Large-scale, tourist-attracting festivals and celebrations, such as Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the French Quarter Festival and Bayou Boogaloo call New Orleans home. A continent away, Soweto has given us platforms of cultural exchange such as the Soweto Wine, Food & Culture Lifestyle Festival and the Soweto Heritage Festival. To add to the idea, the annual Soweto International Jazz Festival will be inaugurated this weekend.
The festival is the brainchild of International Art Solutions, a New York and New Orleans-based market consulting agency that specialises in concerts, tours and festivals.
According to the agency’s managing partner, Ernest Kelly, the founders’ relationship with South Africa dates back more than 20 years.
He explains that International Art Solutions was behind the 2014 World Jam Music Festival, which was to have taken place in Durban but fell through for reasons that Kelly attributes to the eThekwini municipality.
In addition to this, the agency manages Africa Umoja’s American tours and other South African initiatives to dispel any ideas that the festival is a parachute initiative by an American organisation.
“We did the One World Music festival in Durban from 2005 to 2009. We’ve also been involved in bringing international artists here during that period. And we have local partners and local relationships that we have developed over the many years. We couldn’t fly in, walk in here for two weeks and fly out to do a festival. This is not a part-time process; it’s the output of a year’s work,” explains Kelly.
In 2014, Kelly’s company brought the World Jam Music Festival to Durban to add to the city’s cultural tourism economy — a strategy the agency copied and pasted for the Soweto International Jazz Festival.
Dubbed a global music and arts experience by its organisers, the festival was established to draw attention to the township’s rich cultural currency using music, art and food. Most importantly, the festival aims to facilitate encounters with the locals that extend beyond what existing tourism initiatives have achieved.
“It’s not about the artists; it’s about the overall experience. It’s about connecting culturally,” says Kelly.
“When we put this festival together, those were the kinds of things we were hoping to bring. We’re hoping to attract people from around the world to Soweto, eventually. They come to Soweto for a tour of Vilakazi Street, get on the bus and leave. We want people to spend time in Soweto, to get to know the community and we want the community to engage an opportunity that this festival will bring.”
In so doing the jazz festival aims to bridge the gap between South Africa, the rest of the continent and the world to facilitate what Kelly refers to as “cultural expansion”.
The four-day festival, which is taking place from June 14 to 17, is inspired by the township’s history, the vibrancy of its people and the range of creatives it continues to produce over the years.
“We chose South Africa because, in the United States, South Africa is portrayed as where we should start in Africa. We had to make it happen in Soweto because it has an iconic brand that will attract international attention. We believe Soweto is the right place for it, there’s nothing else like it there, of this magnitude. And it’s a chance to empower the community. That’s our vision.”
The festival will take place at the Soweto Theatre complex, which has both indoor and outdoor spaces. So those who attend the festival can expect a variety of stalls, workshops and masterclasses in addition to performances from the likes of Grammy award-winners Third World, Deborah Cox and the Neville Brothers, who will be hosted by South African artists such as Ernie Smith, Zama Jobe and Khaya Mthethwa.
Each day of the festival will feature its own theme. The first day will assert the festival’s commitment to empowering the creative youth of Soweto with a free symposium dedicated to the business of music and entertainment.
On Friday, the focus will be on women by dedicating most stage time to them in the evening and an assortment of panels during the day. On the third day, themed International Night, the festival will facilitate intercontinental and global interactions with collaborations on stage and on panels. All this will be concluded on Sunday with more performances.
Although International Art Solutions asserts that each component of the festival was thought out, there is a feeling of disconnect. An example of this is the lack of young contemporary South African jazz artists. They’re replaced by artists from other genres, which the organisers justify as adding a “richness and diversity” to the jazz landscape as well as increasing global appeal.
“You need to have attractions that foreigners already understand, things that go along with your culture and then you’ll have something like what New Orleans has going on,” Kelly says.
The first run of the festival cost R15-million, all of which came from International Art Solutions’ coffers. “None of that money is coming from government. Not one penny, because we’re making an investment in the community,” Kelly says. “The government funding will eventually come, but first we want people to understand that we believe in Soweto.”
To dismiss the idea that the festival will only give Soweto a cash injection once a year, International Art Solutions has ensured that the annual festival is a process that runs throughout the year.
“We have a community platform that runs deeper than having locals set up stalls,” Kelly says. “We are working with young people from the schools to involve them in the process. For now we have workshops and intern programmes for the community because they’re not at a level where we can come in and source everything from Soweto, yet. But what we want to do over the years is being able to source everything from their community.”