11 Must-do African Music Festivals

We've put together a list of the 11 best African music festivals to add to your itinerary, or even build your African trip around.

Steven Morrow PhotographyAfrikaBurn 2014 - Steven Morrow Photography

Whatever time of year you’re planning on travelling in Africa, people are making music and lots of it. Festivals spring-up like sonic oases giving artists platforms to be heard and music lovers an occasion to dance to hundreds of different rhythms and beats.

Ovidiu PacuraruAfrikaBurn 2014 - Ovidiu Pacuraru

Festivals in Africa are flavoured with a distinct sense of adventure, some more of an epic undertaking than others, but all promising a kaleidoscope of sound, sights and cultures. 

Article Quick Links

  1. Sauti za Busara – Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
  2. Cape Town International Jazz Festival – Cape Town, South Africa
  3. AfrikaBurn – Tankwa Karoo, South Africa
  4. HIFA Zimbabwe – Harare, Zimbabwe
  5. MTN Bushfire Festival - House on Fire, Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland
  6. Gnaoua World Music Festival – Essouria, Morocco
  7. Oppikoppi – Northam, Limpopo, South Africa
  8. Lake of Stars Malawi Music Festival – Lake Malawi, Malawi
  9. Rocking the Daisies – Cloof Estate, Darling, South Africa
  10. Vortex Trance Party - Jongenskloof Farm, Riviersonderend, South Africa
  11. Festival au Desert – Timbuktu, Mali

Steven Morrow PhotographyAfrikaBurn 2014 - Steven Morrow Photography

1. Sauti za Busara – Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

East Africa’s biggest music festival is held during February each year in the old forts, amphitheatres and historic buildings of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Sauti za Busara, meaning “Sounds of Wisdom” is now in its 11th year and features on average 400 artists. The music festival plays host to a number of fringe events from drumming and dhow races to fashion shows and after parties.

EguiSauti za Busara - Egui

Why you should go to Sauti za Busara

This is Zanzibar at its most vibrant, revelling in an exotic marriage of historic architecture and contemporary music congregating audiences from all corners of the globe keen to get together and let music work its magic. You’ll meet plenty of happy, sun-kissed travellers, explorers and locals partying under hot African skies. Treat you ears to a tapestry of sounds while your eyes lap up the exotic setting. This is a festival that’ll carve out a special place in your soul.

Sauti za Busara website

Sauti za Busara on Twitter: @sautizabusara

Sauti za Busara Festival 2015: 12-15 February

2. Cape Town International Jazz Festival – Cape Town, South Africa

This is the 4th largest jazz festival in the world and largest on the African continent. Founded in 2000 the annual celebration of jazz takes place in March and attracts crowds of 37 000 people for the 2 day event. 5 stages host over 40 artists, half of whom are South African musicians, the other half a notable assemblage of international artists.

André-Pierre du PlessisGeorge Benson - André-Pierre du Plessis

Why you should go to the Cape Town Jazz Festival

Take a cue from the Jazz hungry locals who wait with itchy index fingers to nab passes to “Africa’s Grandest Gathering.” This is a stellar line-up of today’s artists, reminding us where the genre came from and, excitingly, where it’s headed as the 2-day event takes you through every imaginable corridor of jazz. If you like jazz you owe it to yourself to let this festival break it down for you, if you love jazz, then attending the Cape Town Jazz Festival is non-negotiable. Tickets sell-out fast so put this one in your diary.   

Note: With such enthusiastic demand counterfeit tickets have crept into circulation, if you’re buying tickets from anyone other than a reputable source, make sure they’re the genuine articles. Tickets are available through Computicket.

Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2015: 27-28 March

Cape Town Jazz Festival website

Cape Town Jazz Festival on Twitter: @ctjazzfest

3. AfrikaBurn – Tankwa Karoo, South Africa

Ovidiu PacuraruAfrikaBurn 2014 - Ovidiu Pacuraru

AfrikaBurn is an official Burning Man regional event set in the arid semi-desert of the Northern Cape province. It’s a place where anything goes as long as it’s within the very lax bounds of the festivals principles that include the virtues of gifting; self-reliance; self-expression; communal effort; leaving no trace and participation.

Ovidiu PacuraruAfrikaBurn 2014 - Ovidiu Pacuraru

This gives birth to a self sufficient, cashless and a radically expressive community congregating in a temporary centre called Tankwa Town to unabashedly celebrate pure expression in all its colour, attitude and liberation.

Sean FurlongAfrikaBurn Trickster - Sean Furlong

Why should you go to AfrikaBurn?

AfrikaBurn is an experience. From self-reliance to self-expression, and probably some level of self-discovery. You’ll return with a thousand-yard stare and reflective pause in your gait.

