Yusuf Mahmoud

Festivals and contemporary discourses

How do festivals respond, embrace, react against contemporary themes?

© Markus Meissi

It was in UK during the 1980s, whilst engaged with the Anti-Apartheid Movement, where Yusuf Mahmoud realised the power of African music to raise awareness, change hearts and minds and build solidarity across borders. In 1998 he moved home to Stone Town, Zanzibar, where he set up the NGO Busara Promotions, to provide platforms for artistic expression, to celebrate cultural diversity and to offer employment opportunities in an East African music industry in exchange with other regions. Yusuf is director of the annual Sauti za Busara African music festival and Chairperson of the Music in Africa Foundation. One of his top priorities each weekend is to get into the Indian Ocean, where he finds true peace of mind.

No two festivals are the same. Each one is different, according to its programming focus, audience reach, geographic and cultural context.

There is a tendency by development ‘experts’ to gauge the impacts of festivals by their economic effects. Whilst important, we should never underestimate other impacts, even if these are less easy to quantify:

  • Festivals empower artists, offering platforms for expression, collaboration and exchange
  • Festivals offer opportunities for women, youth and marginalised societies to share their stories
  • Festivals build respect for cultural diversity, social cohesion, unity and solidarity across borders.
  • Festivals provide employment, skills development, networking and trade
  • Festivals shift narratives and challenge stereotypes about Africa and African music
  • Festivals provide visibility for new material and talent
  • Festivals keep cultural heritage alive
  • Festivals create regional ecosystems, networks of interdependent actors from the public and private sectors, incl. artists, managers, technicians, donors, sponsors, media, tourism operators, and audiences of different ages and backgrounds
  • Festivals bring JOY to a lot of people!

The unique mix of local, regional and international artists and audiences are a key to success.

Festivals are perfect spaces to celebrate cultural diversity and offer platforms for collaborations, meetings, discovery and nurturing of new talents. It is important to keep festivals accessible and affordable for the local population. Ticket prices could vary according to nationality, with generous concessions for local passport-holders.

Priority should be given to young and emerging talents who play live music that is unique and with cultural identity. It is the new generation who keep festivals fresh, relevant and exciting. At Sauti za Busara festival, we enjoy taking risks in programming acts relatively few people have heard of. More often, these are the artists subsequently invited to perform at other international events, precisely because they are different and unique.

In Africa, music is life. As Baaba Maal from Senegal once said, “There is no reason that while you make people dance you can’t make them think at the same time. For my people music is not just about having a party or dancing – it is one of the most important means of communicating our history, our concerns and our values.

Festivals across Africa need to increase opportunities for women, on stage and behind the scenes. We can also address environmental issues, speak out for justice, human rights and other concerns. Although one festival alone cannot make great transformations to society, I believe it is our responsibility to promote dialogue, change attitudes and encourage action for a more sustainable and fairer world.

A challenge we all face is that international embassies and donors have priorities that seem to fluctuate according to trends; they will only support festivals with specific campaigns or other side projects. As event organisers, we have to be careful and not get too distracted by the ever-shifting demands of donors and sponsors; their insistence on development messages and branding placements can easily bore audiences.

In the ‘new world order’, the inequality gap is widening further when it comes to vaccinations and freedom of movement. The super-rich are getting even richer at the expense of the global majority. Since the pandemic, restrictions on social gatherings and travel led to unprecedented losses for artists and event organisers. Among the new challenges are even more scarcity of funding for the arts, travel complications, increased expenses for PCR Tests, health and safety precautions and so on.

Whilst recent years were not easy for event organisers, post-Covid 19 one positive outcome is now more festivals partner with TV and online broadcasters to ensure wider audience reach, across Africa and beyond. There is much to celebrate about new digital opportunities and hybrid models for engagement. However,

  • across Africa, until now too few musicians have derived sustainable incomes from TV, radio and online broadcasts;
  • while virtual concerts can be enjoyed at home, it is impossible to replace the magic, excitement and energy of the physical festival experience!

This text was the contribution of Yusuf Mahmoud at the occasion of the Atelier for Young Festival Managers Kampala of The Festival Academy from 21 till 27 March 2022.

Festival Life creates shared moments of audiences and artists, eye-to-eye

Theatre production on the front deck of a sailing vessel © Malta International Arts Festival