Getting high on a feast of Southern African festivals

It was almost dawn and we were approaching the Limpopo River when the Red Bull began to take hold. A pair of freelance journalists striking out for the territories, we had left our base-camp in Rustenburg at midnight and had taken the first significant steps in an 8 000km pilgrimage that would pass through the Harare International Festival of the Arts, the highlight of a Zimbabwean cultural calendar that still clings stubbornly to life, Azgo, a distinctly Mozambican festival that is still finding its identity in its second year of existence, and Bushfire, a gem of an event in the rolling hills and sugarcane fields of Malkerns Valley in central Swaziland.

Emboldened by heroic levels of ­caffeine, taurine and nicotine we hurtled towards Beitbridge border post in a Toyota Yaris not quite ready for the journey ahead of it. This was donkey country, and stopping simply was not an option.

The Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the border was no match for our wide-eyed naivety, but the sting of our first high-five on Zimbabwean soil had barely faded when we were ushered off the road at the first of several roadblocks and immediately issued with a so-called spot fine by a policeman who could not quite bring himself to make eye contact. Patience is a virtue in circumstances such as these, though, and we were allowed to leave once it became clear that no money would be changing hands.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully as we floated happily through picturesque countryside and a further five roadblocks. The tranquillity was not to last. A full 18 hours since we first set out, and more than 30 hours since either of us had slept, we entered the chaos of Harare’s Simon Mazorodze and Rotten Row roads (the horror, the horror). The potholed main routes into the city are both perennially plugged with a sea of cars, trucks and kombis — the festival better be worth all of this …

And it was. The Harare International Festival of the Arts is not the perfect festival — far from it — but it has a peculiar magic to it. An awful lot is packed into its six days, and a full programme runs for the best part of 12 hours every day. The festival allows culture-hungry locals a taste of the outside world, and also helps to give some of the country’s best home-grown talent a crack at the big stage.

There had been some talk, before the festival, that it had not done enough to get a true cross-spectrum of Zimbabwean artists involved in the event and it is true that there were some notable absentees. Victor Kunonga, the frontrunner of the new generation of young Zimbabwean musicians, was not included and nor were Chikwata 263, an exciting and rambunctious mbira-punk five-piece.

Those who were included, it must be said, were of the finest quality. Hope Masike was the find of the festival. An accomplished mbira player and vocalist with a watertight backing band, she balanced tradition and experimentation to carry ancient rhythms effortlessly into the 21st century.

There were several highlights in the foreign contingent too. German ska and reggae fusion group Jamaram got the main stage audience moving with their collection of infectiously upbeat singalongs. Tumi and the Volume’s jazz/rock/hip-hop hybrid drew a raucous evening crowd, the band members poking fun at the stiffs in the VIP box between bouts of energetic, groove-laden beatmaking. Joined on stage by South Africa-based emcee Zubz, they gave a beer-soaked crowd exactly what they wanted, and if they were any more laid back, they would have fallen over.

The green zone
There is a nagging feeling, though, that none of it is real, that this is not actually Harare and the acting ­continues outside the theatres during the festival. The event itself often feels like one big interactive performance, and if you are looking for a bona fide taste of the city’s cultural life you would be better off searching outside the festival’s walls.

Beyond the safety of the festival’s green zone is a world of smoky bars, cheap beer, bare lightbulbs haloed with cigarette smoke, booming ­dendera basslines with the timbre of growling ground hornbills, and alleyways in the dark, dark night where the knives of thieves flicker like sardines in a wave.

The otherworldly feel of the festival found its clearest expression on the final night, when a swollen supermoon was closer to Earth than it had been in several years. A plump, glutinous orb trundling on a slow arc through the ether 356 955km above our heads, it cast a pale glow that made all beneath it — every rusting, bulbless streetlamp, discarded crisp packet and stompie — shine like polished silver.

The evening reached its crescendo with Oliver Mtukudzi’s closing show in front of a rapturous crowd, several thousand strong, in the main arena. The moon’s bright disc was briefly outshone by a dramatic fireworks display as Tuku creaked gamely across the main stage — perhaps for the last time. His unique blend of mbira, jiti, tsavatsava, katekwe and dinhe flowed over the stage as gunpowder, flame and oxygen combined in the electric air above it. Peonies, diadems and crossettes of bright flame burst not 30m above our heads, lighting up the amphitheatre.

