Bring Your Fireby Kimon de Greef / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith/ Bushfire / 17.06.2013
Border control at Bushfire Festival is marked with yellow MTN flags. Our taxi ejects us at the entrance and we stagger inside. The lady in the media tent winks after every sentence and in my travel-worn state I am unsure how to respond. She hands me a wristband and I rejoin my comrades at the gate.
The path to the campsite twists through a succulent garden with tree aloes, spiny euphorbias and plants that resemble giant artichoke hearts, all sharply illuminated by red and yellow globes. A gospel group is singing six-part harmonies out of sight: we become lucid sleepwalkers, dazed from a three-day journey, drifting into a new scene.
In darkness we wrestle the tent and destroy the zip. We open a warm beer, grabbed in haste at a taxi stopover in Mbabane, the capital city. Dylan, a Peace Corps volunteer seeking his German friends’ weed, stumbles past; he will become that person we bump into all weekend. Unaware of these strange contrivances of fate we bid him farewell and depart for the stage.
A stone angel clutching hearts in her hands stands floodlit atop the roof. Bokani Dyer and an ensemble of Southern African musicians are playing jazz to a limbering crowd spread over the lawn. A row of middle-aged couples sit at the back in camping chairs, drinking wine and tapping their trainers to the beat.
The next band offers jazzy afropop with brief forays into reggae. Their dreadlocked percussionist thumps his congas methodically; the lead pours honey down her mic. There are hippy chicks, Swazi dolls in weaves, stoned European backpackers and all other shapes of world music groover sashaying gently, rolling cigarettes and smiling at strangers beneath the angel and the black ceiling of the sky.
Behind the stage, in a brightly lit room, a media briefing is about to start. It’s empty but for two eager journalists and their photographer. I’ve been crept up on by an aberrant cold and dive for the free coffee, shoveling in unreasonable quantities of sugar. Sleeping at 10 PM is not an option: I’m here to cover the whole show.
“So do you know Toya?” one writer gushes.
“DeLazy? Not personally.”
“We’re trying to describe her sound. What questions are you going to ask?”
Unprepared, I mumble a vapid answer and edge away. The media room backs onto an amphitheater decorated like a Gaudi building with mirror fragments, twisted tile mosaics and asymmetrical wooden beams. Alone in the middle of the floor a drunkard is twirling nunchucks to a shuffled Flying Lotus beat.
I return when Ms. DeLazy takes the stage because her voice is gratingly off-key and her beats—which are little more than generic Tiger Tiger instrumentals—have no substance. A small bar with carved wooden signage has opened and my sidekick starts plying me with whiskey to dull the scraping in my throat. It’s his solution to everything, he whispers, spilling liberally over the counter.
We watch Veranda Panda draw a crowd with their live violin / bass-music-by-numbers mash, but can’t conjure the enthusiasm to participate. Dylan floats by like a harmless sea creature and we crush him with meaningless hugs. A sickle moon rises and Mix ‘n Blend begin playing tasty dubs on the main stage, but my bronchial tubes have burst into flame again and I’m forced to bring my night to an end.
By Saturday morning the edges of the path have been trampled. Crushed succulents ooze a clear plasma that glints in the sun. A Fair Trade marketplace has opened nearby, selling jewelry, batik pillowcases, gourmet chili concoctions and other local handicrafts at premium rates. Further back is The Barn, billed as “an interactive art and dialogue space devoted to free exchange of ideas”. The first two talks focus on gender equality and renewable energy; the rest of the program covers philanthropy, youth development, HIV-AIDS and creative self-expression—
At which point it is necessary to remember that Swaziland is an absolute monarchy with an appalling human rights record, meaning there is an added dimension—the smallest grain of revolution—to this otherwise innocuous portrayal of a trendy neighbourhood market.
And there are policemen everywhere wielding meter-long batons, patrolling the perimeter of the lawn. Some are dressed in blue; others wear crisp white uniforms and navy-style hats.
“If I grabbed someone,” Officer Dlamini explains the difference, “Well—I couldn’t. This shirt would get dirty. Ha!”
He’s been assigned to Customer Care for the weekend and his main job is preventing guests from harming themselves. The men in blue—Operations Unit—are on hand if things get rougher. There is a squad of trainees down from Equatorial Guinea on some bilateral exchange program and, Officer Dlamini divulges, a team of plainclothes men to keep tabs the dancefloor later.
A short distance away Dylan sits on a blanket, stoned to the bone. He fails to recognize us but turns his head to watch a technicolour praying mantis—a giant puppet on stilts—pick its way towards the stage.
Nathalie Natiembe from Reunion Island proceeds to deliver the standout performance of the festival. Her band mixes French jazz, African percussion and dub effects with distorted marimbas played by a Mozambican in a panama hat.
“This song is about schizophrénie, my alcoolisme,” she breathes—
And lets rip with some French island tribal synth-punk that pulls a sweating dancefloor together within seconds.
We rain check Jeremy Loops because we’ve seen his show before and it doesn’t seem to change, but the crowd goes mental anyway. The man’s worth as a musician has been debated elsewhere but let’s get one thing straight: pressed up front during his warm-up are five full rows of pretty girls craning their necks for a better view, and he’ll headline plenty festivals yet.
What follows is a simply ludicrous piece of South African rock theater courtesy The Brother Moves On. My Mahala colleague is ducking and weaving like a feverish antelope and together we howl our faces off each time the groove shifts—which is often—because it’s all too fucking good to be true.
Things calm down fractionally for The Soil—but considering they’re an acapella group and it’s close to 9 PM, not much. Then Bomba Estereo from Colombia clamber aboard and things really start heaving …
Nathalie Natiembe’s keyboardist, with whom we have been drinking, has descended into a maniacal rubber-legged condition and is diving for some girl’s neck like a parrot attacking a cuttlebone. He is the drunkest man I’ve seen not fall over and he periodically rears upwards to plaster messy kisses across my cheek.
I lose my sidekick and drift through sweating faces to Shangaan Electro’s machinegun beat. In the fields jugglers are doing risky things beside a flaming metal dragon. Much later I discover them playing accordion around a campfire, ignoring the pleas of a security guard who tells them that what they’re doing “just isn’t right”.
“Accompany me!” yells the woman.
“I’ll play the lemons!” growls her partner, and starts juggling. The guard retreats to the shadows and the party rolls on …
Sunday is a sunlit comedown with stilts, children’s games, acoustic guitar—and let it be known that Nakhane Touré’s voice, which is equal part Nina Simone, Thom Yorke and Xhosa lullaby, is one of the most exhilarating you’ll hear—traditional Swazi dance, feel-good reggae and a silent concert in The Barn.
Tonik play percussion, didgeridoo and electric keyboards overlaid with digital effects. Forty of us sit in a circle around them in wireless headphones. This is spaced-out, introspective, traveling music; this offsets the outdoor stage beautifully—
Or is it just a neat metaphor for the whole weekend, my companion suggests: blocking out the noise so the guests can have fun?
Late on Sunday we encounter a drunk resident of the Royal Household squatting alongside the succulents to urinate. He greets us proudly and leans on his stick.
“Welcome to Swaziland,” he says, adjusting his cloth. We thank him amidst the aloes, and with a mysterious smile he is gone.
All images © Sydelle Willow Smith/ Bushfire