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.

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