The show was at times a little too spectacular, and several flaming technicoloured balls of pyrotechnics plummeted into the crowd. There were reports of at least one burning bush, but the only commandments came from the nebulous group of official bouncers, security guards and policemen who hovered near

the main entrance. But health and safety be damned; it was a hell of a fireshow, even if it did singe the eyeball somewhat.

Its closing act imparted a clear sense of the spirit of the festival, and what it means to Harare and Zimbabwe as a whole. It is all about the show, and the fact that the festival happens at all is an act of defiance. But it is not merely to prove to the politicians and fat cats that they have not yet won. It is a kicking against the feeling of a glory faded, like the proud bellhop of a once grand hotel striding across a stringy and tattered foyer carpet in polished shoes and starched cap.

Harare is a “show-me-the-money” city, and an increasingly provincial one, and for Hararians it is also important not just to see the festival, but to be seen there. For all that is great about the event, and there is plenty to celebrate, Zimbabwe’s diamond-studded nouveau riche finds a home in the undercurrent no one can quite bring themselves to admit exists at the festival.

Star gazing
This is not, of course, by any plan or design of the festival’s organisers. It is not written into the script of the event. It is a simple fact of life in Harare today, and it happens — albeit on a smaller scale — every weekend in every upmarket nightclub in the city.

Here we are, Hararians seem to be telling us, and we are having the times of our lives. Fuck the depression. Fuck the politicians and their eternal machinations, the endgame and the endless dance of the kingmakers and cohorts. Fuck the power cuts, the poisonous water and every single pothole on Samora Machel Avenue. For one week every year none of it matters, and under a star-spattered sky hung with a supermoon straining to get a closer look at the party, Harare dances.

Thoroughly fatigued after a week of late nights, early starts and a baptism into the on-the-road journalist lifestyle (we had started making shopping lists that read like a lonely English teacher’s despairing suicide note: ciggies, candles, beer, whisky, butternut?) we packed the car and set off once more, our duo now a trio after we were joined by another ne’er-do-well writer with suitably loose morals and the requisite thirst for adventure, and whisky.

We headed due east, towards Zimbabwe’s mountainous border with Mozambique, and were soon cruising happily past hills, koppies and enormous granite dombos (boulders) that looked like whale backs breaching through the undulating landscape.

Pit stops in Bvumba and Vilankulo helped to break a journey of more than 1 500km but, in what would become an unfortunate habit during the course of our journey, we reached our destination — Maputo — in complete darkness. None of us had ever been there before and we entered the city through the maze of an enormous township in a terrifying reboot of our arrival in Harare some weeks before.

Despite those similarities, it was soon apparent just how different Mozambique is to its neighbour. The culture is a curious cocktail of African, Portuguese and Arab — as opposed to Zimbabwe’s Anglo-African hybrid — and the wounds of the civil war are healing, Mozambique is still noticeably poor. Life happens, largely, at street level and every town on the approach to Maputo is alive with pedestrians and roadside stalls that stretch to the very edge of the tarmac, selling clothes, curios, cashews and knock-off cigarettes. The colours of the cityscape and people’s clothes seem brighter and more vivid, and even the air has a different texture to it.

It was fitting, then, that we found Azgo a completely different beast to the Harare festival. The three-day event is the brainchild of Paulo Chibanga, 340ml’s drummer, and offered a veritable smorgasbord of great Lusophone music — Sara Tavares, Napalma, Moticoma and Ponto de Equilibrio, to name a few — but very little in the way of ceremony or, indeed, timekeeping. The opening night at the Centro Cultural da Universidade Eduardo Mondlane kicked off several hours late, and when the doors did eventually open an impatient crowd surged chaotically through. The saxophone-led Muzila opened the festival in a large, woodpanelled hall filled with sharp velvet suits, Afros and Portuguese lisps that gave the evening a distinctly “Lisbon, 1978” feel.

