Why Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara music festival should be on your to-do list

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Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara music festival is one of the most exciting and diverse in Africa, with three stages and 400 musicians from around the continent.
The Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar is at its most magical in February, when it puts on one of the best music festivals in Africa. 
 Stone Town, Zanzibar: The fiery-orange sunset turns the ocean into liquid gold and casts its light on the buildings around Forodhani Gardens, where the nightly food market is being set up. Young boys run across the gardens to jump, curl and twist as they hurl their bodies into the sea. I make my way through the crowd of people who have been following a street parade led by drumming and dancing troupes. The dancers permeate the crowd, still moving to the sound of the distant drum beat. One of them walks to a backpack and pulls out a python, then uses it as part of the act. After that, various other troupes compete for the crowd’s attention, and Maasai dancers begin to jump in rhythm. The growing crowd of onlookers, made up mostly of local families and tourists, give them a round of applause before our attention moves to other performers at the gardens…

From left: Zakes Bantwini from SA, Revellers at the festival. Images: Nayssa Said

THE MAIN EVENT

Some people follow the sound of music coming from across the street at the Old Fort, where two stages have been set up for the more than 50 bands that will keep us on our feet until after midnight for the next four days. This is Sauti za Busara, a spellbinding, booty-shaking and feet-stomping party unlike any other in Zanzibar – or Africa, for that matter.

The festival is a celebration of Africa’s rich musical catalogue, showcasing musicians from around the continent. The lineup includes artists from the island as well as from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Burundi, Malawi, Réunion, Morocco, Ethiopia, Sudan and even Somaliland. There is folk music, hip-hop, rumba, roots, afro pop, afro-beat, afropunk, fusion, jazz, reggae, taraab and bongo flava, among other music genres. In the past, South Africa has been represented by Thandiswa Mazwai, Tumi and the Volume, Zakes Bantwini, Kwani Experience, Ihashi Elimhlophe and The Moreira Project among others.

 

 PARTY WITH UBUNTU

I have been coming to this festival on and off since 2012, and every edition is the same treat: bands from parts of the continent that never make it to other music festivals around Africa; song and dance day and night around the normally conservative island that shuns hard-partying; and a crowd of more than 10 000 revellers losing themselves to the heady sights and sounds. It is not uncommon to see strangers running to each other for hugs and to dance together.

Even though crowds are thick, there is always a sense of camaraderie. For example, how everyone lets children watch performances from just behind the mosh pit, or how professional photographers use their prime position in front of the stage to take pictures not just of the musicians, but of other revellers too. This spirit follows us around after the festival to the many after-parties and jam sessions held in cafes and restaurants around Stone Town. To be in Zanzibar at any time of the year is wonderful, but being here during Sauti za Busara is a magical experience that’s hard to find at other festivals.

The next festival takes place from 7 to 10 February 2019 and will feature three stages and 44 shows by 400 artists. For more details, go to www.busaramusic.org


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WHEN THE MUSIC STOPS

Busara’s other drawcard is its setting. Zanzibar is beautiful and lives up to every cliché of a tropical paradise, with turquoise water and soft, white-sand beaches. However, there is more to the island than its picture-perfect shoreline:

 1. 

Explore ancient culture

 Zanzibar is off the Swahili coast, which runs from Northern Mozambique to Kenya and Mogadishu in Somalia. The coast has in the past fallen under the dominion of Omani sultans, Indian merchants and Portuguese colonialists. Each culture has left behind its influence, which, combined with local traditions, birthed the now eclectic Swahili culture. A walking tour of Stone Town will give you a taste of life in the heartland of the Swahili coast and a window into its past. Start at Darajani market and include St Joseph’s Cathedral and the House of Wonders, which is the largest and tallest building in Zanzibar. Take in the traditional ancient royal doors, which have been here for centuries, and pop into the coffee shops and rooftop bars for epic views.

2. 

A taste of Zanzibar 

The Zanzibar archipelago is sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands, and a tour of its spice farms is a must-do. Your guide will share his knowledge about the various spices, invite you to identify some by taste, and regale you with funny anecdotes about what they are used for beyond cooking. The tour ends with a deliciously spiced lunch and a drink of fresh coconut water (watching one of the farm workers shimmy up a tree to fetch the coconuts is mesmerising).

3. 

Sail in style 

Go back to the days of the sultans, when traditional sailboats known as dhows were the transport du jour. A two-hour cruise is accompanied by music and drinks, and captained by boatmen who are full of wild and entertaining (though possibly far-fetched) tales. Listening to live taraab music against the backdrop of an epic Zanzibar sunset is a real highlight.

4. 

Meet some wild local residents

A day trip to Changuu Island remains one of the most popular excursions (despite its macabre alternate name: Prison Island). Just five kilometres by dhow from Stone Town, the island is home to giant tortoises, which visitors can observe and feed. Cool off afterwards with a little snorkelling (which you don’t have to be a good swimmer to experience) or just chill out at Nakupenda Beach for a relaxed end to the tour.

5. 

Swim with dolphins 

Of everything there is to experience in Zanzibar, nothing stands out more for me than swimming with dolphins at Kizimkazi Village. If you’re not a good swimmer, you can still see dolphins up close from the dhow. If you do swim, you get to experience being in the water with these gentle and friendly animals. It’s worth the early morning wake-up call, and the tour ends with a simple but delicious lunch.

QUICK TIPS

  • Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, SAA and Mango all offer flights to Zanzibar. 
  • Money: Zanzibar uses the Tanzanian shilling (R1 = about Tsh161). There are several ATMs connected to the Visa and Mastercard networks, as well as Forex bureaus.
  • Shopping: Pick up spices, essential oils and beauty products made from spices, as well as local art and colourful swathes of kanga fabric.
  • Treat yourself: Indulge in a traditional spa session, traditionally given to brides before their wedding.
  • Eat: The night market at Forodhani Gardens has a variety of grilled seafood including tuna, calamari, prawns, line fish, lobster and shark. Have a go at the Zanzibar pizza and a soup called orujo. 

By Lerato Mogoatlhe
Additional images: Getty Images


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