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Busara criticisms lack accuracy
Sauti za Busara director Yusuf speaks to the press. Photo: Pernille Baerendtsen
If you stick your head above the parapet, sooner or later a poison arrow will wing its way in your direction. To adapt a famous saying - "those who can, do and those who can't, bitch". The truth is that it it's easier to carp and criticise from the sidelines than it is to think big, stick your neck out and try to achieve something for the majority.
Journalists - oh yes, myself included - like to stick in little self-affirming cliques. Facebook and other social media make this easier. Everyone 'likes' what you say because they are your friends (or contacts who want to keep you sweet). It's not often a forum for criticism and debate. Most of us like to surround ourselves by like-minded people from the same political stance as ourselves - cards on the table, I am a social liberal with a belief that truly free business relationships can produce positive outcomes and that many NGOs are part of an aid industry propping up neo-colonialism in Africa.
But just because I like staying in my comfort zone doesn't mean I always allow myself to. I read the media that I don't normally agree with to make sure I can articulate why I don't agree. I read high-level right-wing commentary because often good points are made that I can't easily dismiss and I have to look at my own beliefs and question if they are real or just lazy. I make myself check out every NGO because a few, in part or wholly, are really doing something useful and amazing. I read the lowbrow press to know what it's telling people (usually that this celebrity is too thin and that one is too fat).
Nonetheless, I am conscious that as a writer we get to criticise others (politicians, musicians, playwrights, film-makers, sports people) often without comeback.
This year's Sauti za Busara festival and the resulting media coverage was a case in point. The festival was on the whole focused, tight, eclectic and fun. It was also accessible to an extent few African music festivals ever are.
Don't get me wrong - valid and constructive criticism (otherwise known as 'tough love') is fine. Mambo has not been shy to point out flaws in Zanzibar's festivals, as seen in last year's film festival coverage here and here. But when we do it it's from a position of attending most of the festival, putting the work in and knowing the context. So it's been a shame to see this year's Sauti za Busara come under fire for all the wrong reasons.
First up is VICE magazine. OK, VICE likes to be edgy and cause controversy with knowing articles on giving blowjobs and going to dog shows on acid (yes, really). But this piece on the festival is lame. It is aiming to be gonzo a la Hunter S Thompson but ends up being more Gonzo from the Muppets.
So maybe the writer's circle of yeh-buddies made her feel that it was cool to publish something looking like she just doesn't give a damn. But it made her look ignorant and wasted a chance to get the reality of the festival out to a wider audience.
What were her main points? The festival is "too white". It seems unlikely she has ever been to a music festival in Africa if she thinks that Busara, which genuinely works to remain affordable and offers free entry before 5.30pm to Zanzibaris as well as free transport from many parts of town, is honky central. Yes, there are quite a lot of tourists - Zanzibar is, according to my friend Sherlock Holmes here, a tourist destination.
And is that bad? No. Why? Because tourists are enjoying local Swahili music, and Swahili people get the cultural affirmation and pleasure of seeing others love their tunes. Plus, and this is no little point, the festival brings in lots of cold hard cash for local businesses at a time of the year that used to see just tumbleweed. Ninety per cent of festival staff are Tanzanian too, and are salaried.
Her other main point seemed to be that she was annoyed at being thrown out of the press tower because she spilt beer over another journalist's mobile. If she was really rock and roll, she wouldn't care.
It was a more entertaining feature to read than many of the puff pieces in the media that more or less just reformulated press releases. Love or hate is usually more fun than indifference. In the end, though, it was hard to glean any defining point from the stream-of-consciousness article.
Another piece claims that the festival is too expensive for foreigners: Tanzanian blogger Ashura says that foreigners already have to pay for a visa, hotels, transport etc and that the fee for Busara entry is too high. But at about $26 per day to see eight musical acts, it's a snip compared to most music festivals across the world.
Some media, such as Think Africa Press and Kenya's Daily Nation, provided balanced coverage of the event.
In short, Zanzibar has a music festival it can be proud of, one which despite dwindling funding delivered a great experience for most. So, while we like being as snarky as the next person, we will on this occasion just deliver a rousing round of applause.