Sauti za Busara is worth saving

Our society undervalues the creative arts. This is an unfortunate fact. In the developing world, artisan activity is the 2nd largest employer after agriculture, generating $34 billion a year. Yet it still remains woefully underfunded in East Africa, along with its emaciated family of creative industries; visual arts, film and music.

This month I am among those mourning the cancellation of Sauti za Busara 2016. Despite being in its twelfth successful year and having generated over $70 million for the island of Zanzibar, the much-loved music festival will not take place next year.

photo by Darlyne Komukama

I attended the 2015 edition of Sauti za Busara (SzB). A weekend of great food, sandy white beaches meeting cerulean seas, and the best live music the continent and the Diaspora have to offer; I would recommend the experience to anyone. My friend and I ran around the island, getting lost in the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, buying fresh sugarcane juice and gelato on the street, exclaiming over Syrian shwarmas at Forodhani gardens, devouring the freshest calamari with our toes in the Indian Ocean. In the evening we made our way to the historic Old Fort to appreciate expert soukous guitar played by Madagascan bands, athletic Zulu dances by a family band that encompassed 3 generations, traditional Zanzibari taraab music kept alive by young women, and the inimitable Blitz the Ambassador and his full piece band playing live arrangements of his manifesto music. At SzB there are no backing tracks, all of the performers must use live instrumentation, leading to truly unique performances, even from hip hop acts like Kenya’s Octopizzo. All this happens against the beguiling Indian Ocean coast, a backdrop of Swahili culture both ancient and modern.

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SzB alumni include musical luminaries like Salif Keita (Mali), Nneka (Nigeria), Ochestre Poly-Rythmo (Benin), The Brother Moves On (South Africa), Djimawi Africa (Algeria), and Bi Kidude (Zanzibar).  The festival connects African music professionals with their counterparts from across the continent, a valuable experience where pursuing a career in the arts is still sneered upon by the larger society. Skills development is a key goal, and the festival offers a range of workshops to East African professionals.

It is for these reasons that SzB was named one of “Africa’s best and most respected music events” by the BBC World Service, one of CNN’s “7 African music festivals you really have to see” and “Africa’s Best Music Festival” according to Afrotourism.

February, the month in which the festival falls, in 2014 recorded the highest number of visitors to the island. That is more than traditional holiday months like August, July and December. This is due in no small part to Sauti za Busara. During the fest, hotels are fully booked, popular local restaurants like Loukman’s have long lines; taxi drivers, Spice tour guides, scuba diving professionals and those who sail the iconic Zanzibari dhow all ply a good living during the festival. The mainland, Dar Es Salaam benefits too. For budget travellers like myself, full use is made of Air BnB and CouchSurfing, connecting us to a network of independent operators and gracious hosts.

photo by Darlyne Komukama

My favourite part of the festival, besides the truly intoxicating musical performances I got to witness, was counting myself among a community of music lovers. In the thick sweat of the front row I looked around me at an audience of people from all over the world, here to have a good time, to be a part of invigorating live performances by the best African acts. Ticket sales are as popular as ever, but they only account for 30% of the festival costs according to Busara Promotions CEO Yusuf Mahmood. So when this year they failed to raise half of the $200,000 necessary, the 2016 edition was reluctantly cancelled.

Sauti za Busara receives zero support from the governments of Tanzania and Zanzibar. Yup, despite being among the island’s biggest draws, the government will not invest in its ensured and continued success. In fact one can argue that the Zanzibari government gets in the way of the festival’s growth by demanding larger and larger taxes each year. This is symptomatic of a problem that can be seen in many East African governments across almost all industries; lacking the infrastructure to collect taxation from a largely informal base, it compensates by overtaxing the structures it can collect from. In Tanzania a visiting artist’s visa costs more than $1000. How is the proverbial starving artist supposed to afford this?

“In fact, we have to pay the National Arts Council every year for registration, event licenses and permits from the Board of Censors, artists’ work permits and visa, assorted taxes, media and film permits, permission to put posters on streets, not to mention costs for venue hire, policing and security, electricity, water and sanitation, technical facilities and so on,” Mahmoud says.

“For many years we’ve had meetings with ministers, directors, permanent secretaries, even the President and Vice President, to beg for at least some of these expenses to be waived, but we’re not holding our breath to get financial support from our governments in the foreseeable future.

It’s only fair to say the best we hope for is minimal interference.”

If $70 million is not enough for governments to recognize the social and commercial value of the arts sector, what hope is there for those of us who attempt to scratch out an individual living in this industry?

Sure, in Africa, the basic needs of a majority of the population are still waiting to be met, but our creative and cultural aspirations are equally valid and will not wait for food on the table in order to be heard.  Art is not just about expression. Innovation and creativity do not just lead to tangible value in the tourism industry, they lead to solutions to problems of poverty and poor governance. We have seen this with Ushahidi, with M-Pesa, with IHub, with floating schools that reach slum kids, with Sheng dictionaries and Matatu maps on Google, with apps that address maternal mortality in hard to reach areas.

The poverty that is endemic to our continent is in fact what allows creativity to thrive, because African people must get around shoddy infrastructure, debilitating bureaucracy, pervasive corruption, an inconsequential middle class, an ill-fitting education system, and a total absence of supportive government policy. To flourish on this continent, nay to function, you must by definition be resourceful, flexible and innovate – creative.

We are seeing portents of change, in Kenya there is development of a National Arts and Culture Bill, but we need more and we need it faster. Sauti za Busara is but one example of East African opportunity that is being throttled instead of allowed to thrive.

