Every February for the past decade, the island of Zanzibar has hosted East Africa’s best-loved – and now largest – music festival, Sauti za Busara. The festival includes artists from all edges of the continent, and from an ever growing scope of languages, musical genres and political stances. Kiswahili for “Voices of Wisdom,” Sauti za Basura this year featured performances that bloomed into wisdom in the heated highs of song.
A Few Ways of Receiving Sound
On Friday night, Nathalie Natiembe, a dramatic and dark-lipped vocalist from Réunion, strolled serenely
toward the microphone and clenched the metal stand with a cool ferocity. She cocked her hip, jutted her right leg forward with the insistence of a marching soldier, and sang aloud in such strong and sweeping Creole that she stilled our hearts, even if we kept moving our bodies to the steady metronome of her leg. She growled at lovers who had wronged her, she clenched her funky fist and swung it toward the sky, she barely opened her eyes, and sometimes, she let her voice relax into a low and husky howl (my friend turned to me, smiled, and said, “It’s Nina Simone!”). Her magenta-haired keyboardist grew shirtless and insane by the end of the night, standing upright as his hands pulled him further into his instrument. I responded to Nathalie Natiembe (a high priestess: certainly) by staying quiet, by making space for her smooth wild growl inside the cavities of my chest.
On Sunday, we heard Comrade Fatso & Chabvondoka – a Zimbabwean rap-rock crew whose government banned their music from the radio. Last year, they were arrested while shooting a music video, because their lyrics posed real questions to power. That night, Ammara Brown (the band’s guest vocalist) was full of such contagious and exuberant motion that no one watching her could stand still – our feet refused the ground like it was made of fire. And during the song “Korokoza,” Comrade Fatso gathered the crowd into perfect syncopation with his rhymes. Their intensity and resistance were inherent in their sound, whether or not you understood the lyrics. They sounded like revolt; if I were the object of their protests, I’d be scared too.
Not every artist moved me at first. On Saturday, we saw Peter Msechu & Wakwetu Jazz, whose beats were certainly danceable, but a little too much like bubblegum pop for my taste. The Nairobian woman beside me, however, encouraged me to take a second listen.
“This guy was the first runner-up on Project Fame a couple years ago,” she said. Project Fame is East Africa’s popular analogue to American Idol. “I was working on the show then, and Peter was so much less confident than he is now. I feel proud seeing him up there—he’s really come a long way.” And when I looked at him again, his complete ease in the spotlight seemed remarkable, a good victory.
There were countless more displays of beauty at Sauti. I danced freely to Burkina Electric’s hypnotizing grooves; I bent my neck before the sagacious rumble of Senegal’s reggae roi, Cheikh Lo; I inhaled Nawal’s mysterious sea songs into my lungs and held them there as long as possible; I ached under Khaira Arby’s scorching electric guitar.
The island’s residents responded to the influx of music in different ways. If you backed away from the electrified audience in front of the stage, and moved beyond the ochre walls of the fort, you’d find yourself in the intensely-devout, densely-packed city of Stonetown. While some local Zanzibaris attended the shows, many others carried on with their regular lives, indifferent to the grooves spiraling over the tops of the walls.
On Saturday afternoon, a couple of my friends had an impromptu jam session in Forodhani Gardens, the city’s main waterfront. Between them, they had only one well-worn guitar, one strange old saxophone, and one beautiful raw voice. By the time I showed up, they had been playing for twenty minutes and a crowd of Zanzibaris had already formed around them.
One lady walked up and sang their harmony unsolicited, her baby on her hip. A kid who had just come out of the ocean (clothes dripping wet) did a casual walking-dance through the middle of the space, followed by a dancer dressed in red, and her ten-year-old protégé. Several onlookers created a backbeat by slapping their shoes on the ground, and one old man started plucking a karimba, a little off the beat. It was participatory, free – which is the beauty of getting rid of the stage and entrance fees. I thought, “this is music to be inhabited, co-owned.”
One of my friends, a musician, likes to talk about “interactive music,” about blurring the line between artist and audience. That afternoon, the best way to respond to the music was to make some music yourself, even if that only meant clapping softly in your seat to the perfect, easy beat.
Putting Words to Music
During the festival, my friends and I often fumbled for the right words to describe the music. We used broad descriptors liberally: Beautiful! Amazing! The musicians in the crowd had the formal knowledge to comment on playing styles or techniques, but unschooled attendees like myself were left with only clumsy genre names and broad categories that didn’t quite fit: Protest rap, roots-y reggae, soul?
After the festival sounds faded and the stage lights were extinguished, we were left with the challenge of talking about African music. Words (however clumsy) are what we use to frame and handle and contextualize music, once we’ve gained some distance from the sound. One of Sauti’s greatest successes is exploding open the “African Music” category, showing the continent’s sounds in all their prismatic beauty. At the festival, it became clear to me that there’s no identifying sonic thread in African music – no necessary commonalities.
Talking about sound can feel so reductive when we’re using labels, categories and imperfect adjectives. But I think the conversations we have in response to music are so important. There were several panels and sessions at Sauti where attendees could gather to talk about music; one focused on new trends and technologies in African music, while another dealt with issues of censorship. But those talks don’t need to be official or organized – they can proceed organically from sound. When we let music fill us and alter us, it ignites debates and cries and revolutions. I think one goal of the Voices of Wisdom festival was to learn what preceded the music that was gracing our ears – was it created in a context of oppression or scarcity or sadness? What was it praising, what was it condemning?
At Sauti za Busara, people replied to the music with their hands and hips and hearts, with screams, hums and grumbles, with their cameras and flags and dancing feet. And on Saturday, I watched an unrehearsed jam turn a circle of strangers into co-artists. In the end, I think the deepest and most transformative responses to music will always be wordless.