Big stars for smaller festival

It’s that time of the year again! After only a couple of months of winter hibernation, just as one starts to stretch the limbs, suddenly Arts Alive, the Johannesburg Metropolitan international arts festival, is upon us again. For many Gauties, this signifies the start of spring and from here onwards the social blossoms are expected to bloom.

Each year, criticism and intermittent scandal surround the ever-dwindling festival, but there’s no doubt about its relevance and necessity.
Besides, even a stunted seedling has the potential to manifest as an exotic flower. With Nigerian superstar and acclaimed saxophonist Femi Kuti (September 7) coming this year, I for one certainly hope to smell the roses.

Arts Alive was seeded in 1992 as a pilot project of the transitional Johannesburg City Council. The intention was to place us on the cultural map of the world, assisting in the creation of the “Gateway to Africa”. Its vision embraced a strategy for urban renewal, an attraction for tourists and investors, aiming to promote and support the arts and culture industry in South Africa, in Africa and beyond. Though the harvest has been slow to yield, the festival has been instrumental in shifting from the cultural isolation of the divisive apartheid years, laying the ground soil for a more global consciousness.

The overwhelming success of the initial festival led to an expanded vision and, by 1993, it provided for a flourishing of creative energy. The festival was prolific that year, or maybe even excessive, but it reached out to the people of the city. With pre-election confidence, it shattered the apartheid idiom whereby it was “illegal” to celebrate, unlawful to share. Activists were public and inclusive, mini festivals were initiated at various community centres, street children painted murals and hundreds of Johannesburgers sent in poems about their city. It empowered cultural workers and encouraged the people to explore a sense of the “artist within”.

The free Jazz on the Lake concert was attended by 40 000 people. “The atmosphere was incredible,” said one spectator. “People of all colours and backgrounds came together and made friends. I reckon it did more for peace than a 100 conferences. And this was in 1993!”

Amid the celebrations, budget cuts were being implemented. Projects in progress were asked to cut back on already frugal monetary allocations and, sadly, unlike many festivals that grow with time, the following years have marked a decline of activity instead of expansion.

The potency of culture and creative activity as a tool of transformation remains undisputed, so how is it possible that the struggle for expansion continues? It was no mistake when the old guard removed art and music education from the syllabi of most South African schools.

These days, a more appropriate name would be “Performance Alive”, as the festival’s focus has a noticeable lack of the visual arts and a comparatively streamlined public appeal. The highly enjoyable children’s festival has been localised to the Alexandra Stadium; Joubert Park events and Mbaqanga on the Precinct no longer exist to offer the diversity of cultural experience. For those who attended the Symphony of Fireworks traditionally held at the Johannesburg College of Education there is no dispute over what the loss of this awe-inspiring event signifies for families in a fear-ridden society.

At least we still have Jazz on the Lake ‘99 (September 5) which kick-starts the festival with world greats. Our home-grown giants, now known as the Sheer All-Stars - featuring Paul Hamner, Sipho Gumede, Errol Dyers and McCoy Mrubata - will perform alongside renowned steel-pan master Andy Narrel, accompanied by percussion maestro Luis Conte. Narrel combines the rhythms of Trinidad with North American jazz, Antillean and Brazilian genres, while Conte’s Puerto Rican bomba elements and Afro-Cuban beats will inspire even the reticent.

Also featured at Zoo Lake is the eclectic and innovative Indo-Jazz musician Nitin Sawhney. This United Kingdom-based performer combines elements of acid-jazz, rap, drum ‘n’ bass, with jazz and traditional Asian elements. This feast of world crossover grooves implies more than just music, it’s the significance of collaboration and multi-dimensional influences that’s so appealing.

For a more intimate experience, Narrell and Conte appear with Andile Yenana, Danny Lalouette and Rob Watson at Mega Music Warehouse (September 8). Or the following week (September 17), the deeply spiritual pianist Bheki Mseleku will treat us to a rare public performance, sharing what he calls “the universal vibration” alongside the extraordinary trumpeter Eric Vloeimans from the Netherlands.

