15 Music Festivals in Africa to Put on Your Agenda Right Now

Article by: Laura Mason|@masonlazarus

Sun April 01, 2018 | 07:32 AM

Modern-day Africa is a melting pot of cultures – and nowhere is that more apparent than at the continent's myriad music festival atmospheres. From massive celebrations of world music, to hip, intimate dance music gatherings, to mainstream pop gatherings, to celebrations of cultural icons like Fela Kuti and the next-gen stars he's inspired, Africa has it all, from the continent's northern most tip in Rabat, Morocco, to its southern most reaches in Cape Town. Through all of these festival experiences, you can explore Africa's many natural wonders, like Lake Malawi, the Nile, and Victoria Falls, to its ancient and contemporary cultural landmarks, such as Marrakech's walled medina and Lagos, Nigeria's New Afrika Shrine.

Here are the ones to put on your agenda immediately, in chronological order.

Splashy Fen Music Festival, Underberg, South Africa (March 29-April 1, 2018)

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From its humble beginnings in 1990, Splashy Fen has evolved to become one of South Africa’s premier music festivals. Around 7,000 happy campers make the annual pilgrimage to Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal for what is regarded by many as the continent's answer to Glastonbury. Over Easter weekend, the rolling foothills of the surrounding Southern Drakensberg mountains will come alive with the sounds of over 300 musical acts from across South Africa spanning the genres of isiZulu hip-hop, dance music, rock, acoustic, and more – and activities for the whole family to enjoy.

From yoga to belly dancing, drumming workshops, trail running, river frolicking, a game zone for kids, face painting, fashion shows, art and music from all genres, there is something for every kind of fan, of every age, race, culture and gender. Just last year, the festival introduced art installations for the first time, debuting an impressive program with a huge piece entitled The Rising Earth Pod by veteran AfrikaBurn artist Kim Goodwin, made with mainly natural materials. Goodwin will show another piece this year: a look-out temple built on the Splashy Fen Farm to enhance the interactive spirit of the fest.

MTN Bushfire, Malkerns, Swaziland (May 25-27, 2018)

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Every year, approximately 29,000 attendees hailing from 58 different countries converge on the peaceful Malkerns Valley for an energizing and uplifting weekend that celebrates the music and arts of Africa and beyond. More than simply a music festival, MTN Bushfire is a holistic experience made up of a rich texture of arts, cultures, crafts, food markets, and specialized zones that combine to create an explosive three-day event and a memorable, take-home experience. MTN Bushfire has been hailed by CNN as one of the “7 African Music Festivals You Really Have to See” and listed by BBC as a “Top African Festival.”

Four stages at Bushfire offer attendees different experiences as they travel through the festival. On the main stage, you can find international artists and continental headliners. The House on Fire Amphitheater is where you can find more abstract performance: poetry, theatre, storytelling, and dance. The Barn Acoustic Stage offers a more intimate atmosphere. The Firefly stage is where the DJs, rappers and hip-hop artists can be found. Beyond the music, MTN Bushfire's BRING YOUR FIRE and GREEN YOUR FIRE initiatives dazzle and educate attendees via workshops, art exhibitions, guest speakers, and sustainability efforts.

MTN Bushfire is a founding member of IGODA, a unique alliance of fellow regional festivals including Zakifo Festival (South Africa), Azgo Festival (Mozambique), Sakifo Festival (Reunion Island), and Bassline Africa Day (South Africa). Igoda is an isiZulu word meaning “knot” or “to bind together.” It's the perfect name for this coalition, which calls itself a “touring circuit” meant to provide the opportunity for artists and fans to travel across the region and celebrate its interconnected creative economies. It also gives the festivals themselves more exposure and room to improve and grow.

