UK-born Sauti za Busara director prefers African music and books

Saturday May 14 2016

Yusuf Mahmoud moved to Zanzibar from the UK because he wanted to feel and enjoy the island’s healthy respect for culture and traditions. PHOTOS | BAMUTURAKI MUSIGUNZI

Yusuf Mahmoud moved to Zanzibar from the UK because he wanted to feel and enjoy the island’s healthy respect for culture and traditions. PHOTOS | BAMUTURAKI MUSIGUNZI 

By Bamuturaki Musinguzi

Yusuf Mahmoud was born and grew up in the United Kingdom, where in the 1980s until the early 1990s he directed world music festivals, concerts and seminars, to raise awareness and promote a positive image of and solidarity with the global South.

He moved to Zanzibar in 1998. In 2003, he set up Busara Promotions, a non-governmental organisation working in East Africa to strengthen appreciation for African music and develop local skills and networks.

Busara Promotions organises the annual Sauti za Busara music festival, is also known as “the friendliest festival on the planet,” one that is popular with both locals and visitors.

He is proud of the accolades that Sauti za Busara festival is East Africa’s premier cultural event.

“Sauti za Busara has high standards in technical production. We promote it well in advance. All artists show up and perform as scheduled, on time. Musicians understand its significance and give their best. Of course, the festival also enjoys the benefit of a fabulous venue, being surrounded by Stone Town’s cultural heritage,” he adds.

Mahmoud adds: “A critical factor for its success is the shared experience between visitors and locals. Everyone agrees the vibe, energy and excitement at Sauti za Busara are out of this world.”

In 2007, Mahmoud was presented the World Shaker Award at the BBC World Music Awards, recognising his “enormous contribution to both the local scene in Zanzibar and the world music scene globally.”

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What’s your off-duty passion?

Music and books. Both give me great inspiration. What I read and listen to is mostly connected to Africa. Lately I’ve been enjoying Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nnedi Okorafor, two outstanding women writers from Nigeria. I have a Kindle to read when travelling. I’m constantly on the look out for new and interesting music, especially from the African continent and diaspora.

What would you have been if you were not a performing arts events manager today?

I would be involved in campaigns to raise awareness on global issues, or I would have been a superstar DJ!

I could have been all these too right now but my job keeps me occupied full time.

What signifies your personal style?

I am a listener. Everyone has an interesting story. I enjoy one-on-one conversations more than social gatherings. I am not impressed by power or wealth and I have chosen to commute by bicycle. I spend a lot of time with people. But I also realise that I need time alone, for personal health and sanity. 

How do you manage your wardrobe?

I don’t follow fashion. For those who like everything in a box, I guess I am in the smart-casual box. I like cotton and linen clothing. I’m most comfortable in West African outfits because they are loose fitting. I don’t remember the last time I wore a tie. For shoes, flip-flops do just fine for me.

While in East Africa, where are you most likely to spend your Saturday afternoon?

People-watching and catching up with friends at my local café, or swimming in the Indian Ocean.

Describe your best destination yet in East Africa?

Stone Town in Zanzibar still feels magical even after living here for 18 years. The people are warm and genuine, there’s a healthy respect for culture and traditions. Its close to the ocean and the vibe is unique.

Do you have a must-visit list?

There are many countries in Africa I look forward to exploring, such as Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, to name a few.

What is East Africa’s greatest strength?  

The warmth, openness and resilience of its people.

What is your best collection?

I have always had a huge music collection from my teens. Long playing records (vinyl) and cassettes, then minidisc, CDs and more lately MP3. I used to play whole albums but these days I tend to play my music in shuffle mode. In an hour, my soundtrack will typically shift from traditional Wagogo sounds to Afrobeat, zouglou, mbalax, roots reggae, drum ‘n’ bass, urban hip-hop, contemporary classical music, West African kora music to 1960s Blue Note recordings or Cuban jazz.

Which is the big book you have read recently?

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her characters are complex and real. She brilliantly captures and articulates issues around human race and identity, without sounding overly academic.

Which film has impacted you the most?

I enjoy movies based on real life events. Many of my heroes have had their stories told through feature films. Films like Cry Freedom (about Steve Biko), Long Walk to Freedom (on Nelson Mandela), Malcolm X, Gandhi, among others. Otherwise, I am not really a great fan of Hollywood; I prefer alternative cinema, which is not so easy to find in Tanzania.

What’s your favourite music?

I love West African music, especially Oumou Sangare and Fatoumata Diawara, who was previously one of Oumou’s backing singers. They’re firmly rooted, while taking Malian music into new and exciting directions. My favourite album to date is Immigres, by Youssou N’dour and Le Super Etoile de Dakar, done in the 1980s. N’dour’s voice, the percussions, guitars and the music arrangements are immaculate.

Which is your favourite website?

Musicinafrica.net, which I am proud to have helped set up in its formative years.