Swahili encounters speaking the universal language of music

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, ‘Music is the universal language of all mankind’, it’s understood by everyone, despite their language, race, nationality, or age.

In February this was the testimony at the Sauti za Busara music festival in Zanzibar as thousands of revellers arrived on the Spice Island for the 16th edition of the annual festival.

Here, African diversity was tested as over 400 artistes and 40 groups performed for four nights on three stages at the iconic Ngome Kongwe.

Most of the groups were performing here for the first time and many admit that it is always a life changing moment in many ways.

Aside from the usual live performances that always get the audience jumping from rhythm to rhythm, a forum known as Swahili Encounters, which has been part of the Sauti za Busara festival since 2004 took center stage.

The forum, aiming to break music barriers, is proof of how musicians from different backgrounds can interact and learn from each other whilst forging new directions in artistic collaborations.

This year, Swahili Encounters brought together artistes from Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria.

The diverse group of musicians got a chance to share ideas and forge ways of working together. Through this, a special bond was born.

For over four days the musicians experimented, rehearsed and developed new compositions, interpretations from the traditional Swahili repertoire.

Results from these collaborations were then shared with the audience on the main stage at the festival.

Mandla Mlangeni from South Africa, a member of the Tune Recreation Committee Band, served as the Artistic Director of Swahili Encounters 2019.

His band is a formidable quintet, comprised of some of Cape Town’s finest young musicians.

At the cutting edge of African jazz, they merge original tunes with nods from a wide palette of musical influences.

He says he was honoured to be given the role of being artistic director of the 2019 instalment of Swahili Encounters. “It’s an opportunity to learn more about the many cultures and customs that exist in Africa and how they find their meaning in music,” he said, adding, “we all came from different backgrounds yet were able to come together and create a unified sound that was able to capture the full range of artistic depth.”

Swahili Encounters opened a new world of possibility with regard to how musicians can forge new partnerships by working together.

The artistes benefit tremendously from such arrangements as they challenged to have an open mind and to highlight all the various talents in their ensembles.

The forum is also a great place to meet new people and network. This year’s Swahili Encounters edition was special as it highlighted ways in which African artistes can have more agencies when conducting their business affairs.

Artistes were also able to test out new ideas and share information regarding the challenges and opportunities in the creative arts indsutry.

Amina Omar, a leader at Siti & The Band, Oud player as well as a vocalist, took part in this year’s Swahili Encounters. Having been part of the forum in previous years, she has greatly benefitted from its rewards.

“Through the forum I drew inspiration to play Oud and managed to explore my ability in different platforms. I’ve managed to transcend language barriers by collaborating with people who do not speak my language,” she said.

Asia Madani, a Sudanese vocalist and percussionist based in Cairo, Egypt, was also part of the forum.

Her music reflects pride in her heritage as an African and as a strong woman with a voice that is magical and, at the same time, fierce. She is also a specialist at performing Zar, which is a healing ritual consisting of complex rhythms, voice and dance.

She says, coming from different backgrounds made it a bit hard to get along with everyone else due to cultural diversities, but in the end things worked out well.

Through Swahili Encounters the artistes managed to create two songs; Chico get it, a song about fighting for the things we want. The other song is Africa United, advocating for unity.

Ramadhan Journey, Sauti za Busara Festival Manager, says the forum was started in 2004 with the aim of crossing boundaries and allowing artistes to collaborate in their careers.

Commenting on the criteria used to select musicians, he says it is never an easy job to get a theme and then choose the right artistes to be a part of it.

But through other music stakeholders who are working together with Sauti za Busara they have been able to get musicians who are funded by their countries. Through Africa Art Line from Morocco the stakeholder has been able to fund different groups like Ribab Fusion, Bob Maghrib and Hoba Hoba Spirits.

Swahili Encounters as part of Sauti za Busara is expected to bring African artistes closer together through their common interests.