“After going to a festival like this, you can discern between good music and the rest,” a friend of mine said as we headed home to Johannesburg from the MTN Bushfire Festival in Swaziland on Sunday. On the drive back from a live event it’s difficult to recalibrate your ear to programmed radio playlists, rendering the tracks bland and characterless.
And that’s what the festival will really give you – a sense that you understand music better because you experienced the energy musicians put into creating their art. That’s quite an ambitious thing for a niche event, aimed at the perceived conscious and socially responsible, to do. This year, the charity event and its sponsors and partners hosted more than 20 000 people, its largest attendance to date, and all proceeds of the festival go to an orphan nongovernmental organisation, Young Heroes. All proceeds from the merchandise on sale benefits the Gone Rural boMake school fees bursary fund.
Bushfire’s line-up was changed somewhat this year. At previous festivals, South African artists dominated the line-up. However, this year the number of acts from Swaziland’s neighbour was just 10 of 37 of the bands and musicians playing over the three-day event.
Bongo Maffin, Spoek Mathambo, Dan Patlansky and Tonik were a few of South Africa’s exports. Tonik, who played to a capacity crowd last year in the Barn, played three different types of sets. The duo’s gigs entailed a group of people listening to music through headphones with little movement and more intense listening. The point of their earlier gig – Breakfast with Tonik – was to start the morning relaxed and ready for a full day of music and entertainment. It’s difficult to get a spot in the Barn when they are playing.
There were acts from around the world, including Switzerland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and France. The festival does well at showcasing astounding sounds from around the world. La-33 from Colombia, who played in South Africa a week before the festival, play an amazing mix of salsa dance music that gives the listener a real sense of fun and passion for which salsa is known, and festivals like Bushfire help to stage such acts to their southern Africa fans.
Judging by the line-up, organisers made particular effort to bring together as many different people as possible under one banner. While that plan often turns into disaster with other events, the nature of Bushfire lends itself to being open to different things, and as many of them as possible.
House on Fire
The House on Fire Amphitheatre – a smaller venue situated behind the main stage – is usually the place where the lesser known acts perform. It was here that South Africa’s Nakhane Toure played to incredible applause last year. One of the outstanding acts this year was French outfit Under Kontrol. In a small venue, probably built to accommodate about 100 people at most, about 500 revellers flowed out onto the walk-paths and toilet corridors to watch the 2009 World Beatboxing Team champions offer the first live beatboxing performance. To have no instruments and play at a music event in an overflowing venue was a deservedly incredible feat.
But having a festival that aims to bring as many people from around the world together in a country riddled by political problems does not come without its challenges. Organisers admitted at a press briefing on Saturday that Bushfire and its performers – especially South African artists – have been affected by an unofficial cultural boycott in the hope that it would be a catalyst for political change in the world’s last monarchy.
Swaziland’s King Mswatii III has come under international condemnation as Swazis continue to experience crippling poverty, while journalists who speak out against his regime are regularly arrested and put on trial.
Bushfire organisers also said Ladysmith Black Mambazo – one of the big headliners of the festival –was threatened this year after it was announced that they were performing at the event, and had to take a firm stance for art. The Swaziland Solidarity Network, who has been calling for a greater boycott of Swaziland, called the band and asked them not to perform, threatening them in the process.
Festival director Jiggs Thorne said in the last four years, there have been many threats against artists and the organisers, but it had quietened down this year. Events such as Bushfire were necessary to achieve change, he said.
“Cultural platforms have a meaningful role to play in dialogue and creative exchange. We feel that we have a positive role in terms of our social mandate. Artists are catalysts for social change and that’s what Bushfire tries to achieve,” said Thorne.
A festival that gives one a fresh perspective on music in an effort to uplift and promote social development only deserves applause and should continue as long as it can.