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African music festivals

From Morocco’s north east coastline to Cape Town on the south westerly tip, Darren Loucaides spreads his gaze across Africa to find the five objectively best music festivals on the continent.

Gnaoua World Music Festival
Essaouira, Morocco
Next year, the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival marks its 20th birthday, and artists from across the African continent and Middle East will converge on Essaouira on the west coast to celebrate. Held in honour of Morocco’s Gnaoua community, which traces its roots back to sub-Saharan Africa, and boasts a unique musical traditional borne out of animist ceremonies, the festival also strives to cast light on Morocco’s mixed cultural identity, as well as promote Morocco’s African heritage. The setting alongside battlements of the ancient port town, as well as stages on the windswept beach, is the icing on the cake.

29 June – 2 July 2017, www.festival-gnaoua.net

Harare International Festival of the Arts
Harare, Zimbabwe
Founded in 1999, this music and arts festival is a sprawling six-day event that aims to showcase the very best that Zimbabwe’s creatives have to offer. Apart from music concerts and dance performances, there’s street theatre, circus, spoken word and visual arts to marvel at. There are also various workshops for visitors to learn and participate in. The founders of HIFA are proud of the positive impact they have on the local community, which is one of the main goals of the festival. HIFA didn’t take place in 2016, but is back next year.

25-30 April 2017, www.hifa.co.zw

Abene Festivalo
Abene, Senegal
Going into its 23rd year, Abene Festivalo is fast becoming Senegal’s most important traditional music festival. The idea is for each of Senegal’s many ethnic groups, including Wolof, Serer, Diola and Mandinka, to demonstrate their music and dance. “It’s a celebration of our Senegalese African culture and traditions,” says Abene Festivalo’s director, Seyni Souane. “Young people today are so influenced by western culture, they forget their roots. At least with this festival, one week a year is dedicated to their traditional culture. Identity is important – you have to know where you come from to go forwards.” The festival lines up a mixed programme of established and emerging artists from across the country, and sometimes beyond. Each year there’s a different theme, with past instalments bearing the tags ‘migration’ and ‘environment’.

26 December 2016 – 2 January 2017, www.abenevillage.wix.com/abene

Lake of Stars
Mangoochi, Malawi
Inspired by WOMAD festival, Lake of Stars is perhaps best known for its setting. Taking place on the stunning Lake Malawi, the natural palm-fringed location ever threatens to steal the limelight. Despite this, the calibre of the artists has never failed to match up. Hailing from the UK, Will Jameson set up the festival in 2004 as a way of promoting Malawi’s rich music, as well as encourage international tourism. Apart from local acts, international artists including Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx, Beverley Night and others have graced the Lake of Stars stage, and the festival has grown to become one of the most important in Africa.

2017 dates TBC, www.lakeofstars.org

Cape Town International Jazz Festival
Cape Town, South Africa
The biggest annual music event in the sub-Sahara, Cape Town International Jazz Festival is also one of the largest of its kind anywhere. Jazz stars from across the planet swoop on the southernmost tip of Africa for the event, though the organisers aim for a fifty-fifty split with local South African artists. There are more than 40 acts performing over the two nights.

31 March – 1 April 2017, www.capetownjazzfest.com

Special mention: Festival au Desert
For many years, African music lovers descended on Timbuktu for the holy grail of music events. In recent years Festival au Desert has sadly been displaced by the conflict engulfing the country; that Mali, so proud of its musical heritage, should be partly subjected to a regime that outlaws music, has only compounded the tragedy. Ever resilient, the founders have set up Festival au Desert in Exile in neighbouring countries. See www.festival-au-desert.org for more, and check out new documentary Mali Blues, which explores the country’s rich musical heritage and current crisis.