Hunting down words at the festival

Jemma Kahn performs kamishibai, Japanese for 'paper play'. It's a traditional form of Japanese street theatre. (Hailey Gaunt)

Jemma Kahn performs kamishibai, Japanese for 'paper play'. It's a traditional form of Japanese street theatre. (Hailey Gaunt)

It’s not all mum for words here at this year’s National Arts Festival, though it may seem like literature has been reduced to those waxy promotion bills that are thrust in our paths at every turn – the kind that get folded unconsciously into a pocket and used in a tissue emergency.

The conspicuous absence of Wordfest, for a word-fundie like myself, felt like yet another letter chiseled into the headstone of literature. But seek and ye shall find.

I didn’t have to look far to discover that the love of words is alive and thriving.

The first sign was Friday night with Afrikaans rapper Jitsvinger. The collaboration with Kyle Shepherd and his jazz ensemble took language to another level.

“I love speaking my mother tongue,” said the uber-cool young lyricist in a rare lapse into English.

At one point his wordplay invited the audience to a call and response – when he’d say, “daar’s die move”, the crowd would counter with “maak it dan”.
The guy had slipped one in for the word.

Twisted takes
Word wonderment can also strike in the most unlikely places. The Epicene Butcher should be praised for its clever and lyrical script. It’s an hysterical fusion of English and Japanese that drifts into bouts of pure poetry. The performance uses Kamishibai, a traditional method of Japanese storytelling in which a narrator uses a set of illustrated slides to convey a moral or mythical tale. But these stories are full of mischief, offering a twisted take on the tradition.

“It’s a nice combo of naive pictures with adult content,” said illustrator and performer, Jemma Kahn. The performance and illustrations are exceptional, but the script, a collaboration between Kahn and gifted screenwriter, Gwydion Beynon, make explicit sex and cannibalism palatable. In the signature story the butcher is “a poet in the medium of meat” and “sausages, sonnets for the man on the street.”

Written-word junkies can still get their fill on the sly. Rapper and spoken-word artist Ewok Robinson is here spitting fire with searing lyrics about everything from suicide bombers and consumerism to hip-hop culture. He’s back on the fringe with his one-man autobiographical show, Seriously?, but he’s also promoting his second book of poetry, Pimp my Poetry. At the book launch he confessed he always fancied himself “a performer and rapper, not a writer.” But he learned to set aside his pride when he realised publishing exposed him to a larger audience.

Although the eleventh-hour cancelation of Wordfest came as an unsuspecting blow, Chris Mann, the festival’s convenor, has remained surprisingly upbeat.

“I’ve been delighted by the initiatives of numerous writers and organisations that have, at short notice, organised alternative events – albeit without funds and with the prospect of smaller audiences and reduced media coverage." Though it was a major disappointment to cancel such development initiatives as WordStock (a daily newspaper training programme for young journalists), the parade of one hundred writers marching down High Street holding multi-lingual placards was a sure sign that writers have not gone silently.

Visible or not, writers are behind nearly every performance. Be they hip-hop poets or grim and comical scriptwriters, their words weave the magic of the festival.

Not only are they here to stay but they’ll continue to broach new territory, stretching the boundaries of language. And they’ll still leave us speechless.

“I heard a Xhosa praise poem during the opening ceremony which had fused hip-hop and English and rhyme with Xhosa – beautiful,” says Mann.

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