Sauti za Busara 2019 Carnival Parade approaching the Old Fort, with Forodhani Gardens in the foreground. Picture: Markus Meissi
Sauti za Busara 2019 Carnival Parade approaching the Old Fort, with Forodhani Gardens in the foreground. Picture: Markus Meissi

The Sauti za Busara music festival is staged in Zanzibar. It’s centred in the Old Fort (Ngome Kongwe), with fringe events around Stone Town. MICHAEL BRITTON gives a heads-up on Day One.

Sauti za Busara is Swahili for Sounds of Wisdom. It’s also an annual four-day festival of music from across Africa, from Casablanca to Cape Town, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, with a sprinkle of Malawi and Reunion.

In the words of Festival Director, Yusuf Mahmoud, it’s “the magical power of African music under African skies”. And magical it was. If you don’t believe in magic, get yourself to this festival next year, and experience the transformative power of African music.

Vibrant Sauti za Busara carnival

A carnival parade signals the start of the music, and despite the fact that our flight was 30 minutes late, we were still in time to catch the parade as it passed metres from our hotel.

Sofaz in action. Picture: Marc Ngotonie
Sofaz in action. Picture: Marc Ngotonie

The electric excitement of Zanzibaris and visitors alike, the anticipation in the eyes, and the vibrant energy in the posture of everyone on the streets, made it clear. Magic was in Stone Town, and its name was music.

Ignoring the fact that getting our press tags took 45 minutes in a sweaty scrum of bodies in a 34°C airless room, and getting Zantel SIM cards and data for our phones could only happen the next day, nothing could detract from the exotic delights of Stone Town’s streets.

Forodhani Stage

By the time we had our press tags in hand, all we wanted was a drink, which we found 100 metres away at the floating restaurant. TS6000 for a beer and TS5000 for a glass of wine (R36 and R30 respectively). We chose fortuitously, because the floating restaurant (which I’m sure has another name, and is not really floating – just a wooden deck on stilts stretching into the sea) is within spitting distance of the Forodhani Stage. Set in the Forodhani Gardens, this stage was soon to host Sofaz, one of the bands on our “must see” list.

Drinks in hand, we began to relax for the first time in more than 12 hours. Having been up since 5.30am (to ensure we got to OR Tambo before peak traffic turned access into a nightmare) we’d been running on adrenalin all day. The S Kide & Wakupeti band had just wrapped up their set of singeli music and dance. Singeli is a Tanzanian music and dance craze that has emerged from the “ghetto suburbs” of Dar es Salaam.

Although singeli is getting attention beyond the borders of Tanzania, it didn’t catch, or hold, my attention. Said attention was focused on my beer, and on the local children jumping and diving into the ocean from the sea wall alongside the restaurant. It was hot enough for me to want to join them.

Maloya electro from Reunion

Meantime, Sofaz was plugging in and setting up. Already a swelling, selfie-snapping throng had occupied the lawn in front of the stage. Forgetting that my press card would allow me unimpeded views in front of the stage, I tried taking photos and videos over a bouncing and surging mass of heads. It didn’t work. But the music was extraordinary. Sofaz is a five-piece band from Reunion and play what they call Maloya electro.

Maloya, one of the two music genres on Reunion, arrived with the first African slaves taken there to work the sugar cane plantations. Maloya was prohibited, first by the slave owners, and then officially banned by the colonial administration in the 1950s, because they feared it incited a desire for independence from France. Finally unbanned in 1981, Maloya was declared by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

To create their unique sound of Maloya electro, Sofaz add a saxophone, guitar and a beat sampler to the traditional instruments used to play maloya. We loved this band, and came home with a CD each.

Shamshi Music, a six piece Afro-jazz Kenyan band, began their set on the Main Stage at about the time Sofaz took their final bow. As we made our way to the Old Fort and the Main Stage, we took a 30 metre detour to check the food on offer at the famous Forodhani night market.

The aroma of grilled mishkaki was tantalising, and the samoosas and dumplings looked good, but the hard-sell patter of every barker at every table kept us moving.

Ithrene. Picture: Marc Ngotonie
Ithrene. Picture: Marc Ngotonie

Mkubwa na Wanawe Crew

We caught the last 15 minutes of Shamsi Music, but it was Ithrene, the Algerian jazz rock outfit who were up next, that we really wanted to see.

With a high energy show, and unmistakable Arabic influences, this band lived up to expectations.

Next up was a showcase slot for a Tanzanian institution – Mkubwa na Wanawe Crew. They were featuring four emerging talents in their stable who would be singing Afro pop, hip hop and bongo flava. We skipped this session. Already on the verge of sensory-overload fatigue, I had no space in my head for what they offered.

abu Chai with his menu. Picture Li Kritzinger
Babu Chai. Picture Li Kritzinger

In need of a quiet moment, we strolled through the Forodhani Gardens towards the ocean. And found Babu Chai. What a delight! Babu Chai is a man who could have stepped out of the Ancient Mariner.

He runs a chai tea and spiced coffee stall in a corner of the night market. After trying his spiced coffee, regular coffee will never again be good enough for me.

More about Sauti za Busara

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Cover photo: Sofaz. Picture: Masoud Khamis