Local treasures
From there, the party moved on to Gil Vicente, a small, sparingly lit club in the city centre. The venue had a rich history, the owner Paulo Borges told me. One of Maputo’s older buildings, it was originally a theatre named after the 16th-century ­Portuguese playwright that had its heyday when the city was called Lourenço Marques and the country was still run from Lisbon.

“I’ve been here for eight years,” explained Paulo, who used to work in a hotel in Portugal before he realised that was a ridiculous way to live one’s life and so moved to a war-wrecked country in Africa to run a nightclub.

As cosy as Gil Vicente is, the mid-event change of venue gave the first evening a jarringly disjointed feel. Had we not made friends with Adelino, the best taxi driver in Maputo, we would have had a hard time navigating the city’s confusing maze of highways, side roads and one-way streets to find the place at all.

Our professor in all things Mozambican, Adelino kept us entertained all weekend with his extensive collection of Angolan kuduro music, a few sweet dance moves and his efforts to teach us practical Portuguese phrases (“I love dancing”, “let’s get some prawns”, “this man is drunk”). Usefully, he also had an intimate knowledge of the best places to buy bootleg whisky on the roadside — a vital skill for any guide — and knew how to stay out of the clutches of Maputo’s overzealous constabulary, who appear to position themselves on every street corner waiting for the one little mistake that will elicit a six-pack’s worth of baksheesh.

Perhaps the most engaging of the Maputo venues was the Rua D’Arte, the third venue we visited on that first chaotic night. An alleyway between two city blocks, it is periodically cordoned off and swept clean of hobos and broken bottles to host gigs and exhibitions.

The scuzzy blue, green and red lighting added to the cool mystique, and it was quite possibly the perfect venue to harness the power of Napalma’s go-faster hybrid of Brazilian and African beats.

Theirs was a suitably frenetic set for a band whose feet have barely touched the ground in the past five years. Cid Travaglia, the band’s Brazilian lead percussionist, and Ivo Maia, its dreadlocked vocalist, explained over a beer after their show that the group has only recently found the time to record their very first album, such has been the itchiness of their touring feet.

Another delayed start on Saturday and a damp squib of a closing night later, and it was we who had to move on. Mozambique is a country as confusing as it is enticing, and the Azgo festival left us equally nonplussed. It is a festival without a clear sense of its own identity, which is not all that surprising as it has only been going for two years. Perhaps the best thing one could say about it is that it left us wanting more, and it will be interesting to see how the event grows in years to come.

Glorious setting
The Swazi border is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the ragged edge of Maputo’s city limits, “only about an inch and a bit on the map” our skilled navigator told us, and our journey to the site of the Bushfire festival was meant to be mercifully short. Somehow, we still managed to arrive after dark. Our fairly tenuous grip on ideas such as planning ahead, making reservations and so forth had by this time disappeared completely into a Charybdis of whisky, cigarettes, Red Bull and lumo-orange snacks, and so we found ourselves in Malkerns Valley without a clue of where we might be staying.

We were three wigged-out travel junkies, completely indifferent to the potential pitfalls of our modus operandi, but we soon found a backpacker with space. Serendipity, or dumb luck, had taken us this far, and we were not about to break the spell with a reckless idea like “organisation”.

The next day we explored the festival site around House on Fire, a remarkable bespoke collection of stone steps, amphitheatres, corridors and towers that is the beating heart of the festival. A bustling phalanx of stagehands, groundsmen, artist-wranglers, and media liaison people rushed around the outdoor main stage in a fever of excited preparation against a backdrop of sun-drenched sugarcane fields, misty mountains and a baby-blue sky.

It was a glorious setting in which to stage music. (I was going to include a completely masturbatory paragraph about how beautiful and perfect it all was, but I won’t. Suffice to say, it was bloody marvellous.)

Bushfire is the festival all other festivals want to be like. Toby Allison, Bushfire’s stage manager, gave us an inspirational exposition of just what it takes to run a festival of Bushfire’s size in rural Swaziland on that sunny first morning.

A silver-maned, grizzled giant of a man with fists like Christmas hams, he was also, he proudly told us, the owner of the largest collection of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia in Southern Africa. He once organised a collection of 48 000 teddy bears for charities around Africa. Needless to say, when he spoke we listened.

