Up The Creek – and enjoying the music and good vibe

When attending a music festival for the first time, one must be prepared. Have a checklist. An itinerary. Know which bands are playing.

The rules went out the window with Up the Creek 2015. All I knew was that I had a ticket and I was on a 6pm flight out of Johannesburg last Wednesday evening.

The Up The Creek music festival is in its 25th year and is held at the end of January or early February on the banks of the Breede River just outside Swellendam in the Western Cape.

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As I look around Cape Town International Airport on my way back to Johannesburg on Sunday, I see others who were at the festival: wristbands still attached and looking exhausted. It’s a sign of a good weekend and we greet each other with knowing smiles.

Only 3 000 people attended the festival, yet it’s up there with similar renowned South African events such as Oppikoppi and Splashy Fen. 

Up The Creek boasted slick production, clean sound and smooth operations – from the sound checks to a well-run bar. But these are not the things that make the festival wonderful – it’s the magic that happens when you enter the gates.

The festival’s centrepiece
The beauty of the Western Cape is unparalleled and the drive to Swellendam is beautiful. As we drive to a tented hotel called the Heartbreak Motel on Thursday, we are greeted by a captivating view of the Breede River. Slowly snaking through the mountains, the river is the festival’s centrepiece.

It’s hot. It’s dry. And there is no escape from the sun charging at you like a battering ram. But the river – where many park while watching music acts – is a refuge from the assaulting heat. I am quickly pounced on by a couple of hippies who offer me a pipe. I say no and try to escape. But then they offer me something better; cold beer. It’s a must at Up The Creek.

Sweet sound of the blues
The evening sky is still bright at half-past seven, which is disconcerting for a Jo’burger. When the sun sets at about 8pm, the bands begin to play.

The Ballistics set the tone for the evening with an explosive set and aKing – who are generally quite energetic – give a lacklustre performance but still tug at the heartstrings with hits like Safe As Houses and Against All Odds

Red Huxley is the act of the night with energy and hard-hitting riffs. DJs continue to play into the night as I drift to sleep with the river singing a lullaby.

Friday brings more heat and more alcohol as we make our way down to the river, where rafts and even cooler boxes float.

The festival comes alive as we lie back and watch performances from the comfort of the cool water. From beatboxing, harmonica-wielding Dave Ferguson to Mean Black Mamba, the river vibrates with the sweet sound of the blues.

Four hours and 500ml of sunblock later, we head to the showers.

The Heartbreak Motel has its own private hot showers and portaloos, and as much privacy as is possible at an outdoor festival. The hot water is a welcome change from the chilly breeze that sweeps over the river, knocking over lilos and occasionally a cymbal or two.

The motel, which includes basic amenities for a camping weekend, is expensive. At around R4 000 for the weekend, it’s steep and it shows with the average age being between 35 and 50. 

As the sun begins to hide behind the mountains, the evening brings more faces from Cape Town and a heavy night.

Armed with gin and tonic, we set about listening to the strange but sweet vibes of Bye Beneco, the classiness of John Wizards and the energy of Al Bairre. Beatenberg are a tad boring and play the same set as every other gig.

Zebra & Giraffe also perform an old set, but being their first time at Up The Creek, they are forgiven as the crowd laps it up. The band’s guitarist Alan Shenton can sing. Who knew?

Taxi Violence tear up the stage. Their high-energy performance has everyone on their feet as they set the bar high for the next day.

Saturday is rainy and no music can happen down at the river. But the stage moves up the hill and suddenly it’s not about chilling with beer, but about appreciating the music itself. 

Local band Manouche begin the day with jazz vibes and Grassy Spark rides the funk wave.

The rain doesn’t keep the crowds away, it draws them to the dance floor in search of warmth and a good party. 

Manouche’s vocalist, Anneli Kamfer, has a voice that reminds me of a young Nina Simone. They’re not quite on the money with their original tracks yet, but they’re on their way to making the gypsy-jazz sound cool again.

The rain – along with too much Southern Comfort – brings on an afternoon nap session so we can get our party on in the evening. Good thing, because we are in for sore feet and lost voices.

The Nomadic Orchestra is lively and wakes everyone up from their rain-induced lull. It’s brass galore and lots of jumping.

Out comes the politics
Maskandi group Qadasi take the stage and out comes the politics. 

The Mail & Guardian recently covered the topic of white artists appropriating black culture for profit, and Qadasi – made up of a white front man and a group of black performers – makes me think. 

David Jenkins speaks fluent isiZulu, but the performance seems a bit disingenuous. It was as if he is trying too hard to be like Johnny Clegg. Some of the crowd say that black music needs to be appreciated for itself rather than having to have a white man to get people interested. I say it seems a bit gimmicky.

Shortstraw are their usual selves; but this time with stage diving on rubber duckies.

Hot Water give a short, electric performance – they have a maniacal quality that’s infectious. Somehow, with their oil-tin guitars and tribal-like yells, it’s an appropriation of black culture but comes across as natural rather than forced.

The festival is made by The Black Cat Bones and their performance seems driven by demonic possession – making their intensity burn even more than at a city show. The band pour every drop of emotion into their set. My feet are still sore just thinking about it.

A highlight is Japanese band Sawagi. From their precision to their Tarantinoesque ridiculousness, I feel like I’ve been transported to a computer game and almost expect the Mario Brothers to jump out at me.

The night closes with a van from music channel MK playing old hits and I fall asleep to what is left of the crowd belting out Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.

It’s Sunday and almost time to leave, but not before one last dip in the river, cleansing ourselves of all the weekend’s sins. 

As we pack up, I see that this festival has a firm place in South Africa’s musical heritage. It’s about the music rather than the party. The river just helps it along.

However, I do hope that this lily-white show will become more inclusive in future, considering the kind of acts that were booked. It’s incredibly first-world and a tad exclusionary on the audience demographic front. 

But there was not a single fight or a racist incident to report on, unlike other festivals where I have been on the receiving end of slurs that just ruin a good jol.

Nikita Ramkissoon was a guest of the Heartbreak Motel

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