Daniel de Lapelin DumontAfrikaBurn 2014 - Daniel de Lapelin Dumont

Community, inclusion and participation is what drives the festival, the more you put in the more you’ll get out. Days are timeless excursions and interactions through the community while nights are centred around the burns which see towering, painstakingly-created pieces of art set ablaze to the conviviality of everyone.  

Joe Botha & Wouter SchreudersAfrikaBurn 2014 - Joe Botha & Wouter Schreuders

With very little formal structure the event relies on you to be the audience as well as the show. However far-out and outlandish you think your ideas, art or costumes are, they’ll be tame, so let your imagination run absolutely wild, you’ll be glad you did.

Ovidiu PacuraruAfrikaBurn 2014 - Ovidiu Pacuraru

As AfrikaBurn relies on self-sufficiency it’s worth making sure you’re au fait with their “what to bring to AfrikaBurn” guidelines available on their website.

Ovidiu PacuraruAfrikaBurn 2014 - Ovidiu Pacuraru

This is a highly recommended festival for adventurous, nonconformist and creative souls. 

AfrikaBurn 2015: 27 April – 3 May (Afrikaburn 2015 Theme: The Gift)

AfrikaBurn Website

AfrikaBurn on Twitter: @AfrikaBurn

4. HIFA Zimbabwe – Harare, Zimbabwe

The Harare International Festival of the Arts is a stalwart of African music festivals, surviving and thriving from 1999 despite the challenges faced by Zimbabwe. At HIFA’s core is a spirit of pride, energy and creativity as it continues to push boundaries, defy stereotypes and revel in the celebration of the arts. Held over 6-days in April/May each year. This is one of Africa’s largest festivals encompassing theatre, music, dance, fine art and spoken word.

Baynham GoredemaHIFA - Baynham Goredema

Why you should go to HIFA?

The festival attracts a stellar line-up of artists stretching across Afrobeat, funk, jazz, soul, opera, classical music, theatre and dance, with plenty of collaboration with local performers. HIFA doesn’t receive the press coverage it should thanks to a political blanket that limits news broadcast out of Zimbabwe, but artists and audiences alike revere it. Go celebrate a side of Zimbabwe that flies in the face of preconceptions and gives Zimbabweans the opportunity to take part in an outstanding community initiative that breaks down barriers.

 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) website

 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) on Twitter: @hifa_Official

Dates for HIFA 2015 to be confirmed

5. MTN Bushfire Festival - House on Fire, Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland

Swaziland punches well above its geographic weight when it comes to music festivals. The southern hemisphere’s smallest country throws the 20 000 strong MTN Bushfire Festival every May in the magical, lush surroundings of the Ezulwini Valley. CNN lists the 3-day cultural extravagance as one of the "Seven African Music Festivals You Really Have To See."  They’ve got a good point, Bushfire is an oasis of freedom in a repressive kingdom, reminiscent of Woodstock in its liberal attitude, attracting eclectic music lovers, rather than party animals.

Why should you go to MTN Bushfire Festival?

MTN Bushfire wants you to “bring your fire” to the festival: bring you energy, enthusiasm, happiness and togetherness. It’s a cry that gets answered by a spectacular crowd of diverse individuals ready to have a ridiculously good time and participate in a collective response for positive change. Profits from the festival go to supporting local charities so you get some feel good to go with your good times. Put this one on your list of African Festivals and bring your fire!

MTN Bushfire website

MTN Bushfire on Twitter: @bushfirefest

MTN Bushfire 2015: 29-31 May

6. Gnaoua World Music Festival – Essouria, Morocco

Held in the Atlantic seaside town of Essouria, the Gnaoua World Music Festival emerged in the late 90s to preserve and promote the ancient Gnaoua music and tradition. The festival is touted as a laboratory of musical fusion attracting an imagination-stretching spectrum of musicians and fans. The crowd numbers in the hundreds of thousands for the 4-day event held during June each year.

Fabio GismondiGnaoua Festival - Fabio Gismondi

Why you should go to the Gnaoua World Music Festival

Gnaoua music is a mixture of African, Berber, and Arabic religious songs and rhythms; it is both a prayer and a celebration of life combining music and acrobatic dancing. This music festival is proudly bold and because it takes risks and challenges its audience it attracts audacious musicians from all over the world. The Gnaoua World Music Festival features jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop and contemporary world music fused with Gnaoua music. If you’re looking to expand your musical horizons pen this festival into your calendar.  

Gnaoua World Music Festival website

Dates for the Gnaoua World Music Festival 2015 to be confirmed

7. Oppikoppi – Northam, Limpopo, South Africa

This is the daddy of South Africa music festivals, loud, tenacious and packed full of big, quality acts giving festivalgoers stiff necks since 1994. Each August 20 000 die-hard fans make the trek to Northam for Oppikoppi, a pilgrimage to live music and music is the absolute core of this festival. Music is first and last here, you’ll come to hear big names and end up discovering a bunch of new acts and artists in the process, you'll also party like an animal.

