It was to be their big night, the opening act for five days of African music at the 8th edition of the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar. But it didn’t happen. The Dar es Salaam based Tunaweza band comprising 15 musicians living with disabilities - were denied by an act of God.
A storm swept through Stone Town an hour before the East African musical extravaganza was about to begin. Winds ripped away awnings.
The streets of Stone Town were washed out by the storm that rocked boats in the bay and strained their moorings, and drenched the main festival stage in the Old Fort. Instead of an opening act, the ‘heavens’ opened! Tarpaulins were pulled over electric cables and sound systems, as audiences huddled under cover and Stone Town lost its power.
The storm was over in minutes. Festival workers swept puddles from the stage. People wondered: what next? Will any of the 8 acts on the opening night of the Sauti fest actually take place? Would we see a bit of Tunaweza, or had they been upstaged by a tempest “beyond our control”?
As the band considered their dwindling options they began to realize that although ‘Tunaweza’ means “yes, we can” in Kiswahili, they might be forced to face the fact that they won’t be able to.
“On this occasion, we can’t. We are not going to perform,” someone spoke on the band’s behalf.
The 15 disabled musicians from the mainland had never liked to succumb to defeat. They always believed anything was possible. Their whole lives they had to defy a prevailing belief in Tanzania that being disabled makes you unable. The chance to open at Sauti was their way of showing the world that disability does not mean inability.
Earlier in the day, Idd Tembo, the Finance Manager of Tunaweza, who sings and dances, glowed with anticipation as the band went through their final rehearsals in the main arena at Stone Town’s Old Fort. Tembo darted around in the wheelchair that served as his legs making sure all his colleagues were fine.
He was visibly in good spirits and practically skipped off his wheelchair to offer me a seat when I introduced myself as a journalist. Eager to please; unaffected by disability, he would have been happy to sit on the floor. He greeted me in his native language of Swahili, which I could barely understand.
After the storm, however, Tembo was a different man. He was distressed. It was night already and the storm was gone but the show had moved on. Power was restored and Sauti was uttering its African sounds. He sat miserably in his wheelchair in the audience, with his band. They hadn’t played. They had missed their appointment with East Africa. Instead, Les Freres Sissoko, from Senegal, was up there on stage.
“It’s devastating,” the group leader, Kubla Mazongela said. “We just got unlucky but otherwise we were ready for the festival.”
Rosie Carter, the Project Manager of Busara Promotion felt Tunaweza’s disappointment because “many people wanted to see them on stage.”
“It’s definitely an act of God. Unfortunately we can’t give the band another chance to perform to avoid disorganizing the whole schedule,” she adds.
Tunaweza was founded in 2008 by Mosood Waani, to support talented musicians with disability in Dar es Salaam. The band comprises 15 members (two girls and 13 men) some visually impaired and most physically handicapped.
Music is a means of livelihood but it is also a part of their passion and compassion to help other incapacitated Tanzanians to earn a living. The band has united a group of individuals who otherwise would have battled on their own.
Idd Ishara, aka ‘East Africa’s Yellow man’ is an albino. He joined Tunaweza last year: “I was a sole artiste before I joined the band but it was hard for me to release my songs because I lacked finances. Now the band pays me and I can record my songs with them,” he said.
Former street beggar, Philimori Faivu, is the only blind artiste in the band and plays a guitar. Joining Tunaweza in 2008 changed his life. He is able to support his family and pay school fees for his children.
The band’s singing sensation, Rehema Haji, says whenever she is on stage she feels she is not disabled. Rehema’s transcendent wish didn’t come true on the opening night of Sauti but she, and her fellow band members believe it’s not the end of the musical road. There’s always the 9th Sauti za Busara festival in 2012 - and then (they are optimistic) they will prove, as their names says, that they can.