A tour of Africa’s music festivals.
By Phil Clisby
Music runs through the soul of Africa. It has deep roots in its myriad cultures. It was, and still is, used to tell stories from the past, to teach the new generations about their history – keeping the traditions alive. It is a way of life and, for many, a means to a better life.
As you travel Africa’s highways and dirt roads, you cannot help but experience the infectious rhythms that abound, nor fail to encounter someone with a music-related story or two.
Several years ago (actually more than several, to be honest) some friends and I met a mesmerising singer-songwriter from Senegal, in a restaurant in Grand Bassam, just outside Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast. After a few beers, he invited us back to his lodgings so he could play to us (and roll the most enormous spliffs I’ve ever seen).
Naturally enough, he drew a very strong influence from the sound of Bob Marley – an undisputed hero among Africans. He was on a journey, quite literally, from his homeland as he sought to bring his music to the world.
In Kisangani, in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Den, your website host, and myself bumped into a leather-clad, blinged-up dude, who was on a return visit to his, as he called it, “fucked up country”.
He laid claim to being a record producer. Not just any record producer, mind, but one who inflicted the mime sensation that was Milli Vanilli onto the world.
In South Africa, I have ‘rocked out’ on an asparagus farm in Rustlers Valley (known, among other things, for its hole in a kilometre-long rock wall – hence the corny pun, sorry).
Although no longer running, the Rustlers’ shindig incorporated a stage design based on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. A Glastonbury luminary – complete with beard, long hair and a back catalogue of surreal stories – fresh from a sojourn to the UK’s premier festival walked into the farm’s backpackers’ bar as I supped on an ice-cold Castle lager and unveiled some architect’s plans showing how to build such an erection.
In a tent in Todra Gorge, in Morocco, I played the candlestick with a fork as I joined in with the hypnotic sounds of a Touareg band. I have walked the sands at Essaouira, where Jimi Hendrix is said to have hung out. This coastal Moroccan town is an idyllic backwater – a quiet man’s Marrakech, if you like – where you can feel the musical vibe emanating out of its streets. It is also home to one of the country’s most renowned festivals – Gnaoua.
I could go on… but I won’t. The point being that music oozes out of every pore of this beguiling continent.
Africa’s festival scene is eye-popping and jaw dropping – from the small, showcasing local talent, to the enormous, attracting international superstars.
From Morocco to Ghana to Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Malawi, Swaziland, South Africa and everywhere in between, there is a festival (or two, or more) for everyone – all (well, some) set in some of the continent’s finest locations.
Here are a few to whet your appetite…
Photo: Sauti za Busara
Sauti za Busara
Where: Zanzibar, Tanzania
When: 7-10 February 2019
Taking place in the historic Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar, Sauti za Busara – Swahili for ‘Sounds of Wisdom’ – “exclusively celebrates African music”.
Every February, more than 20,000 people flock to the spice isle to enjoy “400-plus artists play 44 shows over four days” – all in the grounds of a fort.
Not only that, there’s seafood to die for at the night markets, beaches, snorkelling and even giant tortoises on neighbouring Changuu Island. For the musos among you, it is also the birthplace of a certain Freddie Mercury.
Photo credit – Amani Festival/JUSTKAS
Where: Goma, DR Congo
When: 15-16-17 February 2019
Just $1 gains you entry to Amani, a festival that “combines the old and the new of Congolese music and culture”
As well as traditional dance, theatre and craft, the latest stars of African music can be found strutting their stuff,
while young entrepreneurs and craftsmen (and women) have the opportunity to showcase their wares at an onsite exhibition. It’s quite a mix.
Added to that, you’re in the prime location to go trekking in search of mountain gorillas. What’s not to like?
Photo Credit – Henry-Engelbrecht
Up The Creek
Where: Barrydale, South Africa
When: 7 -10 February 2019
South Africa is another African destination that is awash with festivals. The Rainbow Nation covers every genre going, from jazz to electronic to megastar performances.
But, with the tagline of ‘3 stages, 4 days, 50+ bands, 1 lilo’, Up the Creek is a little bit different.
Held on the banks of the Breede River, festivalgoers watch from the water on an armada of inflatables – dinghies, lilos and even blow-up animals have been seen floating in time to the music
Photo credit JS Photoworx Courtesy of Espafrika
Cape Town International Jazz Festival
Where: Cape Town, South Africa
When: 29/30 March 2019
Jazz is often overlooked in favour of more ‘modern’ sounds, but it is very much a vibrant scene throughout Africa. Ethiopian jazz, for example, has a genre all of its own, while South Africa – your jazz festival host – is generally credited with bringing the genre to the continent.
With one of the world’s great cities, Cape Town, as a backdrop, the International Jazz Festival proclaims itself “Africa’s grandest gathering”. As well as performers from the jazz world, you can also catch exponents of soul, funk, hip-hop and Afropop, among others.
Previous headliners include Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi ,Seu Jorge, Corinne Bailey Rae, Amanda Black and Trombone Shorty. Chaka Khan, no less, is lined up for 2019 – the 20th running of this prestigious event.
Where: Harare, Zimbabwe
When: 30 April to 5 May 2019
The six-day Harare International Festival of the Arts has been entertaining its audience with an extensive programme – covering music, dance, theatre, spoken word and even design – for the best part of 20 years.
According to South Africa’s Sunday Independent: “HIFA has come to be seen as an important symbol of something positive about Zimbabwe”. And with Zimbabwe well and truly back on the list of hot tourist destinations, there’s no better time to go.
Where: Malkerns Valley, Swaziland.
When: 24- 26 May 2019.
Swaziland, the tiny kingdom tucked between South Africa and Mozambique, is home to one of Africa’s best-loved festivals.
With a rallying cry of “Bring your fire” – ie, your energy, your spirit, your passion and your drive – Bushfire claims to be a “celebration of the human spirit”.
With more than a passing nod to promoting social responsibility – profits go to charities that support local communities and help to fund development projects – this award-winning gathering has been wowed by the likes of the legendary Hugh Masekela, Faada Freddy and GoodLuck.
Where: Rabat, Morocco.
When: June 21 -29 2019.
Morocco is host to a plethora of music festivals – Marrakech’s Oasis (which is “leading the charge for North Africa’s underground scene”), Casablanca’s Jazzablanca (where you can shout out “Play it again, Sam” to your heart’s content) and Essaouira’s Gnaoua (a “melting pot of music and cultural fusion”), to name but three,
However, with attendance figures topping 2 million, the nine-day extravaganza that is Mawazine is one of the biggest music festivals in the world. It boasts four main stages – international, oriental, African and Moroccan – plus a number of smaller stages, covering world music, new talent, Tarab and more.
Acts that have graced its boards include Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Placebo, Rihanna and Pharrell Williams, as well as Nigeria’s P-Square and Senegal’s Daara J Family.
Vic Falls Carnival
Where: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
When: 29 – 31 December 2019 – To be confirmed.
If you’d prefer a more attractive location in Zimbabwe for your festival, then you could do worse than pop along to the three-day happening that is the Vic Falls Carnival. Dubbed “the largest cultural infusion of southern African talent”, it features artists from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana.
Not only that, you can bring in the new year while watching some amazing live music or, alternatively, you could do so bungee jumping off the bridge that spans the divide between Zimbabwe and Zambia.