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Busara Was a Blast

I woke up one morning on the floor covered in octopus tentacles and money with no idea what happened. I assume it was a good night.
February 15, 2012, 5:00am

Zanzibar is where you go to find white people in Africa. They are everywhere here, and while Sauti za Busara, the largest music festival in East Africa, is billed as an event for Africans by Africans, it is definitely more like a Western music festival (including hula hooping goddamn hippies) with an African line-up. Full disclosure: I am totally a white tourist and am being a complete hypocrite, but I've been living in Kenya for six months and have developed a terrible superiority complex about it, despite the fact that I can't speak a word of Swahili.

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Busara, now in its ninth year, is one of only a handful of festivals in East Africa, which makes it the most important forum for East African artists to get international exposure--and the foreign component is major. The main organizers are all foreigners, and the audience is largely not from Zanzibar. Add sweltering heat and humidity, incredibly cheap beer and a conservative Muslim backdrop to the mix and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for (commercial) success.

Since it's billed as a cultural event that is crucial for local musicians and artists, it also receives a majority of its funding from international donors, including the Norwegian Embassy and major corporations. They also charge a ton of money for media access--I was talking with a Reuters journalist who said they wanted him to pay $1,000 to broadcast from the Old Fort, and it took him weeks to haggle them down to $500. The entire thing ran like a well-oiled machine, they were just so weirdly guarded about access to information and artists that it was super suspicious.

Yusuf Mahmoud, director of Busara Promotions, a cultural NGO here, said ticket sales only cover 20% of the festival's operating budget. When I pressed him on what the actual operating budget was, some of the "Busara team" jumped in and cut me off. This, added to the offense of me accidentally spilling a cold one on a Swede’s phone and thereby ensuring all alcohol was banned (relax guys, a bag of rice will fix it! Jesus), meant I was denied us all backstage entry, kicked me out of an interview with Kenya’s Tourism Minister, and eventually asked to leave a tower walkway because I might have been trying to shoot the backstage area.

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Still, it was a blast. They had traditional African groups doing their traditional African thing, including a Sudanese group called Camirata, whose members are determined to promote unity despite the fact that the South just split and conflict continues. Camirata gave me an impromptu jam session from a hotel rooftop with the ocean all crashing in the background, and it was like man, love this job. But the biggest deal at this festival was an artist named Nneka who stole the entire show, and everyone should listen to her.

Nneka is from Nigeria; she’s an outspoken political activist who has toured the world with Lenny Kravitz, the British press have billed her as the next Lauryn Hill, and damn can this woman sing. She brought the house down Saturday night with what they’ve branded as “vintage soul” (WTF) but is really more like a mix of M.I.A. and Afrikan Boy.

The fort was packed with people screaming for more, and the poor girl (who is like five feet tall and was clearly exhausted) was absolutely mobbed by journalists afterwards. To give her credit, she took no shit and refused to play that stupid “what is the future of African music?” game (response: “I don’t know. Maybe God knows,”) but still answered my question about her thoughts on Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram (“It’s not about religion. People think the government is funding them.”). So that was awesome.

As if you couldn’t tell, I'm not much of a "world music" person. I woke up one morning on the floor covered in octopus tentacles (pictured above) and money with no idea what happened or where I'd been. I assume it was a good night. Throughout, there was always sound and movement happening everywhere throughout Busara, the food was amazing and cheap, the house of wacky journalists I was staying with were kind enough to only force-feed me a couple shots of tequila while banging out this story, and Zanzibar is a gorgeous tropical paradise.