Fate, Luck, Bad Planningby Katie de Klee / Images by Bazil Raubach / 03.07.2013
Get off the fence.
Fatalism can make you lazy, it can make you sit back and wait for the world to sort you out, for your path to become clear, to become inevitable. Well, sweet cheeks, that doesn’t always happen. I told myself that I wanted to go to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival a long time ago and then I’d waited with minimal effort for something to happen that would show that I was meant to go.
2.30am darkness. The motion of the bus had stopped and slowly all the passengers were waking up, looking through the fog on the windows and trying to figure out what was going. Outside there was nothing but the darkness, no petrol station, no roadside café. The bus had broken down. And now I was wondering if this is was the sign I had been waiting for.
18:30, Cape Town Long Distance Bus Facility, Operator 4, Old Marine Drive. Saturday night and the bus left after dark, after a small amount of chaotic organising of bags in the underbelly of the vehicle by an operator who looked like he enjoyed highway food a little too much for him to lift the heavy luggage. For a while on the road Eat, Pray, Love played on a wobbly pink screen but it froze, with Julia Roberts half way through sucking spaghetti off her plate and then eventually even she disappeared. The seat I’d chosen was at the back of the bus, somewhere above the engine. Hot air pumped in around my legs. Everyone sweated in their sleep, steaming the windows and making the bus smell like human bodies.
Grahamstown seems like an unreasonable place to have to get to, given that many of the performers on the festival program are from Cape Town and Joburg. Perhaps this is part of it, the pilgrimage to the Eastern Cape, part of a plan to filter the audience down to the radicals, those who will pursue the arts to the chilly streets of Grahamstown, from those who would rather stay at home. Perhaps it is something to do with the beautiful old buildings. That, and the fact that for it’s size, Grahamstown, at festival time, offers possibly the highest concentration of culture creators, artists and thinkers in South Africa.
Still, in the early hours of Sunday morning, on the side of the road near Wilderness, a drama of its own was taking place. The driver tried a few times to start the engine, but it whinnied like a knackered horse and refused to kick over. He eventually gave up. People dug into the their bags to snack on crisps and sweets, unsure of how long we would be sitting there and the hostess seemed tearful when they questioned her.
For two and a half hours we sat, disgruntled, but not surprised. The mechanic, when he finally arrived, spent another two hours fixing the engine, until, an hour before sunrise, the key in the ignition brought the bus back to life.
Just after 1pm the bus pulled into Grahamstown. Buildings and lampposts are all papered top to bottom with posters for shows. One of the first things you learn at the festival is that actors don’t necessarily make good graphic designers.
That evening I went to see a Jazz show called the Awesome Big Band. Jazz isn’t really my thing, but the programme I had made for myself was mostly antisocial, and, aside from the cringeworthy name, I figured I’d start with something popular, mainstream, and work my way to the margins. Like a hunter, start in the thickest crowd and stalk slowly to the weaker outliers.
The show consisted of 19 performers – an orchestral size that’s pretty unusual (and mostly unsuccessful) for jazz. The stage didn’t seem big enough and it was quite a feat no one got clocked in the head with a trombone slide. The players were all ages, the young in glasses with thick black rims, the old in wires with nose pads and even one older gent in a wide brimmed fedora hat made for sunrays not stage lights.
Most of the saxophones were from Cape Town, the brass largely from Joburg, there was a scattering of Scandinavians and then three star guests from the Americas.
The names of the shows in the National Arts Festival Guide can be misleading. But on this one occasion at least, conducted by the geriatric yet groovy hips of Bruce Cassidy, the name is quite accurate: this band is pretty big, and pretty awesome. Steve Turre waltzed on stage with a long black plait and red crocodile shoes and played some shells. When else would you ever see a man playing shells?
Jazz being quite technical – you can’t actually fuck around and improvise when you feel like it, even if it seems like it, you have to follow the beat and stick to the music. As performers, they had a fantastic energy, each getting a chance to solo. In the calmer moments of the compositions there was something a little British Airways lounge about this Jazz Band (but hey what do I know – I’m still taking the bus).
The Awesome Big Band is about as jazzy as I’ll get this week, but they set the tone for the festival quite well: a group of disparate artists, people who travelled from all over the country – all over the world even – come together to entertain us for just over a week. The festival’s own slogan is as tacky as the name of that show: ‘11 days of amazing’, but why be subtle. This is a slogan confident that you are destined to be astonished. I venture forwards, with hope and enthusiasm for this outcome.
*Images © Bazil Raubach / NAF