Of culture, donors and the collapse of Zanzibar’s top music festival

Aline Frazao Angola at Sauti za Busara. Robin Batista

Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara (a Swahili term meaning “sounds of wisdom”) is an annual festival with a mellifluous difference. It is one of Africa’s largest and most popular music festivals, yet it is unabashedly noncommercial.

Most other African festivals feature stars performing American-influenced commercial music. But Sauti za Busara’s mission is clear: it firmly supports the immense diversity of traditional African music styles. Many of these genres are under threat of extinction due to the dominance of Western popular music on eastern Africa’s radio waves.

For more than a decade, Sauti za Busara’s singularity has drawn thousands of visitors – both local and international – to the island of Zanzibar every February. On Sauti za Busara’s musical menu you can taste anything from east African giants of classic taraab like the late Bi Kidude to young innovators in the western Africa jali tradition like Dawda Jobarteh.

However, this February, there was no Sauti za Busara. Busara Promotions, the non-profit organisation behind the planning and management of the festival, fell far short of its fundraising goals for 2016. It was forced to cancel the event.

International donor dependency

Like many African non-profit organisations, Busara Promotions partially relies on foreign funding to carry out its operations. Ticket sales only cover 30% of its revenue. International donors, embassies and commercial sponsors provide most of the remaining support. Much of that did not arrive this year.

Busara Promotions CEO Yusuf Mahmoud attributes this to a confluence of factors, including the end of a three-year grant from the international donor Hivos. He also points to an ironic consequence of Sauti za Busara’s rising profile as an international festival. Many donors do not believe that their money is needed because the festival is so well attended.

The cancellation points to an under-reported yet significant aspect of global economic inequity – international donor dependency. In 2013, Africa received an estimated total of US$56 billion in official development aid. This aid is used to fund anything from poverty alleviation to education and public health projects. It comes mainly from wealthy nations in northern Europe, North America and increasingly eastern Asia.

The only African donor entity listed among the top ten donors is the African Development Bank, a bank largely supported by non-African funding. Busara Promotions is subject to the same reliance on foreign donor funding. When its funding is cut, this can spell the end of a project.

A lack of local support

The festival’s cancellation also turns the focus on the lack of local support.

Despite estimates by the Zanzibar Commission for Tourism that suggest dramatic increases of up to 40,000 visitors to the island in the month of February, there has been “zero support” from government. Little more came from local private sector organisations. Tourism, the fastest-growing sector of Zanzibar’s economy, generates about 80% of foreign exchange earnings and accounts for about 27% of economic output.

The reasons for the general lack of local support are not clear. It could be tied to an absence of a robust and enforced taxation system to support civic initiatives.

It may be that benefiting government agencies and local businesses feel complacent that Sauti za Busara is generating tourism revenue already, and that they do not need to contribute. Mahmoud’s comments suggest it’s the latter.

Not an isolated case

Busara Promotions is not the only African arts body facing this dilemma. The Nairobi-based nonprofit organisation Ketebul Music finds itself in a similar position.

Founded by long-time music producer mogul Tabu Osusa, Ketebul Music pursues its mission of promoting eastern Africa’s diverse musical traditions in a number of ways. It creates documentary films about eastern African music history. It produces and distributes albums by Kenyan artists who blend local and global genres. It also records and archives diverse ethnic music traditions from remote areas of the region.

Ketebul Music’s recording studio in Nairobi generates some revenue from local artists who pay to record their music there. But the organisation requires additional funding to carry out many of its initiatives.

With limited local government or private sector support for their work, this gap is filled by international donor organisations. These sources have not always been consistent.

A global predicament

There is no easy solution to the sad dilemma in which Sauti za Busara and similar organisations find themselves.

Arts play a powerful role in shaping the culture of any society. But with limited local economic support these independent African arts organisations are forced to rely on inconsistent global funding streams.

This suggests that cultural expressions of African identity may partly be reliant on the apparent whims of donors in foreign capitals.