Africa is home to hundreds, possibly thousands of annual music festivals, and virtually every style of music is covered from contemporary African beats to traditional and tribal Africa rhythms and even festivals that have musicians, DJs, and bands from all over the world playing. And more and more keep popping up each year. Whatever your taste in music, there is bound to be at least one musicfestival in Africa to appeal to you. Here this article will select a ‘Top 10’; not necessarily the top 10 bestmusic festivals, as everyone’s tastes are obviously different from person to person, but a top 10 based on musical genre diversity and how unique a festival is. So hopefully, the Top 10 list presented here will include at least one festival that tickles your musical taste buds.
A well-established musicfestival in Africa that has been continuing now for over ten years, and has been described by media and festival-veterans alike as one of the “world’s best music festivals.” Undoubtedly one of the reason’s it’s so highly widely acclaimed and popular is because of the location: On the majestic shores of Lake Malawi, a favourite destination amongst backpackers for a while now in its own right is a stunning backdrop for a musicfestival in Africa. The festival itself offers a varied combination of budding local talent, global artists such as the hip-hop act Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers, and colourful cultural events right in the heart of Africa. And with tickets costing only a poultry £45 (compared to the £200+ ticket prices for many European festivals these days), you’d be foolish to miss out on this truly epic musicfestival in Africa, especially if you are already travelling in the region around the dates that it airs on. And one final thing that makes this festival extra-special is that none of the artists get paid for performing. It’s all just for the love of the music and the love of performing in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, right in the heart of Africa.
This is an official spin-off event attached to the infamous “Burning Man” festival in Nevada, USA. Except tickets here are a 1/8th of the price of “Burning Man” (starting at around £35), and the musicfestival in Africa has been described as “like Burning Man was 15 years ago” by festival-goers that have been to both. This really is a unique festival: no money is exchanged, and everything is instead based on a gift-economy, self-reliance, and leaving no ecological trace of your presence there. It’s a very communal event, right in the heart of a semi-arid desert under the milky-way sky. Indeed, community and participation are what really drive this festival, as the more you put into it, the more get out of it. In essence, you are the audience and the show. Much of the music is therefore unknown non-commercial artists from around the globe, everything from people strumming acoustic folk music to bongos and even DJs pumping out psytrance, progressive house, and all manner of eclectic genres and melodies well into the night via solar-powered speakers. This is definitely an essential one for those who love quirky art, self-expression, hippie culture along with a deep appreciation and respect for nature.
A now well-established musicfestival in Africa, perhaps reflected in the fact MTV recently included it in their top ‘9 Music Festivals You Actually Want To Attend’. Based in Swaziland’s capital, it hosts an impressive mix of both local and international acts. These range from traditional Swazi dancers in traditional costumes dancing to such eclectic genres as Spanish Hip-Hop, rastafarians chilling to the sounds of reggae and dub, to Ghanian-Swiss fusion Jazz! Camping is available for the 3-day festival running annually between the 30th May and 1st June, so festival-goers don’t have to leave the site for the whole duration of the festivities, and one of the extra special things about this musicfestival is that all the funds made go directly back into local community development projects.
Now for something really really unique. So unique, it just had to be included in this list because the idea behind it is simply mind-blowingly eccentric. Festival-goers actually start off in South Africa where they board a party steam train. This then pumps its way through southern Africa until it stops at a secret destination in the middle of a National Park, where everyone disembarks for an epic dance party. But that is not it; after this, the festival moves further north, where festival-goers get to see what you would likely see on a 3-day safari to the Serengeti en route to the final destination: The UNESCO world heritage site of Victoria Falls. Then the music actually starts showcasing the very best musicians and artists from all around Africa, all to the backdrop of the phenomenal Victoria Falls. This is really one that is unmissable: You basically get a free safari, steam train ride, and a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage before the music even starts properly. What more could you honestly wish for?
“The Harare International Festival of the Arts”, Harare, Zimbabwe
Another well-established musicfestival in Africa going since 1999, and widely touted as “Africa’s Glastonbury,” in the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare. Held over 6 days between April/May, it’s one of Africa’s largest festivals that doesn’t just compose music, but also art, dance, poetry, and drama from across the world. A unique aspect of this festival is that you pay per event according to your interests, rather than the standard price for the whole event like pretty much every other festival.
“Sauti Za Busara Festival”, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
In translation from the original, the name of this festival means “Sounds of Wisdom,” and it’s now a decade old and East Africa’s biggest musicfestival. The setting is in the fantastically atmospheric Stone Town on Zanzibar island, and it plays host to African musicians from all over the continent each year. The genres are very diverse despite being all Africa, which is very refreshing: Everything from Zimbabwean rap-rock to Rwandan Afro-pop is on offer here. The festival is spread out across the city’s numerous historical buildings and ancient amphitheatres, and averages 400 artists during February every year. In addition to music, the festival also hosts a number of fringe events, including dhow racing, fashion shows and after-party events.
South Africa is now home to some of the finest music festivals in the world, but the Cape Town International Jazz Festival is the 4th largest annual jazz musicfestival in the world, and the biggest in Africa, now into its 16th year. The 2-day event held annually every March in Cape Town showcases over 40 artists on 5 stages, half from South Africa, while the other half are international jazz artists. Tickets sell-out extremely fast for this festival, so be sure to book well ahead to avoid missing out.
Essouria is a fantastic destination in itself, especially popular with backpackers, it is an ancient seaside town, full of a labyrinth of backstreets to explore and get happily lost in for hours. The climate here is also very nice in the summer, with a constant wind from the Atlantic cooling the town to the mid-20C’s for much of the summer. A relief for those who have just come from the scorching Sahara where temperatures regularly hit 40C+ in summer! But the Gnaoua World MusicFestival emerged here in the late 90’s in an effort to preserve the ancient Gnaoua music and traditional dancing. Described by the media as “a laboratory of musical fusion”, the 4-day event is held annually every year in June and attracts all sorts of people from all over the world who are drawn to its eclectic fusion of African, Berber, and Arabic beats and rhythms. Many of these genres actually include deeply religious and spiritual songs, which makes the festival something of both a worshipping event and a pure celebration of life and just having a good time. The festival also features jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, and world music fused with the traditional Gnaoua to create something truly contemporary and unique.
This one is for the very adventurous, if only because simply travelling to get here is a big effort! But if you have the constitution for it, you’ll find it more than worth the effort. Timbuktu is a site to behold in itself, so the fact this musicfestival is held on the sand dunes overlooking this wonder provides a perfect backdrop for 3 days of award-winning Malian musicians and international performers strutting their stuff in the heart of the Sahara. Held annually, every January, you can expect to share your dance floor with camels and desert nomads. Needless to say, this is one of Africa’s more ‘exotic’ music festivals, so be prepared!
Held annually marking the start of Spring in South Africa’s Western Cape, “Rocking the Daisies” is a purely contemporary musicfestival with multiple stages, including an electro-stage, comedy stage and the main stage that attracts big-time international acts. Past performers include the infamous Bloc Party and Alt-J amongst a plethora of other high-quality international bands and DJs. This festival takes place on a stunningly beautiful wine farm just outside Cape Town to create the perfect spring ambiance. Due to its contemporary international line-up of performers, it appeals to a younger crowd and can be likened to the “Reading and Leeds MusicFestival” in the UK.