Gnaoua World Music Festival, Essaouira, Morocco (June 21-23, 2018)

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Each June, the sleepy fishing port of Essaouira comes to life with the rhythmic beats of the Gnaoua World Music Festival. This charming 18th century port town with its whitewashed houses and iconic blue window shutters swells in size as it plays host to one of Morocco's biggest summer festivals (second only to the massive Festival Mawazine). From humble beginnings in 1998, the Gnaoua World Music Festival celebrates the music and arts of the Gnaouas (or Gnawas), promoting the ancestral and musical contribution of the Gnaoua people to the world. This fascinating festival has grown rapidly in popularity and now attracts close to 500,000 visitors over the course of the four-day event.

The Gnaoua music predominantly makes use of only three instruments—castanets (qraqeb), drums (tbel) and lutes (hajhouj), combined with one phrase or a few lines that are repeated over and over again (not unlike many modern pop songs). This hypnotic repetition of a series of Arabic chants can go on non-stop for several hours at a time, creating a trance-inducing atmosphere.

In addition to the traditional songs, the festival provides a melting pot between foreign artists and the mystical Gnaoua musicians. In recent years the festival has been fused together with other popular genres including jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop. What sets this festival apart from many of its competitors is the fact that most of the performances are free to watch, with the larger concerts dispersed throughout the public squares of Place Moulay Hassan, Bab Doukkala, and Scene Meditel, with more intimate and impromptu performances dotted throughout the city.

Festival Mawazine, Rabat, Morocco (June 22-30, 2018)

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Photo by: Sife El Amine

Held on eight stages around town, Mawazine seems to take over Morocco’s capital city of Rabat for its eight-day run; in 2013, 2.2 million people (more than 3 times the population of Rabat) attended the festival’s more than 100 concerts. Since Mawazine’s debut in 2002, big-name headliners have included Stevie Wonder, Kylie Minogue, Quincy Jones, Elton John and Whitney Houston, and musicians and singers from across Africa, India, Europe, the Caribbean and South America have rounded out the roster.

Ranging from enormous to intimate, Mawazine’s eight stage areas can be found at several different monuments, ancient sites and public streets around town, as well as Rabat’s sister city of Salé, reachable by a short tram ride. Opening and closing acts tend to be internationally famous artists, but the bulk of the festival highlights artists who are best known in their own countries. Acts and musical genres represented at past Mawazines include reggae, spiritual choirs, Berber fusion rock, Touareg blues, Congolese soul, classical orchestras, Colombian cumbia, French electronica, Indian dance accompanied by a sitar and flute ensemble, and traditional Uzbek folk music.

Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Fes, Morocco (June 22-30, 2018)

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Photo by: Fes Festival

Fes, with its labyrinthine lanes, medieval medina, snake charmers and sexy, modern riads (small hotels), is worth a visit on its own, but this 20-year-old festival adds an atmosphere of ancient caravanserais where travelers crossed paths on their epic sojourns. In this case, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music (Fès des Musiques Sacrées) is a crossroads for the creative seekers of the world. You’ll experience the serendipity of a rencontres, a musical blending of various nationalities, faiths and music genres.

The week-long festival is full of choices that will satisfy anyone with an appetite for knowledge, art and spirituality. Every evening, the palace courtyard of the 14th-century Bab Makina is filled with a sold-out crowd who gather to catch headliners who have included the now deceased Ravi Shankar, Malian superstar Salif Keita, and even Björk. But you don’t need a festival pass to have fun. Sufi Nights hosts free daily concerts in the gardens of Dar Tazi, and Bab Boujloud, one of the city’s main squares, is a venue for free evening performances. The cedar-scented gardens of the Musee Batha host parties, concerts and art exhibitions aligned with the year’s theme. There’s a film festival within the music festival, and the Fes Forum tackles important scholarly issues

Nyege Nyege Festival, Jinja, Uganda (September 6-9, 2018)

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Photo by: Tweny Benjamin

Picture yourself floating down the Nile River as you overhear psychedelic jazz grooves and hip-shaking kuduro beats from the nearby shore. This is the idyllic setting of Nyege Nyege Festival, an international music festival that's taken place in Jinja, Uganda since 2015. Located on Nile Discovery Beach, the festival is surrounded by over four acres of lush, green tropical forest, with its own private beach and sculptures decorating the landscape.

