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Zanzibar Music Festival Faces Financial, Cultural Challenges


Festival goers crowd inside Stone Town's Old Fort at Sauti za Busara music festival, Stone Town, Zanzibar, February 9, 2012.

Festival goers crowd inside Stone Town's Old Fort at Sauti za Busara music festival, Stone Town, Zanzibar, February 9, 2012.

The Sauti za Busara music festival kicks off in Zanzibar this weekend - an event meant to promote Swahili music to a younger generation of Tanzanians raised on Western Top 40 hits. But the Stone Town festival has had a hard time connecting with a local audience, and is now facing funding challenges.

This weekend the ancient buildings and narrow alleyways of Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar, are awash in the sound of music. This is Sauti za Busara, an annual festival that draws crowd from around the world to Stone Town’s old stone fort for four days of music, dancing and cultural celebrations.

Although Sauti za Busara attracts acts from across the continent, the focus here is on East Africa’s own Swahili music. Around two thirds of the artists performing are from Tanzania, many from Zanzibar itself. The musical styles on display range from traditional drumming and taarab, to hip hop and jazz.

The festival’s director is Yusuf Mahmoud, an Englishman who has been living in Tanzania for the past 14 years. He says the idea behind Sauti za Busara was not just to attract tourists, but to help locals appreciate their own musical heritage.

“When we started doing Sauti za Busara, I remember being very surprised that a lot of the young local artists were not really appreciating the value of the local music here. They were listening a lot to foreign music from Europe or the U.S. I think this has helped local artists to understand that what they have here is very special, very unique and very valuable, and something that is attracting people from all over the world," he said.

Now in its ninth year, the festival tries hard to attract local audiences. Tanzanian citizens pay less than $2 to get in, while foreigners are charged $26. Of the 4,000 people who attended Sauti za Busara last year, the majority were from Tanzania.

The festival is run by an NGO, Busara Promotions, which depends on private donations to keep ticket prices for locals low.

But lately, Sauti za Busara has been facing some serious financial challenges. This year the festival had to be cut from five days to four, and one of the events outside Stone Town had to be scrapped. Mahmoud blames these problems on the slowdown of the international economy.

“It’s been tougher and tougher, over the last couple of years particularly, to get financial support from international donors. It’s been also very tough to get financial support from local businesses. The global recession doesn’t just affect our festival here in Zanzibar, but all over the world people are struggling to raise money for cultural events," said Mahmoud.

But Amour Haji, director of a tour company in Zanzibar, thinks this is only part of the answer. Most Zanzibaris are Muslim, with a conservative culture at odds with the party-like atmosphere of an international music festival.

Haji says that despite Sauti za Busara’s efforts to reach out to local people, many still think of it as an event only for tourists. “The mass of the people of Zanzibar, they think it is not beneficial for them. It is a benefit for foreigners, not for the local people," he said.

Tourism to Zanzibar in February has grown by 400 percent since the festival was first held in 2004. Haji says that although local businesses do benefit from the added tourism revenue, few are willing to support the event financially.

“In economical [terms], we benefit. The event is a very major thing for the tourists. Many restaurants and many shops, they benefit, but they didn’t contribute anything," he said.

Still, some Zanzibaris say Sauti za Busara has succeeded in making people proud of their island’s music.

One local festival goer says it gives musicians a chance to show off their talents both to foreigners and to their own countrymen. “It benefits, because we are getting ways for participating in this festival and we show our skills for the whole people in Zanzibar," he said.

Despite Sauti za Busara’s financial problems, Mahmoud says the organizers will keep holding it for as long as possible, and do intend to maintain the festival’s local focus.

“We’re determined to carry on, and we’re also determined to carry on organizing a festival which is accessible for local people, which means we can never be fully sustainable through ticket revenue unless we make an event for tourists, which is not our primary intention," he said.

Around 30 groups are performing at Sauti za Busara this year. The festival runs through Sunday night.

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