Sauti za Busara – Sounds of Wisdom Swahili Music Festival, Another Step Forward for East African Music

Contributed by Yusuf Mahmoud

The second edition of Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) Swahili
Music Festival in February finished in fitting style with a superb set by Saida
Karoli, confirming her reputation as the true queen of East African music.
Playing to a 3,000+ capacity crowd, she set Zanzibar Old Fort’s “Mambo Club”
ablaze from the minute she came on stage, encapsulating all with her powerful
voice, stage charisma and enthralling set. Over the four days of the festival, music from the Swahili-speaking world was
showcased in a diverse line up of forty groups and more than 450 artists mostly
from East Africa. As well as featuring a broad array of music from Zanzibar,
Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, artists from Egypt, Yemen, Zimbabwe and Rwanda took
part in the event which must be the greatest celebration of Swahili music and
culture that has taken place in the world to date.

Shows started at 4pm every day with free admission until 8pm and a nominal entry
of 500/- TSh (US$ 0.50) thereafter, guaranteeing a packed house every single
night of the festival. The audience included men, women, children of different
ages, religions, continents and cultural backgrounds and the atmosphere was
buzzing – attentive and respectful, emotional and joyous throughout. Whoever was
performing, be it Sufi Muslim religious groups (Maulid ya Hom from Zanzibar),
traditional music and dance “ngoma” groups, guitar bands, taarab orchestras or
hip hop sensations from around the region, the crowds clearly appreciated the
wealth and diversity of music on offer throughout the long weekend.

Juma Nature & Wanaume Family together with Stara Thomas from Tanzania performed
at the Festival with a full live band, clearly surprising local crowds and
setting the trend for new directions in East African hiphop, Klear Kut from
Uganda and Wazenji Kijiwe from Zanzibar) were other hiphop highlights that got
the biggest cheers for their songs which included real instruments and local

The event was most of all a celebration of Swahili culture – its historical
traditions were acknowledged with Nadi Ikhwan Safaa (Malindi Taarab Orchestra)
from Zanzibar who celebrate one hundred years of playing music this year, and of
course the festival Guest of Honour Bi Kidude who is almost as old herself yet
still manages to drive audiences to a frenzy with her singing and drumming “ Me,
I sing with all my strength and will continue to make people happy until the day
I die.”

Yes, it was the women who were the biggest stars of the festival – the 93-year
old Bi Kidude (Festival Guest of Honour) thrilled and excited all in the
audience with her moving speech at the Opening Ceremony as well as rousing
renditions of unyago traditional ngoma performance the following night, Stara
Thomas and Saida Karoli for their sheer professionalism and stage presence, and
notably the women dancers of Imena Group from Rwanda who were undoubtedly this
year’s audience favorites. Despite strong competition from most of the groups
that had spent months rehearsing for the festival, the fifteen-piece Imena
provided a stunning array of choreographed dance, complete with umpteen costume
changes. Their sixty-minute performance embodied grace, power and beauty and
genuinely seemed to touch all the thousands of people in the venue, of whatever
age or nationality.

This year’s Arab groups were also favorites with local people and overseas
guests alike; Seiyun Popular Arts Group from Hadhramaut in Yemen (who mixed
Swahili language with Arabic and Hindi) and El Tanbura Group from Suez Region in
Egypt who also featured a range of traditional music instruments common to the
Swahili Coast including sumsummia, a lyre- like instrument common to Nilotic
peoples of Africa.

Festival organizers were understandably apprehensive about how the show would
turn out for Chibite, after the tragic loss of the two legendary master
musicians Dr Hukwe and Charles Zawose who had led the group over the past
decade. Worries were needless as Chibite were most definitely another of the
festival’s highlights, providing insight into the depth and variety of Gogo
traditional music and dance from the Dodoma region of Central Tanzania.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Sauti za Busara’s festival program this year
was that it also provided insight into new directions for Swahili music, with
some of the leading music fusion groups represented, including Segere Original
(from Tanzania mainland coastal region), Afrikali Band (with more of a
pan-African sound, also Music Crossroads Winners for Best Group of Southern
Africa) and perhaps the greatest surprise of all – the totally fantastic set by
Jagwa Music from Dar es Salaam – welcome mchiriku from the Swahili ghetto to the
international stage!

Sauti za Busara, Sounds of Wisdom is a wonderful new addition to the calendar of
arts and cultural events taking place annually on the African Continent. It is
the only way to really check out the pulse of what’s happening in all sectors of
the East African music scene, and there are surely several groups who with
proper management and promotion could easily explode on the international “world
music” circuit.

They called it the friendliest festival on the planet – and it was. Make sure
that you visit the next Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar 9th – 12th February
2006 – before it gets too big and loses the magic.

More information:

[Photo 1: Imena, Photo 2: Stara Thomas, Photo 3: Bi Kidude and Yusuf Mahmoud,
Photo 4: Seiyun Popular Arts Group, Photo 5: Jagwa Music. All photos by Masoud Khamisi, Busara

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.