In Cape Town, the point where art and commerce intersect can be a strange one. A place fraught with all sorts of uncomfortable paradoxes. Anyone who has ever been to a gallery opening, a book launch, a theatre, film or music festival in the city knows this. Most of the time, 95% of the audience is white and pleasantly salaried and the people who labour unobtrusively behind the scenes – ushers, waiters, cleaning staff, car guards and so on – are not.
There is nothing new or revelatory about this. It happens to be the way things are in Cape Town, whether you walk into a side-street café or a corporate boardroom. But to remain unaffected by the vibe of the whole thing requires a certain blindness, a temporary suspension of disbelief about the abnormality of the what’s right in front of you.
What then are the implications for the art? Meaning is arrived at collaboratively and communally in art and when it circulates in spaces that have been purged of difficult questions, it becomes anaesthetised, emptied of meaning. What remains is a commodity that functions only to confirm middle-class privilege.
Littlegig, a new music initiative that brought together legendary guitarist Madala Kunene, Bongeziwe Mabandla and experimental electronic music and visual act Original Swimming Party this past weekend did nothing to break the trend. This is a difficult thing to have to say, because when people go to such lengths to put something together, I never want to be the one who knocks it.
According to the press release, Littlegig “grew out of the fact that there’s nowhere inspiring in Cape Town to go and see live music: stadiums are too big, clubs are too late, theatres with seats in rows are antisocial and festivals are too big a commitment if you’re just looking for a night out”.
“Littlegig addresses the reality that, for many people, an hour feels like a long time to listen to one artist. Even if you’re a fan.”
True, stadium-sized concerts can be unpleasant affairs even at the best of times, but it’s quite a stretch to say “there’s nowhere inspiring in Cape Town to go and see live music”. There happen to be a handful of venues in the city – Tagores, Straight No Chaser, The Crypt and others – that curate live music gigs regularly and at a decent price.
Speaking as someone who goes to live music gigs frequently, what I’ve always loved about these small establishments is the different kinds of people they attract. From recovering alcoholics to Hare Krishna devotees, you meet them all at these shows. You come to appreciate these random encounters that cross class and race barriers if you live in Cape Town. In a way, they point to the possibility of a different kind of society and not the one in which we currently exist, organised largely by race. Littlegig’s asking price at the door, R500 (including drinks and light snacks), all but sealed off that possibility.
The show, however, was remarkably well-organised and the music was great, especially Mabandla’s performance. Fusing traditional African and folk sounds, the 28-year-old falsetto singer is growing into a real gem as a performer. That’s not the cause of my disappointment. This was meant to be a new thing but in the end, it turned out to be the same old Cape Town song.