The rise of thinking people’s arts festivals
You get arts festivals, then you get arts festivals that function solely as an excuse for a marathon piss-up. Similarly, there is no archetypal festino: he or she runs the gamut from bespectacled scarf-wearing hippie-intellectual to unshaven yob lurching around in saggy shorts that reveal untantalising glimpses of butt cleavage.
Local rock fests have mushroomed, and some are even expanding their capacity due to increased demand. But as we age, some of us have grown weary of being harassed by drunken gits, having our tents broken into and suppressing the urge to retch when faced with fetid chemical loos on day three.
Even the promise of really awesome music no longer tips the scales in favour of risking an aggro vibe. Damn it, why apologise? Some of us now like to enjoy our arts festivals savouring a glass of decent wine, not clutching a soggy Chateau Cardboard happy box. We prefer to call it growing up rather than growing old.
There are, of course, the chilled-out stalwarts of the festival circuit — the folksy Splashy Fen, for one, and good old Rustlers Valley. And how we Gautengers miss Womad — Peter Gabriel’s exhilarating world music festival that, for a couple of blissful years, brought bohemia to Benoni before bowing out of this country.
But something is changing. These days, it seems, every semi-picturesque dorpie has jumped on the bandwagon and we now have a plethora of literary, foodie, country-kitsch and artsy festivals to choose from: SA is in the grip of festival mania.
And more events are catering for those on the fringes of mainstream society — be they into alt-folk, freak-rock, site-specific performances, pop-up theatre or whatever the latest buzzword happens to be.
A recent article in The Guardian sounded alarm bells for the UK’s "oversaturated" festival scene, suggesting it had reached critical mass as 30 events had to be cancelled last year, mainly due to high ticket prices and people counting their pennies. The Daily Mail put it more bluntly in its screaming headline: "Festivals are dead!"
Even the legendary Glastonbury Festival is taking a sabbatical this year, supposedly due to the shortage of available portable toilets caused by the London Olympics.
It sounds pretentious, but perhaps one way to keep the local festival scene buoyant is to stage more "thinking people’s" arts festivals. A case in point is Swaziland’s Bushfire Festival, which this year attracted 17000 revellers to a farm near the kingdom’s lush Ezulwini Valley — or "valley of heaven". A jumble of accents, ethnicities and nationalities made it a veritable United Nations of an arts festival.
It’s only in its sixth year, but word has clearly spread that this is art with a heart, as Bushfire is underpinned by a strong social responsibility ethos and a desire to develop the country’s creative economy. Swaziland has an estimated 40% unemployment rate and an equally alarming HIV/AIDS prevalence, and all the proceeds from Bushfire go to Young Heroes, a charity that supports AIDS orphans. And the festival promotes sustainability, empowering local communities to be self-sufficient beyond a single heady weekend of brisk economic activity every May. It hosts workshops for local arts practitioners, a schools festival — "opening eyes and sparking off wonderful journeys", as festival founder-director Jiggs Thorne describes it — and a venue called The Barn for chewing the fat on meaty topics. Among this year’s speakers was Swazi-born actor and festival patron Richard E Grant.
A sense of childlike wonder alights on you when entering the House on Fire venue, where Bushfire takes place; it’s a quirky fantasy world, whose undulating, mosaic-tiled cement architecture is modelled on Antoni Gaudi’s whimsical toadstool-house creations in Barcelona. The laid-back crowd atmosphere enfolds you in a friendly bear hug, as a dad with an extended Jack Parow fur-lined peak cap bops along while his child giggles away atop his shoulders.
Next to him is a girl with dreadlocks blowing bubbles in the breeze, and a guy who manages quite nifty dance moves despite wearing a huge blue sandwich board.
It’s the type of place you’ll find Hare Krishna wraps and energy-boosting smoothies. You can buy original handcrafted items made by Swazi crafters — there’s nary a tacky curio in sight. It’s where you may see performance-art hip cats The Brother Moves On squeeze into gold spandex trousers, leopard-print body suits and fur coats to belt out psychedelic funk-rock with androgynous vigour. Or "one-man folk band" Jeremy Loops using a mishmash of instruments, pedals and equipment to record and replay loops and assemble a wall of sampled sound. "We’ve seen exponential growth since the get-go," says an upbeat Thorne. "People are responding to different aspects of the eclectic programme, which brings together commercial draw cards with a ‘call to action’ sensibility and a commitment to developing local music. We continually ask: ‘How are we relevant; what do we have to say?’"
The event’s "all-sorts" audience helps forge a collective spirit, he says : "It brings people together; very few other festivals manage to do that." Swaziland is "notorious for its friendliness … and Swazis love having the rest of the world take over the country for the weekend".
No doubt its strong arts and community development focus helped Bushfire secure the headline sponsorship of MTN Swaziland this year. It also quelled recurring calls by Swazi unions for a cultural boycott of the festival due to undemocratic practices in the kingdom.
"We’re very conscious of the political situation and, for that reason, the festival has to be as relevant as possible. We encourage people to use it as a platform to engage creatively around pertinent issues."
And now, following the April launch of Afrifestnet — the African Festival Network — in Ghana, the continent should see more structured inter-festival communication on best practice, sponsorship and funding ideas. Members will also explore festival "twinning" (Bushfire is planning a "fire festival route" with Maputo’s Azgo Festival), economies of scale, skills sharing, partnerships and artistic collaborations.
With 155 registered members, representing 37 festivals in 18 countries, Afrifestnet aims to promote African artists nationally, regionally and internationally. National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester serves on its steering committee and the Cape Town-based Arterial Network is also involved, ensuring a strong South African presence. "When we met recently in Ghana to launch Afrifestnet, I was surprised at how many festivals are deeply rooted in communities and are ‘owned’ by very specific geographical communities, or communities of interest. Africans, culturally, tend to celebrate and honour key moments in life through song, dance, the arts…. It is how we remember people, it is how we pass stories and cultures on to the next generation.
"This makes festivals far more than just occasional events that pop up on the fringes of society, as they might be in New York or London. In Africa, they are part and parcel of how life is lived, remembered, celebrated, which makes them far more a part of community life than they may be elsewhere in the world."
The continued viability of local arts, music and culture festivals will inevitably come down to luring and securing bums on seats.
But what could galvanise the sub-sector is a more philanthropic, socially aware focus, providing what Thorne dubs "not just entertainment for entertainment’s sake: it’s about how you engage with audiences and communities".
"I think we will see more and more festivals taking on this kind of formula, of being relevant and promoting sustainability. Your message has to resonate to be believed."
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Official Photographers - Bram Lanmers and Sydelle Willow-Smith