.
Something new happens at this Sauti Za Busara. Security guys walk around, reminding you to take care of your shoes and put your backpack on your chest as if you’re walking in Nairobi CBD on a weekday. You appreciate this gesture. If these guys were at Kilifi New Year 2020, you might still have your valuables.
For the closing ceremony, the Team Busara crew and volunteers get up on stage in their T-shirts printed Love Live Music. You have to appreciate them for their hard work during those 4 magical days. They then pour water on the festival director Yusuf Mahmoud and hoist him in the air for his birthday, Baba Lao playing in the speakers. Old habits die hard, especially in the Old Fort.
These 4 days leave you thirsting for more African music. And more of Zanzibar. You promise to come back for an African pendant at the world-famous Coins shop and a local painting that reminds you of Stone Town’s unique architecture. And you must visit DCMA, Zanzibar’s only music school.
You also want to visit shamba – the other parts of the green vast Zanzibar, including Red Monkey Lodge Jambiani. But no boat ride to Prison Island. Someone says it’s the most boring trip ever.
When you come back, you’ll probably stay at Malindi Guest House which you discovered on your last day. The welcoming patron David says it’s one of the oldest hotels in Zanzibar. And it’s clearly part of the green living movement.
As soon as you walk in, you’re welcomed by a charming garden that follows you up to the rooftop. On the way, you meet recycled plastic bottles turned into chairs, bicycle parts turned into tables, sinks made of pans and tyres, and shower partitions with glass bottles and cement. It’s recycling heaven.
And from the rooftop lounge area where breakfast is served every morning, you can see the Zanzibar port, the Indian ocean, Old Town and the new town.
As you lounge on the mattresses on the floor or walk around, you cannot ignore the myriad photos plastered on the walls. Photos of Zanzibar, Syria, Nina Simone, naked white women, everything. It’s a quirky mix of Distant Relatives Kilifi and KWETU Space in Kakamega.
“Why is it called Malindi?” you ask David before you leave. He explains that this is the original Malindi before it came to Kenya. You’ll have to consult your history teacher about that.
You also have to come back for that Malindi coffee. For only 200 Tanzanian shillings (about 0.1 US dollars), you can get a miniature cup of hot black coffee mixed with ginger. It’s a Zanzibar tradition especially among men, day or night.
And of course, Zanzibar is a nice place to be. There are nice people everywhere; strangers will randomly welcome you to the tourist town even though you’ve been there for a week. You bump into bicycles, scooters, a few motorbikes and even fewer vehicles in Stone Town. You can already imagine riding your basketed bicycle through those narrow streets one day.
Meanwhile, the city traffic in mainland Dar is heavier but it flows. It is controlled by working traffic lights, which everyone obeys and traffic police officers are there to make sure of it. Maybe their Kenyan counterparts need to benchmark with them.
Another thing you could emulate is the Mwendo Kasi. The Dar Rapid Transit (DART) system is always running from morning to evening to different routes in the city. The long blue buses are spacious and are free from traffic jams as they have their own lanes. If Tanzania can do it, why can’t you?
Being in Tanzania also teaches you how important it is to know your Swahili. If you act or speak like a foreigner, they will treat you (and charge you) like one. So you make a conscious effort to speak it back home as well. I mean, Burundians speak it too. And this lingua franca makes you feel more connected as an East African community.
More Festivals for Live African Music
You come back to Nairobi just in time to catch another African artist whom you missed at Sauti Za Busara 2020. Thais Diarra is an Afro-soul singer with roots in Senegal, Mali and Switzerland. By the time you arrive at Alliance Francaise on that Friday night, the garden is full house. The mixed crowd dances vigorously and cheers after every song thanks to Senegalese kora player Noumoucounda and Kenya’s Kasiva Mutua on percussions. It feels like a piece of Sauti Za Busara has landed in Nairobi.
This is not new to you. African musicians who perform at Sauti Za Busara usually end up touring the rest of Africa and Europe after the festival.
It seems all your favourite Kenyan musicians have performed at Sauti Za Busara before you even knew about it. 2017 was H_art The Band and Sarabi’s year. In 2018, the African music festival hosted Kidum, Makadem, and Maia and The Big Sky. It might take a few more years to see these big artists on this big stage again.
Sauti Za Busara 2020 makes you wish there was a music festival that celebrates Afro-fusion musicians in Kenya. Those alternative artists who keep African culture alive through authentic sounds, instruments and languages. You can already imagine a homegrown festival that unites the East and West, North and South through music. Live African music.
While in Zanzibar, you meet Ongala Music Festival organizers benchmarking from their elder sibling. They’re busy preparing for the third edition in August 2020. Unlike Sauti, they have cheaper tickets, camping options and it’s in Bagamoyo – an hour’s drive from Dar Es Salaam. That means you don’t have to spend 25 dollars on the ferry, just 35 dollars if you’re travelling by bus.
Meanwhile, Sauti za Busara 2021 already has its dates set: 11-14th February. You hope that travelling and event restrictions will have been lifted by then. So that when Zanzibar calls, you are more than ready to answer.