We spent the rest of the morning having our collective minds repeatedly blown by Wamli Walking Eagle, a member of the Sioux tribe who had come all the way from South Dakota to visit the festival. Wamli is a traveller, a medicine man, and also has several degrees — to master’s level — in subjects as wide-ranging as fine art, linguistics, law and theology. He told us about the creation myth of the Sioux Sacred Pipe, which is a story with a moral, a story of duality, and one in which a woman turns into a buffalo. He went deep into the spiritual philosophy of teepee building, explaining the important differences between the 12- and 16-poled structures and the special energy each one releases.

He would casually toss out phrases like: “In one sense, theoretically, I’ve been reincarnated into this world for this particular purpose to reach a certain level of consciousness and understanding.”

I shot the breeze with Saul Williams over a jug of Sibebe, the locally brewed beer, exchanging our favourite vegan recipes. I also met the Swaziland-born actor, screenwriter and director Richard E Grant, briefly, and almost drew blood biting my tongue trying not to shout “We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!” (lines he made famous in the film Withnail & I) as I shook his hand.

I even got to piss in the same urinal used by former United States president Jimmy Carter during a visit to Swaziland (a mounted plaque confirmed this to me).

And the music was amazing. Mango Groove owned the opening night, and an incandescent Williams lit up the next day’s festivities. Doster & Engle meets Dusty & Stones, a remarkable collaboration between veteran Texan musician and producer Stephen Doster and Swaziland’s best (only?) dyed-in-the-wool country-and-western duo, Linda Msibi and Gazi Simelane, had us all thigh-slapping and yee-hawing in the House on Fire auditorium. Nancy G grew up in Swaziland, but her set was light on upbeat arpeggios and heavy on serrated-edge Skunk Anansie-esque riffing.

Genre-defying dish
The festival provided an excellent platform for the diversity of Swazi talent, and Bholoja’s emotionally-charged set showed that Swazi musicians can do it as well as anyone else. “My influences? I listen to a lot of country-and-western music,” Bholoja said to me after the show. “Dolly Parton, Don Williams, Kenny Rogers, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks. But also some Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.”

The result of this bizarre list of musical ingredients inexplicably creates a genre-defying dish that is more ­De-Loused in the Comatorium than Harmony; more Return to Cookie Mountain meets Ismaël

Lô than Jolene meets Ropin’ the Wind. Bholoja calls it Swazi soul. His Zambian-born guitarist, Paul Banda, was easily the best I saw on the entire trip.

The delights went on. Each member of Jo’burg-spawned group the Brother Moves On wore skintight, sparkly gold Lycra and offered psychedelic Afro-punk that will have had the ancestors grooving in their graves. Mi Casa’s Latin-infused kwaito-jazz was eagerly received, and Napalma, who had made the same trip from Azgo to Bushfire as we had, powered through a fiercely energetic set that left a tangible static voltage hanging in the air.

The unlikely sound of Sakaki Mango and the Limba Train — husky Japanese lyrics over African rhythms — washed over a lazy Sunday-afternoon crowd, the sickly-sweet smell of Swaziland’s major export crop also hanging on the breeze. LIT and Claiming Ground, another Swazi act, closed the festival with a bubbly hip-hop show and everyone went home suitably bushed.

It is hard to find any fault with Bushfire. Most of the organisers work for free. All of the festival profits are donated to the Young Heroes orphan sponsorship programme, and all the revenue from festival merchandising is donated to the Gone Rural BoMake community development programme.

The festival attracted visitors from 107 countries, but it still had a distinctly local flavour. There were workshops and a market, and Bushfire created direct employment for about 1 000 locals. There were free sponsored Bushfire-brand condoms everywhere.

We left the morning after the festival for the relative banality of suburban Kenilworth, drawing an end to what was a crazy journey.

What did I learn on my travels? Never wink at a Zimbabwean policeman and the price of unknown brands of whisky moves in inverse proportion to the severity of the hangover you are left with the morning after.

Most importantly, Southern African music and arts festivals are in robust shape, against the odds.

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