Nyege Nyege offers a rare opportunity to see African electronic musicians who seldom play outside their home countries, and has come to be regarded as the African capital of the global bass music scene. Nyege nyege is a Swahili word that translates to "an uncontrollable urge to move, shake, or dance." Expect a melting pot of musical genres that mix traditional rhythms and modern electronics: balani (a percussive, high-energy party music from Mali), kwaito (a house music subgenre from South Africa), kuduro (uptempo Angolan dance music with a tropical vibe), Ugandan dancehall, and more.

A team of musicians and promoters from Uganda and Europe curate the international lineup of artists, who have come from Uganda, Ghana, Mali, Kenya, South Africa, Niger, Burkina Faso, Somalia, and Ethiopia, as well as the U.S., UK, Russia, Japan, Germany, Belgium, and Mexico.

Oasis Festival, Marrakech, Morocco (September 14-16, 2018)

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“Dance somewhere different,” the Oasis Festival beckoned on its website in its early days. Well, it doesn’t get much more different —or much more exotic — than the Northwest tip of Africa’s Sahara Desert, where the ancient Moroccan city of Marrakech lies. Known as the city of entertainment, it’s where the Oasis Festival began in 2015; it made such a splash in its first year, Oasis quickly gained a top spot on destination festival lists everywhere. The event takes place at The Source, a private resort and spa with inviting stage-side swimming pools, intimate dancefloors, an atmospheric amphitheater, plush gardens and stunning views of the nearby Atlas Mountains. Guy Gerber and DJ Harvey were among 2015’s headliners; the lineup, split across two stages, also featured such names as Derrick Carter, Ellen Allien, Adriatique, Carl Craig, DJ Tennis and Axel Boman. The hip lineups continue to this day. In 2018, Carl Cox, Derrick Carter, Actress, Honey Dijon, and other taste-making names populate the bill.

Yoga, massage and other refreshers are also part of the experience, and an on-site spa allows festival-goers to sneak away for some pampering.

Lake of Stars, Location TBA, Malawi (September 28-30, 2018)

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Photo by: Lake of Stars

Lake of Stars promotes Malawian arts and tourism through its programming and music, both of which encourage cultural curiosity. In addition, it organizes festivals on the shores of Lake Malawi and runs events in Europe and across Africa. The lake itself is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world.

But while the nation of Malawi is often referred to as the "Warm Heart of Africa," it’s also the 13th poorest country in the world, according to The Guardian. That’s why festival founder Will Jameson wants Lake of Stars to, in addition to it being a top-notch music festival, serve as a community development project that benefits the tourism industry.

Lake of Stars began with around 700 attendees and has since grown to amass crowds of nearly 4,000 people. Attendees travel from more than 30 countries each year, thus generating an estimated $1.7 million for the Malawian economy. Lake of Stars spans three full days. Not just limited to music, it includes poetry readings, TEDx-style talks, workshops, acrobatics, theater performances, and film screenings. Plus, Lake Malawi itself is open to festival attendees for swimming, light water sports, and more.

Still, the music draws the most international attention, as Western acts like Basement Jaxx, Foals, The Maccabees, The Noisettes, and Young Fathers have all previously headlined the fest. But as Jameson and the festival organizers aim to empower the Malawian community through this event, it also highlights many local and African acts. Notable Malawian performers have included Lucius Banda, Tay Grin, and The Black Missionaries.

Felabration, Lagos, Nigeria (October 2018)

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Photo by: Felabration

Felabration is a funkadelic music festival that celebrates Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's life, his enormous influence on Nigerian society, and the Afrobeat genre. It's held annually on the week of his birthday at the colorful New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, Lagos State. The week-long concert maintains the same infectious energy that Fela possessed decades ago, bringing a wealth of artists from all over the world to keep the rhythm pulsing. Local Nigerian artists and international acts grace the stage with notes of Afrobeat, hip-hop, R&B and jazz, among many others. The amount of talent that descends upon this West African hot spot speaks volumes about Fela's status as a global icon.

