The Bushfire Festival is a must-see. It one of the biggest in Southern Africa, with over 25,000 people attending over three days. Admirably, the profits go to charity. It was really well organised. What could go wrong when the master of ceremonies is called Anacondza?
The first act I saw was Nomsa M, a chunky Afro-Jazz singer, with buttercup-yellow dressed backing singers. Not only could she belt out the songs, she could even manage a high kick, way above head height. She sang in siSwati, so I hadn’t a clue what the songs were about. She got the festival off to a great start on the main stage.
Next up was 123, a Turkish indie band, fronted by Dilara, singing like an angel in English. I was fascinated by Secil playing vibraphone. She resembled someone who had been classically trained, wearing serious-looking spectacles and a cardie. She never looked up from her vibes. The band covered Thom Yorke’s Eraser, but not very successfully. They didn’t go down too well with the Africans in the audience.
Haja Madagascar and the Groovy People play Afro-trance music. Their music is based on traditional Malagasy music, such as salegy, bahoejy, antosy and kilalaky. Salegy is funky style, with electric guitars, accordion and call-and-reply vocals, boosted by underlying heavy bass and driving percussion. It has a syncopated, rapid polyrhythmic beat, in 6/8 time, accenting the 3rd or 7th beat. I thought I could detect a North African, almost Arabic influence. It was quite difficult for me to keep in time clapping along with the beat. I’d never make a drummer.
Kilalaky music also has a compelling, rapid 6/8 time, accompanied by synchronised line-dancing, with follow-my-leader. It is supposed to drive dancers into ecstasy (shades of whirling dervishes, Sue Lock?). Researching this online, I read about villagers stomping out footprints in the dust, either to disguise cattle raiders’ tracks or to give aggressors the impression there are lots of people in the village. There is a folk tale that when a king heard Kilalaky, he couldn’t control himself got up to dance, so everyone had to follow suit.
Haja played some “spiky guitar riffs”, accompanied by a South African playing a swooping bass, a Mozambican drummer and Swazi backing vocalists.
Away from the main stage, True Vibenation were playing in the House on Fire Amphitheatre. The band was made up of Zimbabwean-born twins, now based in Sydney, with a great saxophone player who rapped, hip-hopped and dubstepped when he wasn’t blowing his horn. They really got the house rocking, playing within touching distance of the audience. They even used a “human drum machine”. When the power went down for 15 seconds, they kept the act going and were cheered to the rafters when the lights came on again.
For a few songs I listened to Poni Hoax, French electronic rockers with a classical training. They were loud and frantic, an acquired taste, perhaps.
It was past midnight by now so I didn’t stay for full Shortstraw set. These indie rockers from Jo’burg apparently “deliver infectious summertime music, making for ideal festival vibes”. I should have stayed for another well-known South African group called Freshly Ground, but I was exhausted.
Saturday morning kicked off with the Austrian band, Sweet Sweet Moon. The cello and violin duo made heavy use of the reverb pedal, producing an interesting sound. Most of the previous partygoers were still in their sleeping bags, so the small audience were treated to a more intimate performance.
Bashayi Bengoma are a band of traditional musicians, playing a variety of local instruments. They performed to an appreciative audience in the amphitheatre. Most of the women were playing an instrument called a makayane, a bow with a gourd attached to the staff. Apparently, women put their breast inside the opening of the gourd, sucking it in to create a seal to get a better tonal sound. They then beat the string with a baton. An elderly man was a demon on the concertina and another man tried to get a piece of wood to whisper. Even with three microphones around him, I still couldn’t hear it properly.
Then there was a hiatus, with some mediocre bands playing: Transito, “a Mozambican band producing tight Afro-centric grooves”; Tiale Makhene with Malawian guitarist, Erik Paliani; BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) playing some funky music.
I really enjoyed listening to South African Bongeziwe Mabandla, singing melancholic melodies, folk and traditional, in isiXhosa. He writes his own songs, about the father who left and never returned, or failed love affairs. It was entrancing. His big, bald bass player had dreadful facial acne scarring. I took lots of pictures for my library of medical photographs.
American singers, Sweet Honey in the Rock, were festival headliners. They sang some Miriam Makeba (RIP) songs accompanied by a lady doing sign language at the side of the stage. It was great to see her changing her signing gestures according to the rhythm and feeling in the songs. It looked really neat. She is the odd one out on the end.
Black Jesus Experience is an Australian jazz take on Ethiopian music. The main singers were accompanied by an ageing brass section (complete with Fu Man Chu wispy beards and ponytails behind balding pates). The Ethiopian singer was brilliant, but when this segued to an Aussie doing hip-hop rap, I was less impressed.
It had been a long day, so I left and had an early night. Dr May needed some help driving to Manzini, so I road shotgun.
Steith Ulvang started the show on Sunday morning. He sang a passionate set of folk-inspired indie tunes, playing intricate keyboards. He was accompanied by Buddy Ryan (not the football coach) on double bass. Some young girls in front of me got really carried away singing along. Apparently they knew the words. I liked how he explained the origin of his songs. For example, he describes how he encouraged some German tourists to hop onto freight trains while he drove their classic car to the West Coast. And they loved it.
Amandla Freedom Ensemble was the first genuine jazz group at the festival. There is a strong tradition of jazz in South Africa, and the group is developing this theme by incorporating indigenous music. I love this quote from Jazz Times about the group:
“Mlangeni’s Amandla quintet wraps elliptical melodies in three-part horn harmonies, rich with impasto, swinging like broken chandeliers. The Soweto native’s compositions pull from church hymns; traditional rituals learned from his uncle, who was a sangoma, or healer: American postbop; the Ornette Coleman Quartet; and the bounding, interwoven cycles of Eastern Cape music.”
(Apologies to Louis Balfour of the Fast Show on TV)
The Parlotones are another rock group from Jo’burg, now relocated to Los Angeles. Kahn Morbee, the lead singer, is famous for his bizarre face makeup. They played at the World Cup 2010 kickoff festival and opened for Coldplay on their tour of South Africa. Their music really got the audience rocking.
The sun was starting to set when The Soil took the stage. They are an acapella Afro-soul group. Wikipedia informs us that “The Soil currently consists of three members. Buhlebendalo Mda (Soil Sister), Ntsika “Fana-tastic” Ngxanga and Luphindo Ngxanga (Master P). Ntsika and Luphindo are biological brothers. During interviews, they usually refer to God as the first member of the group.”
While one person is singing, the other two provide backing using their voice as an instrument and “boombox” techniques. The crowd went wild. Most of them knew the words and were singing along at the top of their voices while they danced. Everyone seemed rather boozed up. I sat down on a borrowed folding chair and could have murdered a cup of tea. I had a little rest before calling it a day because, like Cinderella, I had to leave the festival before dark. It was truly an unforgettable experience.