Fête de la Musique Joburg is doing things differently

On 18 June, the Fête de la Musique Joburg returns after a two-year hiatus because of the Covid-19 restrictions. The free music festival, which has been rocking France since 1982, is now celebrated on 21 June in more than 700 cities. 

Whereas the 2019 edition took place in Newtown in the city centre, this year the festivities and performances will be spread across six stages, just as in the previous edition, but this time it will be at four venues: Newtown Junction, Victoria Yards in Lorentzville, Alliance Française in Parkview and Native Rebels in Soweto.

As a result, “we got more funding coming from the French Institute in addition to our sponsors”, says Sophie Boulé, the cultural attaché and deputy director of The French Institute in South Africa, the cultural branch of the French embassy. TotalEnergies Marketing South Africa, Newtown Junction and the French embassy are among the festival’s long-time partners.

Many local and international artists have performed on the Fête de la Musique stage throughout the years. They include Samthing Soweto, Msaki, Nakhane Toure, Zoe Modiga, BLK JKS, Urban Village, BCUC, Berita, Bänz Oester and the Rainmakers and Bombshelter Beast.

This year’s lineup includes Afro-soul artist Brenda Mtambo, Afro-psychedelic band BCUC, Afro-folk band Urban Village, Lesotho rapper Kommanda Obbs, multi-instrumentalist Azah and soul artist Nomisupasta.

Afro-soul singer Brenda Mtambo will also grace the Fête stage. Photos: Bantubahle Mahlangu, Pierre Merimee & Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images

BCUC (short for Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), who are going on tour soon, promise to give it their all at Fête de la Musique. 

“BCUC is a very physical band,” says Jovi, the seven-piece band’s lead singer and percussionist. “The members are not having their usual bodies yet. We ate a bit more during the lockdown, so we are still struggling nge stamina. But, everything is great. We are hungrier and are ready to revive and save our reputation. It’s the last show before we go on tour. So, sifuna ukuvalelisa kamnandi ekasi.”

BCUC will go on tour after the Fête. Photos: Bantubahle Mahlangu, Pierre Merimee & Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images

Kgomotso (backing vocals and percussions), Hloni (rapper, ad libber and percussions), Luja (rapper, backing vocals and marching drum), Cheex (congas) and Skhumbuzo (bass drum) make up the rest of the band.

BCUC and other performing artists and associated businesses are happy to be back in business after a tough period when their biggest revenue stream became an illegal activity. But there are still difficulties. 

“It’s tricky because people are still scared of being out around other people. It’s tricky even economically, it’s not how it used to be; a lot of venues have closed down. So, we are just holding on,” says Lerato Lichaba, the guitarist of Urban Village, the Soweto-based Afro-folk band whose members include Smangaliso Dlamini (bass), Tubatsi Moloi (flute and vocals) and Xolani Mtshali (drums).

BCUC were lucky enough to benefit from government relief during the lockdown when artists couldn’t perform. “Digital Mobility Fund, we played twice. And during that time, bekuntswembu [it was tough], so that money really helped,” says Jovi. 

Urban Village’s experience was different and mirrored that of a majority of South African artists. “The government had to relieve even the general public but a majority never got that,” says Lichaba. “What more for artists, because we are at the bottom of the food chain? It was a pointless exercise on our side.”

As a result, the band is happy to be back on the road. Asked how they deal with the anxiety of knowing that, even though restrictions have been lifted, Covid-19 is present, Lichaba answers, “If the restrictions have been lifted, there’s a reason for that. If it’s a chance given for us to go outside and work, it’s an opportunity to feed our families.”

Jovi feels the same, adding, “It would be untrue to say we never get anxious. But, also, we are in a position where we have to take risks because it’s also about livelihoods. So, we must be extra careful in terms of health.”

Urban Village, globe-trotters of note, recently returned from a French tour, and Lichaba said they are looking forward to “connecting with the people and sending out the energy. And, most importantly, to reviving the spiritual awakening of the youth. They are the ones who will [shape and live in] the future. So, we try to curate an energy-based musical language.”

Urban Village promise fans a “different” performance. “We’ve been working on our music even during the lockdown, so what will differ is the excellence of the message and connecting with our people,” says Lichaba, adding that the downtime that came with the lockdown and restrictions on events was a blessing in disguise. The band was rehearsing and writing music, sharpening their skills. 

“As a band and as humans, we’ve been evolving,” he says. “We haven’t been static since the last time we performed. We’ve been growing, playing other venues. It will definitely have its own energy.”

Boulé says Urban Village got its big breakthrough performing at the Fête de la Musique in 2017. 

“We are proud of these success stories of musicians coming from South Africa and being able to travel in France and Europe,” Boulé says, noting that the festival is an incubator for young talent. “It was important for us to show our commitment to supporting the music industry in South Africa and Johannesburg. It’s a way of cooperation between South Africa and France.” 

As part of this commitment, the organisers called for emerging performers who want to appear on the international platform. The first

300 applicants were selected based on the originality of their work as well as the quality of their performance.

Among the 22 acts, including NOTBENJAMIN, Kommanda Obbs, BONJ and 3heads, who won the judges’ hearts was Joburg-based band Kazi Ya Sanaa, who have been steadily creating a name for themselves in the live circuit and through their records such as their singles Saturdays Are the Worst and Sacrifices

Kazi Ya Sanaa, which consists of Estelle “Moulan” Jacobs (vocals), Lebogang Kaziwe (guitar and flute), Karabo Welcome (bass) and Thomas Nicol (drums), was formed in the late 2010s and released their debut EP Prephase in 2020.

“It’s gonna be one of our biggest shows, it’s big for us, so we are excited,” said Jacobs of the Fête de la Musique. 

According to Boulé, the winning applicants will be invited to attend a workshop before the festival. 

“This workshop is to professionalise young talent,” she says. “We will have music production companies like Baseline and the French label NØ FØRMAT! and they will put together the expertise to develop young talent that will go on stage for the Fête de la Musique Joburg.”

Fête de la Musique or World Music Day falls on 21 June, the weekend after the festival. 

The day is celebrated worldwide through free concerts held in public places. Established and amateur musicians are encouraged to perform.

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