The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines
The Arts

An African Chord Resonance

Sauti za Busara celebrates the continent’s music and its artists.

Jackie Kazimoto raps into the microphone in his right hand while using the one in his left as a wand, driving the at-capacity crowd into an ever-higher, almost supernatural frenzy. Locals hip to his sound sing along, and even foreigners hurl back resounding responses to his calls. Everyone is enthralled, and the Zanzibari air hangs thick with energy and sound. Welcome to Sauti za Busara.

This vibrant annual music festival held in Stone Town, Zanzibar, celebrated its 11th event this year, though its roots go back even further. Sauti’s founding organizer, Yusuf Mahmoud, first visited the island in 1998 to curate the music and performance segment of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. 

Reflecting on that time, Mahmoud says, “I was quite shocked to see most young people listening to foreign music from Europe and the USA. I felt that there was a need to give a platform for many of the local talents, to showcase the amazing work they do.” 

So Mahmoud and his pioneering team erected the first Sauti stage in 2004, hosting primarily Zanzibari and Tanzanian musicians at the shoreside Forodhani Gardens. But as word of the festival spread, the program evolved to embrace music from all Africans, including those from the African diaspora. And to accommodate the growing crowds, the four-day event moved across the road to the Old Fort — scene of 17th-century Omani-Portuguese conflicts.

Today, Sauti za Busara (Swahili for “Sounds of Wisdom”) holds a reputation as “the friendliest festival on planet earth” for its welcoming, accommodating nature, as well as a significant showcase for East African musicians and African music. Mahmoud’s team curates each year’s lineup to balance international performers with local and regional acts, aiming to celebrate the trailblazing vibrancy and diversity of contemporary African artists.

“There was a need to give a platform for many of the local talents, to showcase the amazing work they do.”

Some of the most memorable acts from the 2014 event included players of the West African kora (a 21-stringed harp). Gambian Sona Jobarteh, the first female kora-playing griot (keeper of a people’s oral tradition), showed virtuosity fast reaching that of her predecessors, while Ugandan Joel Sebunjo’s stage presence kept the audience in awe. And Sekou Kouyate, with his American counterpart Joe Driscoll, brought the house down with hip-hop-infused musical prowess.

Other young acts that are sure to leave an indelible mark on African music included Nigerian-born Wunmi, who pulled off a high-octane show complete with crowd surfing; Senegalese Kara Sylla Ka, the sometime Vieux FarkaToure collaborator; and Oy — the Ghanaian-via-Switzerland electronic folklore-telling duo.

Part of the celebratory subtext underlying the festival’s narrative is that of African artists based in disparate parts of the world being able to play for an audience at “home.” Dizu Plaatsjies, for example, is a Capetonian who plays traditional South African music but mostly in France. He says he’s never played at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, but he’s found a chance to reconnect with an African audience on the Sauti stage.

And indeed, in an age when African audiences are bombarded by music from other continents, Sauti za Busara continues to celebrate music with easily traceable African origins. The friendly festival not only caters to the physical needs of its attendees but also serves the soul by keeping the spirit of African music alive in its corner of the continent. 

Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi lives in the narrow stage pits of concerts, surviving on the sap sucked from press passes. When not in his natural habitat, he divides his time between stalking musicians and writing for English- and German-language publications.