How one of East Africa’s popular musical festivals has survived 20 years amid uncertainties 

Yusuf Mahmoud 

What you need to know:

  • The 21st Sauti za Busara edition is scheduled for February 9 – 11, 2024. African musicians interested to participate in the globally acclaimed extravaganza can apply online via the festival website until July 31, 2023.

Busara Promotions, the organisers of one of Africa’s best music festivals, Sauti za Busara have named a new top leadership team.

The Sauti za Busara festival, which translates to “Sounds of Wisdom,” in Kiswahili is held every year in February in Stone Town, Zanzibar. 

Now aged 61, Yusuf Mahmoud, the founder chief executive officer and Sauti za Busara festival director for the past 20 years says it is time to hand over to younger leaders, with more stamina and fresh ideas. 

Effective July 2023, Lorenz Herrmann, a German cultural entrepreneur, musician and arts manager who has lived in Tanzania since 2016, took over as managing director. Journey Ramadhan, a Tanzanian who has worked as a manager of the event since 2009, now becomes the festival director. 

“When we established Busara Promotions in 2003, one of our plans was to host an annual festival in Stone Town, showcasing the wealth and diversity of music from East Africa and the Swahili-speaking region. Little did we expect the festival to become a pan-African event that is now one of the most respected music events on the continent, attracting thousands of visitors to Zanzibar every year in February,” Yusuf said in statement. 

Yusuf will continue working with Busara Promotions, as a member of its governing Board of Trustees. 

“My strong background in arts management, combined with my passion for promoting cultural diversity and supporting artists and my strong network in the corporate and cultural sector gained from seven years’ working in Zanzibar, align perfectly with Busara Promotions and make me well-equipped to take on this role,” Herrmann said. 

“I believe that music and arts have the power to bridge differences, foster understanding, and promote positive change in society. I am committed to upholding these values and driving the impact and professionalism of the festival to new heights,” Herrmann added.

The 21st Sauti za Busara edition is scheduled for February 9 – 11, 2024. African musicians interested to participate in the globally acclaimed extravaganza can apply online via the festival website until July 31, 2023.

According to the organisers, the line-up of confirmed artists to perform in February 2024 will be announced in October 2023.

Yusuf Mahmoud talked to Bamuturaki Musinguzi on this new development. Excerpts: 

How has it been like running the day-to-day operations of the Sauti za Busara music festival? 

For me, the past 21 years setting up and running Busara Promotions and Sauti za Busara festival was a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions: at different times thrilling, inspiring, challenging, energising and exhausting, but never boring! My work was always dependent on the input of many different stakeholders, including staff, crew and board members, leaders from the public and private sectors, local and international artists, audiences and so on. 

It was rewarding to see my work make an impact. I had the pleasure to meet and work with many dedicated and talented musicians from East Africa and across the continent. I shall remain forever thankful to hundreds of organisations and thousands of individuals for their continued trust and cooperation over the years. 

Sauti za Busara new Management.Photo/Rashde Fidigo

What are your major achievements? 

Certainly, it was no small feat keeping the festival going year on year and growing from strength to strength. We never failed to host the festival in Zanzibar every year (except 2016), with all bills and salaries paid and never going into debt. Sauti za Busara is now a cornerstone of the region’s music industry, providing a valuable platform for up-and-coming musicians to share their creativity and reach large audiences. We kept focus and consistently demonstrated there is a market for new, exciting and original sounds that are uniquely local and performed live. 

Our technical production standards were always world-class. All artists performed as scheduled, on time. Musicians understood its significance and gave their best. Whilst never compromising on our mission, the festival continued to attract thousands of local and international audiences, year on year. For many of these people, it provided life-changing experiences. Over the years, we employed thousands of crew members, supported many women’s groups, young and emerging talents, especially from Tanzania’s more marginalised societies. Many of these now tour and perform internationally.

We provided training and capacity-building in events management, sound, lighting and technical production, stage management, media and promotions. We offered platforms for collaboration and networking for artists, managers, promoters, media and industry professionals to meet and exchange, and marketed Zanzibar as a leading destination for cultural tourism, with the added bonus of millions of dollars being injected to the local economy.

What major challenges have you faced in running this festival? 

There were many challenges on the journey, most notably financial uncertainties as most years we had to fundraise for the festival almost from scratch, and this became increasingly difficult during and after the pandemic years. The focus of my work changed over the years, when more time had to be put into writing complicated proposals and reports for donors and sponsors. With the impact of economic recessions, Covid-19, war in Ukraine and so on, fundraising got tougher each year. Sponsors rarely commit to more than one edition, were often late to disburse funds, bringing risks and complications to festival programming and long-term planning. 

Another challenge was that in terms of performers on stage and crew members behind the scenes, for many years women were under-represented. A few years ago, we decided to try and readdress the balance, by proactively seeking more women performers, and more women to join our production teams, in hope this would inspire and encourage others to come forward. Our strategy seems to have worked. In three years, the ratio doubled: presently around 40 per cent of groups on the festival stages are led by women and more than 35 per cent of crew members are female. 
Where do you see the new leadership team taking the festival? 

I am confident in the new leadership. I believe they will bring fresh energy and new ideas, for the organisation and for the annual festival. Journey Ramadhan, the new festival director, has 14 years’ experience working with the event. He clearly understands our mission and vision, is well respected by our many stakeholders, has good multitasking skills, attention to detail, and he is a great team player. Lorenz Herrmann, the new managing director, also has extensive experience in the music industry, including seven years in Tanzania. He is fluent in Kiswahili, well-connected and committed to take the festival’s impact and professionalism to new heights. 

They and other team members know and understand what makes Sauti za Busara unique and special, and I believe they will build on our past achievements by engaging more with the new generations of East African musicians and producers, bring innovative ideas in fundraising, programming, marketing and promotions and better utilise opportunities provided by digital technologies to widen the impact of Busara’s work, whilst keeping it accessible and inclusive for our diverse stakeholders. 

I shall continue to live in Zanzibar and remain available to offer advice and support to the new leaders over the coming year, if required. I wish the new management team only goodness and blessings for the future. At the same time, I am 100 per cent confident in their capabilities, commitment and dedication to keep Busara Promotions and Sauti za Busara continuing to grow from strength to strength.