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Music is a gift from Mother Nature herself. Songs of birds, whirls of wind, the rolling of thunder, the crackling of the fire, and the prattling of the rain. Such phenomena, influenced man’s imagination, creativity, and imitation to birth what we call music.

The earliest evidence of music in Africa, specifically East Africa, dates back to 500 CE with drawings of instruments, dances, and rituals that were documented to reflect society’s daily life. During the colonial period, music was further impacted by introducing circulation through the creation of clubs and social halls, radio stations, and gramophones as well as laws and rules that limited the performance of certain styles of music or dance. By the mid-1950s when African countries started gaining independence, several popular genres emerged that dominated urban spaces and brought a sense of cosmopolitanism to cities and towns across East Africa.

The Amak'hee 4 rock art in the Swaga Swaga Game Reserve of Dodoma. Source: Jagiellonian University

African music has over the years experienced changes. What is termed traditional music today is probably very different from African music in the past. African music in the past was also not rigidly linked to a specific ethnic group. The individual musician, their style, and creativity creativity have always played an important role.

Sauti za Busara and Zanzibar Island 

Revelers attending Sauti za Busara festival. Source: Sauti za Busara

Sauti za busara is a Swahili word that means “Sounds of Wisdom”. Sauti za Busara is an African music festival held in stone town, Zanzibar, annually during the month of February and mainly takes place at Old Boma Fort commonly known as Ngome kongwe. The 20th Edition of Sauti za Busara festival took place from February 10th to 12th, 2023, with the special theme of Tofauti Zetu, Utajiri Wetu (Diversity is Our Strength).

The festival is spiced up with carnival street parades and interesting street exhibitions. The Sauti za Basara festival was introduced to promote, preserve and support African music. Over the years, the festival evolved from traditional domination by traditional musicians and artists to include a wide range of modern arts and sounds. 

A street parade during the famous Sauti za Busara carnival in stone town, Zanzibar. Source: Afropop Worldwide

Locals and tourists flock together around the old fort for 2 days long celebration with concerts and performances by African artists hailing from different corners. This festival is also an economic booster for the local small business owners on the island.

Some of the outstanding acts at the 2023 edition included Asia Madani a charismatic vocalist from Sudan currently based in 'Almarai', sans-serif !important Egypt, the all women Uwaridi band from Zanzibar, Unguja who play many instruments, including violin, accordion, table, cajon, ngoma, zeze, rimba, sanduku, vidumbaki rika and percussions. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) born Naxx Bitota got the crowd on their feet with her upbeat music that blends Congolese rumba with mutuashi (seductive roots-based pop from southern Congo) and other African styles, fusing them with reggae, rumba and Afro pop. Sana Cissokho, a soulful kora player from the Casamance region of Senegal, also put up a great performance. 

Asia Madani performing at the Sauti za Busara festival. Source: Masoud Khamis

Sauti za Busara festival aims to unite Africans through art. When asked how he came up with the festival idea, Yusuf Mahmoud the creator and the director of the acclaimed Sauti za Busara said: “African music is the root of our civilization and it is slowly fading, the only way we can preserve this gift is to pass it on in the best way possible.” He added that music highlights African values, which is why events of importance are celebrated with music, whether a marriage, birth, or ceremonial rite of passage. Embracing this gift while promoting unity through the art of expression is a priceless experience he's passionate about. 

Yusuf Mohamed. The creator and director of the Sauti za busara festival. Source: Marcus Meissl

For those who might not be well versed with Zanzibar, it is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, around 30 miles from the coast of the Tanzanian mainland. It has a population of 1.8 million, mostly comprised of Muslims, with a small Christian minority. Other religious groups include HindusJains, and Sikhs, living together and freely practicing and worshipping.

Zanzibaris are warm, open, and friendly people. Moving around is safe and violent crime is almost unheard of. In February when the festival is held, the climate is warm and humid, 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. The food is fresh and delicious with many seasonal fruits, fresh fish and seafood readily available, especially in the street foodfair, the famous Forodhani food market. This is why Zanzibar is a sought-after destination that welcomes tourists from all walks of life.

The old city of Stone Town where the festival is held is a unique UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its hand-carved doors and narrow streets. Of course, Zanzibar also has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, with pristine white sands and clear turquoise waters, perfect for snorkeling and diving.

Aerial view of stone town on the coast of Zanzibar. Source: African Adventures

The Future of African Music

African musicians symbolize the continent’s collective memory and vision for the future, and their instruments reflect the continent’s history, culture, and genealogy. In reaction to evolving social, economic, and political settings, new forms are being developed daily.

As a society our biggest fear is stagnation. We evolve and keep the wheels running to keep up with the current changes in the world. Discovering new ways of self-expression, preservation, and growth creates stability as well as a future to look forward to.

Many African countries have faced difficult times in recent history, and music has proven to be a successful expression of emotions in the face of loss and suffering. We hold our chin up and dance to the sunrise. We dance with our chains and our bells with hopes of a better tomorrow. Music is how we preserve our mark in history, a proof that we were here. Our legacy for generations to come will live on as long as we continue to celebrate it and honor it every year in tradition-infused destinations like Zanzibar, where old and new collide harmoniously.

The 21st Edition of Sauti za Busara festival will take place in Stone Town, Zanzibar during 9 – 11 February 2024. For more information, visit their website.

Kelvin Innocent Msika

Kelvin is a content creator based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and his passion for writing started at a young age. He previously worked as a chef before venturing into real estate. Kelvin enjoys creating travel and lifestyle content in addition to psychology and lifestyle tips on his YouTube channel.