5 African festivals you have to go to (and 2 to look out for)
I’ve festival-hopped around the UK in unpredictable summers. Working behind a rickety tabletop during a heat wave and being unable to function without twitching. Or peeling off my trainers during a flooded electronic music festival only to find I had succumbed to trench foot. Memories glued together with hysterical fits of laughter and a boot full of random stories, like snorting chunky lines of Black Forest cake served by young women dressed up as grannies.
Doing an inter-festival road trip around Africa wouldn’t be as straightforward as packing beer, cream cheese, and a token gas stove into a Nissan Micra but, if ever there was a time to do it, it’s now. Here’s where to start.
Sauti Za Busara: 14 – 17 February (Zanzibar City, Zanzibar)
In Zanzibar, all the travel clichés about white sand beaches and crystal clear water apply. Fishermen lay out their loot on the shore at the end of each day, and the old part of the city, Stone Town, is historic. The architecture in this World Heritage Site has distinct reflections of Swahili, European, Arabic, Persian, and Indian elements.
Kicking off on Valentine’s here is the 10th edition of Sauti Za Busara. The festival takes place in Stone Town, with the main stage erected within the heavy confines of the Old Fort. This old square in the centre of the fortress has become a venue for arts events in the city. Between the 14th and 17th of February, it will morph into a dance floor at the foot of a stage showcasing some of the continent’s most-loved performers.
In celebration of its 10th year, the festival has dug through past programmes to reunite audiences with crowd pleasers from previous years, as well as bringing in new acts making noise on the scene.
HIFA: 30 April – 5 May (Harare, Zimbabwe)
In a country that the bulk of mainstream Western media is so willing to find fault with, you may not expect an arts festival of such scope. For a week, the centre of the city is commandeered by crowds and visiting artists from around the world. Three main stages tie a musical thread through the Harare Gardens with food stalls, youth, poetry, and craft areas popping up on the grounds.
While music is the primary focus within the Gardens, dance and theatre productions are hosted by venues around the capital. Through some of the tougher times in the country’s past decade, this festival has stayed vibrantly afloat, somehow returning year after year as one of Southern Africa’s most esteemed events.
AfrikaBurn: 1 – 6 May (Tankwa Town, South Africa)
If you’re in Southern Africa at the time and hungry for the festive vibe, you’ll have to choose between HIFA and Africa’s version of Burning Man. Following the principles of decommodification and civic responsibility, this event sets itself apart by harnessing one of the most tangible senses of community at any festival on the continent.
Stock your car with things you can give away, and spend your time in the temporary desert town walking through art installations and sharing with your oddly dressed companions. Get ready to dance, create, clean up, exchange, and burn a whole load of things.
Bushfire: 31 May – 2 June (Swaziland)
Superstar poet and performer Saul Williams rocked the crowds in the Kingdom of Swaziland last year. As with many festivals on the continent, Bushfire bears a humanitarian spirit (donating 100% of its profits to charity). The organisers also place a strong emphasis on community involvement through their school programmes and the participation of local youth in festival activities.
Cupped in the scenic Malkerns Valley, Bushfire will welcome around 20,000 festival-goers this year. Whilst the focus is on music, there is also theatre, dance, visual arts, and workshops at the three-day festival.
Gnaoua Festival: 20 – 23 June (Essaouira, Morocco)
Sauti Za Busara and the Gnaoua Festival in Morocco both have proximity to the ocean and remarkable historic cities for backdrops. Gnaoua, however, seeps into the city’s walls and rooms by taking full advantage of the host of venues available. The two main stages are set on the sandy shore of the Atlantic and one of the central squares of the old city, respectively. More intimate venues are hidden around the city.
With a consistently notable lineup including regional and international artists, this gathering has been swelling in size since its inception 16 years ago.
Lake of Stars (Lake Malawi, Malawi) and Festival au Desert (Mali/Burkina Faso)
One of the most renowned African festivals outside of the continent, Lake of Stars plants itself on the banks of Lake Malawi. Sadly, this festival, which has in the past drawn quite a crowd of travellers joining party-goers in the region, has failed to raise the funds to plan a 2013 edition.
Also, Festival au Desert has been forced to postpone this year’s event as a result of the conflict in Mali. The festival centres around two caravans that traverse parts of the Sahara, stopping off in towns to perform. They never fail to include some of the most distinguished names in Malian music. Even Bono got involved last year.
Look out for events, awareness, and fundraisers in Europe linked to these two festivals.