Sauti za Busara: From place of execution to top African festival

The island of Zanzibar was once again the setting of the annual Sauti za Busara music festival, an eclectic gathering of live acts from across the African continent. Held under the theme #AfricaUnited, the festival and its organisers brought together African artists and fans from around the globe in the face of a divided world where right-leaning politicos are increasingly looking inwards.    

Swahili Encounters were a highlight at Sauti za Busara
Swahili Encounters were a highlight at Sauti za Busara

And it was a pan-African collaboration on Thursday that provided arguably the most kaleidoscopic sound of the entire four-day festival, with musicians from Tanzania, Zanzibar and Morocco sharing the stage under the name Swahili Encounters. Just a few days prior to their joint performance, promoters worked in collaboration with Zanzibar’s Dhow Countries Music Academy to make it possible for the musicians to coalesce their respective sounds. The result? A completely original composition of styles comprising traditional and contemporary instruments including guembri, ghaita, ribab, oud, violin, marimba, zeze, guitar, qanun, drums and percussion. Add to that the distinct vocal flairs of the three regions and you got something never heard before.

Opening night, Thursday, also saw Seychellois singer-bassist Grace Barbé bring her own mix of Creole sounds fused with afrobeat and pop, and although she managed to choreograph the crowd to dance in synch almost like at an American barn dance, her three-piece outfit just couldn’t compete with the many multi-layered ensembles on display. One such example was Kithara, led by the well-known Zanzibari qanun player, Rajab Suleiman, who had the international crowd in awe with his masterful hold of the multi-stringed instrument.

Ethiopia’s Sami Dan & Zewd Band was one of the most energetic groups at the festival and brought fans to a static gallop with mercurial reggae compositions. The band’s stage show is energy-laden and appealed directly to the younger festivalgoers, many of whom had come from as far as Australia, Spain, the US and all the corners of Africa.