Musical mix a trial by Bushfire
One has to go to Swaziland’s Bushfire festival to understand that such events are not really about the music. Although this could be read as a commentary on the festival’s programming, in which young, blistering upstarts (the Brother Moves On) came up against ageing veterans (Tsepho Tshola) and rough-hewn acts (L.I.T and Claiming Ground), it is about the complete absence of bad vibrations.
Not that one had to look too hard for good music, it is just that the curatorial vision seemed to come second to populist imperatives. Sadly, too, one got the sense that the resonant musical moments were more a comment on the shifting momentum in South African music than on Swaziland’s music scene.
Several standout acts were featured on Friday, such as the confident and polished Nancy G and the Human Family. Nancy G, a Swazi-born, Johannesburg-based singer, is something of a throwback to a more innocent era in music with her guitar-driven earnestness and plaintive lyrics.
The real histrionics were reserved for Saturday evening. In the amphitheatre Mr Gold wase Goli (a character in a cape and gold tights played by the Brother Moves On’s Siya Mthembu) commandeered a seething, expectant audience by charging his five-piece troupe through what was initially a sound check, but which turned into the tightest performance of the entire festival. The Brother Moves On played in the knowledge that their performance was a project for posterity. The old guard is dead and, while figuring out what we will install in its place, “positive energy activates constant elevation” will be our mantra.
Every artist worth his salt has a clarion call. The Bad Brains had “positive mental attitude”, whereas musician Saul Williams would probably remind us every now and again to “cancel the apocalypse”. The forces of intergalactic peace and those of a deferred apocalypse intertwined briefly.
As the Brother began their initially lumbering performance, Williams, arguably the most important poet of his generation, could be seen nodding his head in affirmation (not an easy thing to do for this thoughtful scholar of hip-hop) minutes before darting off into his own fervent church service on the main stage.
The clashing schedule in which the Brother Moves On played almost concurrently with Williams presented a dilemma for music aficionados. Many already transfixed by the Brother’s hallucinatory and sometimes didactic funkateering found it hard to break the spell of the golden tights. For those who saw both, the Brother Moves On was instantaneously charismatic, whereas the preacher’s son from Newburgh was fittingly baptismal.
If the artist believes that some things should be sung, some shouted and others spoken, his performance was living proof of why this is so.
Williams was followed by Mozambiquan reggae act Ras Haitrm, who represented the genre well, but probably could not do enough to win over impatiently waiting Mi Casa fans.
South Africa’s undisputed kings of the dance floor probably had the final say of the evening. Their pacing of the set and mix of organic horns and timeous call-and-response crowd participation were a time-honoured tradition of stage performers in the country.
But their attitude and line-up, despite the easy, round melodies, suggest the emergence of an interesting approach to South African dance music.
By the time Sunday came around, several punters had thrown in the towel. The campsite was starting to shrink and the remaining few were mustering up depleted reserves for one last hurrah.
A sage Nguni idiom suggests that a thorn (or in this case a hangover) is best dislodged using another thorn. Among the last campers, who had come in from far and wide, the cry of “the Brother has left the building” (initially a comic though fervent salute to the momentary ecstasy of being submerged in the futurism of Mr Gold and crew) had lost its humour and was starting to take on the desperate feel of a party that had lost all direction.
Others, though, stubbornly hung on to the promise of Adam Glasser’s Mzansi Project, which went down more like sundowner jazz.
The Village Pope had a more active listenership. He also started with a laid-back approach before whipping his listeners back into shape with the pacier classics of Sankomota.
The night-time slot of L.I.T and Claiming Ground (a hip-hop collaborative project) presented a possible solution to an interesting dilemma: how to support younger local artists who still need to hone their skills without drowning them in the midday sun.
It is an interesting riddle the festival must still solve. Although a festival can never really be everything to everybody, one has to commend Bushfire’s resilient, if dicey, attempt at a true balance.