Why should you go to Oppikoppi?

It’s dusty, hot and has a camp area affectionately referred to as Mordor, none of which is a sufficient deterrent to the scores of fans that return year in, year out. The festival is that good. Sure you’ll cough up dust weeks later but it’ll be to the recollection of the full-blown party that was your Oppikoppi experience, there's merit in the saying, “in dust we trust.” Book the ticket, take the ride.

Oppikoppi website

Oppikoppi on Twitter: @OppikoppiFest

Oppikoppi 2015: 7-9 August

8. Lake of Stars Malawi Music Festival – Lake Malawi, Malawi

Lake of Stars pulses every September in the warm heart of Africa. Set on the palmed shores of one of Africa’ largest lakes, this is essentially a 3-day beach party with an awesome live sound track. Attracting crowds to the party-in-paradise since 2003. The project uses cultural tourism to generate revenue and exposure for Malawi. Lake of Stars is still quite intimate with attendees numbering under 5000 for the event.  2013 saw the event move inland to provide a change of scenery for the 10th anniversary of the festival.  2014 onwards will see it back on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Why you should go to Lake of Stars

Lake Malawi is a mind blowing setting for a music festival, couple that with the renowned warm, friendly locals, beautiful weather, laid back atmosphere, real toilets, international flair, and an eclectic mix of musicians with a small, intimate crowd and you’ve got yourself a slice of aural paradise. Lake of Stars also works as a superb focal point for travel in Malawi, it may however taint future festivals for you because they don’t get much more idyllic than this.

Lake of Stars website

Lake of Stars on Twitter: @LakeofStars

Dates for the Lake of Stars 2015 to be confirmed

9. Rocking the Daisies – Cloof Estate, Darling, South Africa

Rocking the Daisies kicks off South Africa’s music festival season with its eco-friendly ethos and hard-rocking line-ups. Every October the festival hosts a sell-out crowd of over 15 000 revellers keen to party like there’s no tomorrow…for 3-days. A slew of international acts have headlined the main stage over the years including heavy weights like Band of Skulls, Alt-J, Bloc Party and The Hives, while the electro tent charges like a freight train into the wee hours.

Why should you go to Rocking the Daisies?

Daisies is remarkable for all the right reasons. It’s got incredible gourmet food, well maintained amenities, a tread-lightly philosophy, a hip crowd, great line-ups and a hard working team that globe trot on reconnaissance missions to continually push Rocking the Daisies to the forefront of conscientious global music festivals. The result is a festival that sells out well ahead of time and consistently returns smiles and glorious times. Book this one early!

Rocking the Daisies website

Rocking the Daisies on Twitter: @RockingTheDaisy

Rocking The Daisies 2014: 2-5 October

Dates for Rocking the Daisies 2015 to be confirmed

10. Vortex Trance Party - Jongenskloof Farm, Riviersonderend, South Africa

Trance parties have found a spiritual home in the Western Cape of South Africa, a lifestyle lending itself to outdoor parties sees Vortex putting on a number of events each year but their multi-day December party tends to pack the biggest punch. Vortex pulls DJs from all over the world eager to play in front of a trance-worshipping crowd. A riverside location means serene natural surroundings are a short stroll away if you need some respite from the 7-day adventure or fancy some exploration beyond the dance floor.

Why should you go to a Vortex Party?

You should experience at least one summer outdoor trance party, and Vortex is entirely accessible with an easy-going crowd, a beautiful location, radical outdoor décor, big sound and a star-studded DJ line-up. It’s a feast for you eyes, ears and stomping feet. Go with an open mind and a chilled attitude and you’ll have a blast.

If you want a taste of what unravels check out Vortex Open Source on YouTube

Vortex website

Vortex  Open Source December 2014: 3-8 December

Dates for Vortex December 2015 to be announced

11. Festival au Desert – Timbuktu, Mali

Although this is a must experience festival showcasing traditional Tuareg music continuing unrest in Mali during 2013 and 2014 has forced the festival to postpone. Currently the Festival au Desert is listed as “still in exile.”

Work is underway to continue the festival, albeit under a different guise. A crowdfunding project is in place to create the Cultural Caravan for Peace that will see 3 music festivals, Festival Taragalte (Morocco, M’hamid), Festival au Désert (Mali, Timbuctu) and Festival sur le Niger (Mali, Ségou) travelling together to promote cultural diversity, peace, tolerance and social cohesion amongst the peoples of the Sahel and Sahara. 

Festival au Desert website has details of Caravan for Peace concerts.

Have fun exploring Africa through music festivals, we'd love to hear about your experiences. 

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