Fela's impact on society was not only musical; he also struck a chord as a human rights activist in the face of an oppressive Nigerian government in the 1970s. His open vocalization can be heard during Felabration's secondary schools debate, a thought-provoking battle of wits featuring Lagos State's brainiest youth. A bevy of private schools and state schools intensely debate a medley of hot topics including poverty, corruption and other issues while vying for the grand prize. The Felabration Symposium is another highly-anticipated event featuring a slew of intellectual heavyweights. Dozens of university professors, local political figures and scholars have spoken unforgettable truths in previous editions of the Symposium.

Oppikoppi, Northam, South Africa (October 2018)

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Photo by: Derius Erasmus

Founded in 1994, Oppikoppi (derived from the Afrikaans “op die koppie” or “on the hill”) is one of South Africa’s largest music festival's with attendance topping 20,000 revelers in 2012 and more year on year. The inaugural event primarily featured South African rock n’ roll bands, and has since expanded to include a myriad of genres including hip-hop, jazz, EDM, metal, soul, and kwaito—a purely South African spin on house music, remixing tribal rhythms to create the beats for inimitably danceable songs.

Like Burning Man or the Nowhere Festival, Oppikoppi is defined by its location. Nestled amongst hills in the northern most state Limpopo, the bushveld is a harsh and beautiful landscape. Scrub brush and thorny trees dot the savannah, and red dust covers everything. In fact, drawing in the dust that covers cars and bakkies is a time honored tradition of the festival. Because it’s located practically in the middle of nowhere, there is a hippie survivalist bent to the festival. Bands, DJs, and comedians perform on Fridays through Sundays, but the grounds open the Tuesday prior to the main event, creating a pre-festival atmosphere in a temporary tent city.

On the sillier side, Oppikoppi holds a series of competitions at which winners can score passes for the next year’s festival. Officially called the Dustbowl Olympics, events include Box Car Races, the Boom Street 500 Naked Dash (rules: you must wear shoes, but you cannot wear clothes), the Running of the Bewilderbeats in 2013 (the opposite of the naked dash, since you must wear a costume), and the Wil(d)abong Surf Classic (teams pull a member across the dust on a surf board).

Rocking the Daisies, Darling, South Africa (October 5-7, 2018)

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Picture this: a four-day, multi-sensory music and lifestyle festival in South Africa, taking place an hour north of über-hip Cape Town in the impossibly beautiful South African wine country during the fall. The four-day, eleven-stage festival is the peace sign-throwing, EDM-obsessed relative of South African Burning Man offshoot, AfrikaBurn. And while the hippie vibe is practiced to the max here, Rocking the Daisies leans more towards getting lost in the hard-thumping electro beats. Wandering on the festival grounds amongst its 25,000 attendees, you’ll witness beer-chugging dudes floating on plastic rafts on the lake (yes, there’s a lake!), barefoot hippie-chicks hopping around, hip-hop heads stomping it out at the Trap House, and even people dressed like circus acts.

Outside of its dance music offerings, fans can dive in on a range of locally made films at the cinema, attend early morning yoga sessions at the festival’s Green Village, sit in on TedEx talks and participate in a range of activities which focus on environmental action, teaching them ways in which they can offset their carbon footprint and treat the environment with more care. Rocking the Daisies is, after all, a twelve-time international greening award winner, with the motto “Play hard, tread lightly.”

Vic Falls Carnival, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe (December 2018)

Billed as "Africa's most exciting New Year's Eve festival," Vic Falls Carnival has welcomed music-loving revelers for six years running. Because it takes place next to the gorgeous Victoria Falls, there are activities galore, such as white water rafting, bungee jumping, elephant back safaris or vulture feeding at Safari Lodge. Or you could just take in the impressive enormity of Victoria Falls itself, which is classified as the largest waterfall in the world, based on its combined width of 5,604 feet and height of 354 feet, resulting in the world's largest sheet of falling water; it's roughly twice the height of North America's Niagara Falls!

