A Maasai, a delightful Canadian volunteer, and a Senegalese superstar walk into a bar…
Not a joke, but a vignette of last weekend at Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara music festival. Last weekend, Zanzibar’s oldest ruin, the Old Fort, hosted Busara for its 10th anniversary to the tune of acts from all over the continent and thousands of visitors from Zanzibar, the region and the world.
Sauti za Busara, meaning Sounds of Wisdom in Swahili, is a three-day festival originally started to boost visitor numbers in Zanzibar’s sweltering pre-rain low season. Now, it’s one of Africa’s great music festivals, attracting artists like Senegalese Cheikh Lo and Zimbabwe’s Comrade Fatso (interview coming in next column!) to perform for the crowd of thousands. The festival was both uniquely African and a typical hippie festival, welcoming and bringing people together to celebrate African music, togetherness, and ill-advised dance moves.
Arriving on Saturday night, I was taken by a crowd of thousands looking up in worship at a woman in the middle of a song. With gold coils sewn into her headdress and flowing white robes, Khairy Arby looked like a queen. Her spiritual, high-energy Malian soul music brought the crowd to its knees (figuratively) and to its feet (literally!).
Arby, the West African Aretha, sang beautifully but with a weighty undertone. Her home country, Mali, is currently embroiled in some major mayhem thanks to a small but powerful group of rebels, who are taking over the country and threatening artists, including Arby, with extreme violence.
Freshly outfitted with a very fancy press pass, I got a chance to speak with Arby in the pressroom. Arby spoke (in French, so bear with my translations) about her country’s struggle against oppression, and about the real reason for war in Africa: “Africa has no reason to make war against ourselves. Africa has reason to go to war against underdevelopment. Africa has reason to go to war to raise women up into their proper place.”
Since January 2012, a violent conflict has been burning up her home country. Beginning as a Tuareg rebellion in the north, division split the country until March, when a military coup took place. This seeded further divisions, and hardcore Islamist groups took control of the north. The fundamentalists have been raging through the north, imposing strict Sharia law and furiously imposing their rigid interpretation of Islam. The rebels have changed life in Mali drastically. They’ve forced the burqa and niqab on women, outlawed music and destroyed countless shrines, temples and buildings they claim were promoting idolatry. People who don’t abide by the new rules are viciously dealt with – as in the recent case of a woman who was given 100 lashes for giving water to a male visitor. Arby, as a prominent female musician and public figure, is unable to return to Timbuktu for fear of this type of abuse – or worse. The Islamists have threatened to cut out her tongue if she returns. Music has long been at the centre of artistic and social life – by banning it, they have effectively shattered Malian culture.
As of January, the French military began a campaign against the Islamists, who had up to then taken over half of their former colony. Several African nations have committed to dispatching soldiers to create an intervention force, which will be aided by the French military to restore government authority. “I hope to return to my village one day,” says Arby. “And that will be another story. Maybe one day I will sing of that story.”
After Arby’s set, some mind-boggling mainland bootyshakers performed, bringing into stark contrast (for me) Arby’s well of strength and commitment. (Not to demean the bootyshakers – ladies got skills). A festival can’t be all heavy political messaging – but with some of this year’s performances being from countries like Mali and Zimbabwe, the focus kept being drawn back to emancipation, to music as freedom, and brotherhood and sisterhood in Africa. To tuko pamoja, the Swahili saying meaning we are as one.