BCUC at Sauti za Busara 2019. Picture: Markus Meissi
BCUC at Sauti za Busara 2019. Picture: Markus Meissi

Two South African bands performed at the Sauti za Busara festival – Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) and Tune Recreation Committee (TRC) led by Mandla Mlangeni. MICHAEL BRITTON also tuned into sounds from further north.

I caught a fragment of the BCUC performance in The Forodhani Gardens on the second day of Sauti za Busara 2019, but missed the bulk of their show as I was on my way to a taarab music rehearsal. I was sure I could catch BCUC in South Africa at some stage – and their gig at the CT International Jazz Festival 2019 provides another great opportunity. It was the bands I’d be unlikely to see in SA in the near future that interested me more, and besides, I was intrigued by my brief exposure to taarab.

Tausi Women's Taarab. Picture: Rashde Fidigo
Tausi Women’s Taarab. Picture: Rashde Fidigo


Taarab is a popular music genre in Tanzania and much of the Great Lakes region. It’s a word borrowed from Arabic which, according to Wikipedia, means “having joy with music”. The key instrument of taarab is the qanun (or kanun), a 72-string zither that is played lying flat on the lap. The strings are plucked, much like a harp.

The beat of taarab is driven by drums and African percussion instruments. All the taarab ensembles I saw included a couple of violins, an accordion, tambourine, oud and a double bass. The sound is otherworldly in its beauty and harmony and influences range from Arabic to Indian, Persian and Turkish to African. A true reflection of the cultural heritage of Zanzibar.

I managed to fit in two taarab performances. The show at the Serena Hotel by Cultural Music Club (a taarab ensemble established in 1958), was charming and relaxed, to the point of restrained. I kept waiting for them to break loose, but perhaps what they played was what hotel management wanted. The performance on the Amphitheatre Stage, by Rajab Suleiman & Kithara, was more animated, breathtakingly beautiful, poignant and haunting.

They did, towards the end of the set, switch to kidumbak, a less refined, upbeat and more rhythmic form of music. And now it was the dancers who took our breath away, with sensual swaying and suggestive hip rolls, not unlike belly dancers.

Swahili Encounters

Swahili Encounters is not, from what I can gather, an annual feature of Sauti za Busara. But it should be. 2019 brought together musicians from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria. The 11 hand-picked musicians, from a range of musical styles, had three days in which to interpret traditional Swahili songs, compose new material, and rehearse the show.

It was the highlight of my experiences at Sauti za Busara. This was a bunch of musicians really enjoying themselves in a cross-cultural, cross-genre collaboration. Their pleasure and enthusiasm infected an already highly charged audience. The result? Two-way excitement, with audience and musicians feeding off each other in a sumptuous experience verging on the spiritual.

The festival programme expanded on the Swahili Encounters collaboration: “East African musicians rarely have such opportunities to meet and exchange, and always ask for more. In fact, previous participants often report this as their personal highlight of the entire festival experience.” Which echoes my feelings about this special event.

Swahili Encounters. Picture: Markus Meiss
Swahili Encounters. Picture: Markus Meiss

The creative director for Swahili Encounters was Mandla Mlangeni, SA trumpeter, composer, band leader and the Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist for 2019.

I caught up with him back in Cape Town and asked him how he overcame language barriers, cultural differences, egos and agendas in the rehearsals. Mandla, an eloquent and engaging young man, admitted to the difficulties, saying that the most difficult aspect was cultural differences. To overcome all these potential areas of conflict, he said, “I broke the musicians up into small groups and tasked each group with coming up with a new arrangement or new composition. Then I put it all together.”

It sounded simple, the way he said it. But simple or not, the result was a seamless explosion of exceptional creative energy.

With a festival of this size, 400 musicians, performing 44 shows, on three stages over four days from late afternoon to late at night, it’s impossible to see it all. Which is a pity, because I probably missed some good stuff. But what I saw will linger for decades, as will the friendliness, goodwill and helpfulness of Zanzibaris. It made missing a few shows no hardship at all.

More about Sauti za Busara 2019: here

What: Sauti za Busara 2019 music festival
Sauti za Busara Zanzibar: http://www.busaramusic.org/
Get ready for Sauti za Busara tickets 2020: https://bit.ly/2tTnrR8
Cover picture: Tausi Women’s Taarab Picture: Rashde Fidigo