But back to the music. The first day is the African Carnival Train, when attendees dress up in traditional African fabrics and paint their faces for a journey through the African bush veld with a legendary DJ or two onboard as the train speeds past lions and elephants. The train stops in a secret bush location in the Vic Falls wildlife park for an unforgettable night under the stars with back to back DJs. The Community Party comes the next day, which features an electric night of the best in live house, African, indie and electro-pop. In 2017, Africa's biggest artist Black Coffee headlined the night. When it's over, partiers head down into town for a host of parties at popular local venues. On New Year's Eve, the Unity Concert takes place, during which the festival urges its attendees to "Bring your own flags, paint your face in your home colours and represent your roots as we all come together." Together, everyone jams until the sun comes up to a host of amazing artists, traditional dancers, and fire breathers. Talk about an unforgettable way to begin a new year.

AFROPUNK, Johannesburg, South Africa (December 2018)

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Photo by: Nashish Scott

There is almost no festival as famed for its vibes of inclusivity, diversity, self-expression and self-love as AFROPUNK. It being an event celebrating the past, present, and future of international, mainstream and alternative black culture, AFROPUNK's move to Johannesburg in December 2017 was only a natural progression for this rapidly expanding festival movement. 

“The move to Johannesburg is a natural fit in line with AfroPunk’s desire to make connections throughout the diaspora, creating bonds between those with a shared mindset,” organizers stated. “Modern South Africa is proof of the victory of otherness over historical precedent, and of the country’s desire to mold a society based on virtues that are at the core of AfroPunk.”

Deliberately held on the lawns of South Africa’s Constitutional Court – a colonial-era fort that became an apartheid-era jail and is now mecca for human rights preservation – the inaugural festival welcomed Solange Knowles (who pulled out last minute due to health concerns), Anderson .Paak, Laura Mvula, Nakhane Touré, Theo Parrish, The Brother Moves On, legendary kwaito musician Thebe, local house artist gqom, and many more performers.

Ultra Music Festival, Cape Town & Johannesburg, South Africa (February 2019)

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Since 2014, Ultra South Africa has dominated the festival agendas of dance music fanatics all over the country. Thanks to Ultra's now global legacy, the massive fest (which is the first on the year-round Ultra calendar) brings top-caliber names that otherwise don't often make it to the region, as well as its signature bombastic production style. In 2018, Afrojack, Axwell ^ Ingrosso, Armin Van Buuren, Dubfire, and Hardwell all headlined, while the rest of the lineup (including the renowned Resistance stage) featured local rising stars such as Da Capo, JNN KPN, Themba, and Thor Rixon. If you're an adventurous soul who loves Ultra's lineups but can't stand the massive crowds in Miami, Ultra South Africa might be perfect for you; approximately 15,000 attendees streamed through Cape Town Stadium's doors in 2018, while the Johannesburg edition saw 32,000 music fans attend.

Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Cape Town, South Africa (March 2019)

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Affectionately referred to as “Africa’s Grandest Gathering,” the Cape Town International Jazz Festival was launched in 2000 and is one of the largest jazz-oriented events in the world – and the single largest music event on the continent. It’s the flagship event for espAfrika, a global event company, and the celebrated, annual music festival appeals to devotees of jazz in a traditional sense and mainstream audiences alike. Crucially, for a proudly South African event, the festival highlights native South African artists and international marquee stars in equal measure.

From the beginning, a spirit of activism has colored the enterprise. One fixture of the annual event is a photojournalism workshop, which provides aspirant photographers with training in the tradition of artist portraiture and concert documentation. It is always preceded by a free event, intended as a gift to the local community of Cape Town and surrounding areas. The event explicitly aims to elevate native artists, but international stars such as Angie Stone, Amadou & Mariam, Sheila E, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, and Buena Vista Social Club.