This piece owes a lot to:

Ibeyi; Folk music means more than a blonde hipster on an acoustic guitar

The Cuban twins, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé, together calling themselves Ibeyi release their debut album this month. With their musical pedigree and ethereal voices, they are difficult not to like, but what I really like about them is the slightly creepy aesthetic they have going on. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m projecting cultural stereotypes we have about twins, but it seems like they are capitalizing on this with their video for River.

Calling their music “modern Negro spirituals” the twins draw from traditional Yorùbá chants and folk songs, they make music that is at once both comfortably old and interestingly new

 

Afrofutures: Okmalumkoolkat’s Holy Oxygen

Okmalumkoolkat’s EP Holy Oxygen has been on replay since I discovered his music via Okay Africa a few weeks ago. I keep trying to tell people that some of the most exciting things sonically, are coming out of the continent, and Okmalumkoolkat is one of the artists I point to for evidence.

His new video for the song “Holy Oxygen” looks postapocalyptic, but the biohazard suits that feature prominently are very much part of the present. For the thousands in West Africa for whom Ebola has turned daily life into a dystopic scifi nightmare. In the video, characters are shrouded in torn plastic, recalling the makeshift protective suits that for many facing the epidemic, are all that stand between them and the virus.

Watch the video for yourself and check out the rest of the Holy Oxygen EP here:

A better city

photo credit: http://instagram.com/mwarv

As a regular user of Kampala’s chaotic public transport system, I get to watch up close as Kampala undergoes desperately necessary construction to expand a few of our major roadways. As a regular user of twitter I watch as the official KCCA account self-congratulatorily retweets messages.

Yes, it is heartening to see a city authority actually function, after many years of primarily serving as a site for power wrangles. It is good to see roads being widened for the enormous amount of traffic that passes over them, and rowdy public commuter taxis being made to respect designated stages. Still, I have had plenty of time to ponder this on a rainy Friday evening, sitting in an unmoving taxi in the worst of Kampala’s rush hour traffic. Is this “development” enough, and who does it serve?

It does not serve me, and I am markedly more privileged than the average Ugandan, nor anyone else who spends ten productive hours a week commuting  a couple of kilometres to and from work. It does not serve those our fearless leader has labelled “backward” and “foolish” for remaining in their villages. It does not serve the majority of Kampalan’s; the city’s poor, caught up in tides of urbanisation despite a formal sector that cannot support them all. Those who come to Kampala seeking a better fortune will likely not find it in our dismal job market, and when they turn to the informal sector to make ends meet, their ends will be met by KCCA enforcement whose mandate is to destroy property and livelihoods in the name of progress and development. The most poignant and egregious case of this being the death of Baby Ryan, crushed by a KCCA vehicle last month while his mother was taken into custody.

Big orange city buses sit idle in the parking lot at Namboole stadium. Approval for Pioneer Easy Bus Company was rushed through parliament because the need was obvious and at the time, brought into sharp relief at the time by the 2012 Taxi Strike. The buses served our narrow roads for less than 6 months when the company was served a massive tax bill by URA and had its assets seized. Now the buses sit idle. Who did this piece of public theatre serve? The taxi drivers who were told that they would just have to deal with the new reality? The passengers who briefly enjoyed cheaper fares while waiting in long lines for space on the extremely overcrowded buses? Did it benefit the revolving door of Pioneer Easy Bus shareholders that included relatives of ruling party insiders? Which of the many government agencies did this drama benefit; those that weighed in to put their weight behind the bus company, or weighed in to say that government should not guarantee Pioneer’s loans, or those that chose not to weigh in but then did in order to save the buses from being auctioned? Who did this circus serve? Anyone?

If you can afford to, choose to check out of the worst of Kampala’s chaotic traffic. Get out of the taxi and take a boda to your next destination, or park your car and jump on one to get to that meeting. Like the taxis, boda bodas arose unregulated out of a need and now are ubiquitous, employing tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of men in the city. They are also the leading cause of accidents and road injures, but more importantly, they are a significant voting bloc. This is why, despite encouraging statements from KCCA, boda bodas will continue to remain unregulated in the foreseeable future; a future in which the 2016 elections loom large.

KCCA pays plenty of lip service to the idea of pro-people development. For a better city, they say. A city better for whom?

Reclaiming Lady

My current auditory obsession is this remake of Fela Kuti’s 1974 song Lady, by tUnE-yArDs, featuring ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo and Akua Naru. It is the first single from the second Red Hot compilation, (RED) Hot + Fela, which will raise funds for HIV/AIDS research.

My love for this version is so strong it is almost sexual. Angelique Kidjo is a goddess as always, her lead vocals are full of grunts and gymnastics that call to mind Fela’s energetic stage presence. ?uestlove, the biggest proponent of Fela in mainstream Western music is as ever, the cool backbone of the track. tUnE-yArDs quirky harmonies are just left-of-centre enough to stand on top of the amazing things the brass section, represented by Rubblebucket, are doing. This version manages to inject even more energy into the song, which if you know anything about Fela Kuti and his long musical reign at The Shrine, is quite an achievement. The climax of the vocal harmonies and brass at the end, will make your arm hair stand up and take notice.

Fela’s music was always political, and Merrill Garbus’ (of tUnE-yArDs) choice to populate this song with female vocalists is a political one. The original song was a criticism of what Fela saw of African women’s embrace of Western values.

If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be Lady o”

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Originally posted on Africa is a Country (Old Site):


“It’s a self-portrait. It’s not meant to represent anything, except me.” Makode Linde seems more bemused than irritated when we discuss the huge, worldwide storm that his cake has stirred. “People are talking about this in Africa, in South America,” he says, “there are so many different interpretations of what it means, and I don’t want to take away any of that. But it also really seems to have driven all the trolls out of the woodwork.” Strange to think that before last weekend, it was just another Afromantic.

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