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MOSES SERUGO: Why Juliana cut Sauti za Busara

I have been trying to get to the bottom of Juliana Kanyomozi’s Sauti za Busara no-show all week. The Ugandan pop chanteuse was billed to open East Africa’s premier “world music” festival in Zanzibar on Thursday February 11. But at her slotted 5.15pm performance time, the emcee announced that Juliana had cancelled her travel plans to Zanzibar.

The official explanation from festival organisers was that Juliana signed a contract in mid-December to perform on the festival’s opening night. “Everything was confirmed, accommodation was booked.

The group received air tickets from their sponsor,” says festival Publicist Peter Bennet. Juliana’s manager Edward Tinka Ndawula explained otherwise. He put the blame on the red tape at UNDP Tanzania who had offered to sponsor Juliana’s travel to Zanzibar alongside her 10-piece band.

“We have been preparing to perform at the festival since October last year. We sent through our technical rider to both Busara and our sponsors in time. Unfortunately, our sponsors - UNDP delayed to send through the air tickets and other logistics as agreed upon in time.

Apparently they have a rigid and bureaucratic system, which delayed everything. By the time things were approved our performance date had passed!” Ndawula wrote in an email. 

There is a grapevine version that says Juliana could have been intimidated by the prospect of opening the festival and tactfully withdrawn.

A band member who requested anonymity lends credence to this adding that for the most part, Juliana was absent at rehearsals and there were squabbles over allowances. The money for the air tickets came rather late for festival organisers to slot her on a different day. 

I still feel the Juliana camp handled the whole Sauti za Busara affair in a casual manner. I caught a whiff of “diva-tude”. There should have been provision for a “plan B” given the UNDP Tanzania bureaucracy.

Juliana could have fallen back onto her popularity here and put on a fundraising concert to raise money for air tickets. Alternatively, she could have spoken to airlines for ticket bailouts.

There is nothing embarrassing there. Air Uganda came through for Rachel Magoola at last year’s Sauti za Busara and this year, they had no qualms about sponsoring my trip.

Whatever the explanations from the Juliana camp, I hope she is beating herself up for throwing away the opportunity to enhance her musical CV, get her legion of Tanzanian and Zanzibari fans to watch her play her anthems Usiende Mbali and Haturudi Nyuma live and also build rapport with her singing peers like Kenya’s jazz vocalist Maia von Lekow, Zambia’s folk pop queen Maureen Lupo Lilanda, Kenya’s taarab wonder Nyota Ndogo, and South Africa’s fusion star Thandiswa.

The show went on regardless even with a recurrent power outage that had plunged Zanzibar in darkness for two months. Flying Uganda’s flag high at the festival were kora prodigy Joel Sebunjo and his band Sundiata although his performance was eclipsed by renowned kora maestros Ba Cissoko from Guinea.

Sosolya Dance Academy left a lasting impression with an array of Ugandan dances that were capped with Betty Akidi’s signature tiered pot dance. Sauti za Busara; Swahili for “sound of wisdom” will sure leave any world music connoisseur wise.

Its blend of cultural tourism combining an enchanting four-day music experience and a chance to take in timeless historical sights provides the ultimate New Year treat.

serugo@observer.ug