Each year Zanzibar world renowned for her beautiful tropical beaches, fresh grilled sea food served with delicious garnishes and the spectacular phenomenon of the single sail boats that grace the island’s waters sways to various music tunes during the annual Sauti za Busara Swahili Music Festival whose seventh edition is scheduled for February 11-16, 2010. Originally conceived as a showcase for the East African Swahili music, seven years later critics who have been watching the festival over the last six years are concerned that this festival, whose Kiswahili name means “Sounds of Wisdom”, appears to be losing its focus in promoting Swahili music. BETHSHEBA ACHITSA writes.
The 2010 edition does no more than justify the critics’ observation. While one would have expected to see many Swahili groups, the line up of performers announced as ‘confirmed’ for the event by the Sauti za Busara organisers in November 2009 reveals that soul, blues, funk, jazz, rock and other contemporary urban music genres are dominating the festival. This leaves Swahili groups scrambling for audience and space with non-Swahili music groups on what should have been their platform. In 2010, groups to perform at the festival are drawn from as far as Trinidad and Tobago, Surinam, UK, USA, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Guinea, Senegal, Egypt, and The Gambia.
Other nations represented at Sauti za Busara include Mayotte, Kenya, Congo, Uganda, Zambia, and Tanzania.
Among the groups are The Love Circle band whose style is described as reggae, pop and urban. The group that comes from Trinidad and Tobago has all its songs performed in English and its music is dance floor-friendly and orchestra-oriented that leaves one wondering how relevant its presence is at Sauti Za Busara, a “Swahili music” festival.
But more questions may be raised over why Debo Band, a nine-piece Ethiopian outfit that is said to be re-defining old sounds of classic Ethiopian music will be doing in Zanzibar. Or should the festival now focus on the so-called “world music” and stop branding itself as a “Swahili music” festival that it is not? Perhaps that is what has already happened quietly without the festival founder and director Yusuf Mahmood announcing it to the world. And he would be perfectly justified to change the vision if the ‘Swahili’ in Sauti za Busara has not produced results. One may not be so sure but it appears Sauti za Busara could be abandoning its focus on ‘Swahili’. Only they could shed light on this matter.
Place or venue may not be the only consideration but the relevance of the particular groups to the festival is important as some of the groups drawn from the East African countries have little to do with ‘Swahili’ music. There are groups drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania yet they are not , strictly-speaking, ‘Swahili’ oriented. Kenya’s Kunja Dance group, for instance, specialises in contemporary dance and acrobatics. It is surprising that they are part of the 2010 edition.
It is then undeniable to state that tourism and perhaps promoting the sponsors’ causes are now at the core of the festival, explaining why they welcome prominent music groups from around the world.
Seven years is a long time and one would be tempted to ask Sauti za Busara to state how, exactly, it has contributed to the development of music since its inception in 2003. When the organisers say entry to the event is free to East African residents before 5pm, one wonders who they are targeting at this time when most people are at work or school. It is only after work that people would attend any concert.
If more Swahili groups would get invited to this event, then up-and-coming artists would have succeeded in forming sustainable networks that would enable them to develop their careers. Unfortunately, each year a “select few”artists get invited to Sauti za Busara, perhaps to remind people that it ought to be a Swahili music festival. Such performers include Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club and Bi Kidude who appear to be used more for marketing purposes than for their “musicality”.
Creating the Sauti za Busara festival is such a laudable effort, but with it losing its focus one cannot help but wonder why DJ Yusuf Mahmood continues to purport that Sauti za Busara is a platform that promotes not Swahili but East African Music. But where is “East Africa” in the line-up, and is “Swahili” the same as “East Africa”?
With the likes of South African Thandiswa Mazwai, Holland-based Bamba Nazar & The Pilgrimage of Surinam, Dawda Jobarteh of The Gambia, Isaac Blackman & The Love Circle of Trinidad & Tobago, Malick Pathé Sow of Senegal, Mari Boine of Norway, Obibase of Guinea, and Massar Egbari of Egypt lined up for performance, one may be justified to ask if Sauti za Busara is indeed a “Swahili” or “world” music festival. And are the two synonymous?