Perhaps it was no mere coincidence that a man who paved the way for African music in the international arena, Cameroonian Manu Dibango, actually came to perform in 1993 for a country previously isolated from its continent. Salif Keita (September 24), who returns this year, refers to Manu Dibango as “the Elder of African music”. Maybe it’s significant that Dibango heralded the breaking of barriers. Perhaps our allowance of a “repeat” by the Mansa of Mali is justified knowing that he began his career nearly 30 years ago, with the Super Rail Band of Bamako. Perhaps that is what makes us “allow” him to return when we’re so starved of diverse international African acts, or perhaps it’s Keita’s on-going struggle with mainstream culture.

Severe financial constraints and the ever-dwindling exchange rate are largely responsible for the diminished festival. In the early Nineties, it was far more viable to present an international act like Papa Wemba, Ismael Lö or Babaa Maal. It’s difficult to imagine what the cost for Femi Kuti’s 15-piece band is on the international monetary scale. But we can comfort ourselves with the fact that this astonishing performer is coming, and for all the revolutionary work his father, Fela Kuti, did for human concerns and our beloved country, even he was not able to grace our soil.

As the latest member of this distinguished musical lineage, Femi Kuti continues the family tradition of social and political challenge - but in a Nineties way. His songs have conscious, “in-your-face” lyrics, addressing issues of freedom and truth. He’s already offended some in Nigeria with his sexually explicit content. But, unlike dad, he’s a more reserved, committed family man. Massive in demeanour and spirit, he’s a true Africanist, believing that the continent should turn back on itself, to find the solutions to the enduring problems of political instability and economic decline. “My music is about raising questions and finding solutions. I want to sing about the solutions, not just the problems.”

This is a guaranteed show of shows - high energy, slick Afro-beat, with intricately interwoven polyrhythms.

Last year the focus seemed to be “world girls”, but now we’re back to big-band grooves. At least there’s a couple of weeks to regain our breath before experiencing the return of one of the world’s most captivating performers. To complete the festival, “the golden voice”, Salif Keita, will wail, as only Keita can wail. If his latest album Papa is anything to go by, he’s deeper than ever.

“You know, if you wanna call everybody, one thing you have to do is call them with music. To tell you the truth, music is everybody’s name.”

Also good to see the inclusion of a couple of great new, local support acts. The flavour is Tsonga, and if you haven’t yet experienced the sweetness of this fresh blood, make sure you arrive early to catch Jeff Maluleke before Kuti, and Umanji scheduled before Keita. These are more local talents which prove our credibility on the contemporary world music scene.

Actually, maybe this year’s theme is rather “men on a mission”. With the re-appearance of Mutabaruka (September 18), angry poets and peaceful rastas can swallow the cutting-edge tones of dub-poet Mutabaruka. Either at Mega or as part of the festivities at Alexandra Stadium on the Sunday.

All the international performers this year have one thing in common: they draw on world values with a predominance of African sensibility and, as Femi Kuti so aptly puts it, “Why shouldn’t the African sit down and think about his own technology, his own medicine?”

And medicine it certainly is! Arts Alive has grown into a tree of many branches, reflected in the diversity of performers. All the different roots draw energy from a common source to nourish the whole. The festival may be a bonsai, dwarfed by adverse conditions. The fruit it yields may be small, but it’s tasty and ample for a starving soul.

Salif Keita’s Re-Connection Tour starts at the Three Arts in Cape Town on Thursday September 23 (supported by Jimmy Dludlu) before moving to Jo’burg for Arts Alive on September 24 and 25, and the Standard Bank Jazz Festival by the River at Dickenson Park, Vereeniging, on September 26. Andy Narell appears with Jimmy Dludlu at the Playhouse in Durban on September 9 and with the Sheer All Stars at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre on September 10

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