The stage set for magic with words

Letting poets speak:Speak the Mind 8:Reworded curator Lunga Muncunga. (Delwyn Verasamy,M&G)

Letting poets speak:Speak the Mind 8:Reworded curator Lunga Muncunga. (Delwyn Verasamy,M&G)

Cape Town-born Langa Mancunga is the curator of the poetry event Speak the Mind 8: Re-Worded, part of the Arts Alive Festival in Jo’burg. 

The eighth edition of the gathering of spoken-word poets features famous voices from Jamaica, some seasoned local heroes, a focus on Zimbabwean hip-hop and guests from the United Kingdom, courtesy of the British Council.

Other poets hail from Swaziland where the Bushfire Festival has been instrumental in giving voice to issues. 

Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Cape Town and was involved in the performing arts when I was younger and more energetic. I used to play the marimba, I used to play a bit of bass guitar. I migrated from one group to the other. 

In the late 1990s, I went to the University of the Western Cape and, in about 1996, I moved up to Johannesburg because friends of mine were here and they had just received a Sama [South African Music Association] award for what was then called township rap. That was the category that later became kwaito. 

I fell in love with what was happening in Johannesburg at that time. 

So I have been based in Jozi since late in 1996. I worked with Ghetto Ruff [a music production company], with Lance Stehr. We had a fall-out in 1999; I was around 24 and I thought long and hard about my career and what I wanted to do. 

Still young enough to dream, though?
I did dream and it led me to the guys at the Roadies Association. I did some training with them and went to Norway where Tumi and the Volume and Ready D had also come over for a festival exchange with Oppikoppi. 

I started working with Oppikoppi on an ad-hoc basis, running stages for them. But I always had this creative thing happening in the back of my mind and, in 2005, I approached the then directors of the Arts Alive Festival and I pitched the idea of Speak the Mind. They loved it and it has been part of Arts Alive since then.

Tell us what you hate about the poetry scene? What is lacking?
The Arts and Culture Trust and Dalro [Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation] have grants for dancers or visual artists. Samro [Southern African Music Rights Organisation] has just announced their overseas scholarship and Bokani Dyer has won R170 000 to go and study abroad, but there is nothing like that for poetry. 

My thing is that poetry is not taken seriously. Certain publishers are now publishing younger writers like Mak Manaka and Nova. I think publishers are doing fantastic work. But poetry is not perceived in the same way as music, dance, theatre or visual arts.

Tell us about your favourites on this year’s programme.
Certainly the Grammy-nominated artist Natalie "The Floacist" Stewart from the United Kingdom, Janine "Jah9" Cunningham from Jamaica and the young man called Jitsvinger, who is doing great stuff. Rennie Alexander blew me away when I saw him–he is a charmer on stage. 

Then the Zimbabweans are doing a special tribute to [the late mbira player] Chiwoniso. Hope Masike from Zim plays mbira herself and is a singer. She collaborates with some hip-hop youngsters called the Monkey Nuts. 

Then there are the youngsters the British Council has included: Kabelo Ringane, Cornelius Jones, Lebohang "Nova" Masango as well as Jacob Sam-La Rose from the UK.

What are the issues these poets are talking about?
Issues they address range from anything to everything–these artists talk about what's happening in Johannesburg right now, they talk about globalisation. 

They address the issue of why we, as a country, are not moving forward. Someone like Makhafula Vilakazi addresses the township ills–HIV, unemployment. He is from Chiawelo in Soweto and raised himself out of the dust, and he is now a qualified, practising lawyer. But he still talks about the township. 

Then you get someone like Nova, who went to private schools, who is well read, from a strong family background, where reading is culture and politics is daily conversation.

What are your favourite places in Jo’burg?
I have found peace where I live, just outside of Johannesburg, north towards Pretoria. 

But whenever I’m in town, I still go to Yeoville. The guys at Tandoor have pimped up the venue. Obviously the guys at Maboneng are doing fantastic stuff although I don’t spend long hours there. 

Soweto is a lovely township and we did a gig there called Drumbeat, for Drum magazine two weeks ago at the Soweto Theatre. We put up three stages and close to 3 000 arrived. 

I pop in now and then at the shisa nyama Chaf Pozi at the Orlando cooling towers and I see my guys there who are running the venue.

What do you drink?
I need to keep the levels of my acid very low. I had a gout attack the other day. Liquor is almost out of the question but I used to drink beer, Windhoek Lager. Black Label is too potent.

Let’s say a suitcase of money fell out the sky–what would you drink?
Johnny Walker Black.

See " Jah9’s steaming jazz on dub", Page 5. ?Speak the Mind 8: Re-Worded takes place at the Bassline, Newtown, on September 6 from 7pm and on September 7 from 6pm. Tickets R100. For the Arts Alive programme, visit 

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse


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