Harare International Festival of the Arts begins, as all festivals should, with a beer in the hand. Some rites are universal, and after 20 hours on a bus from JHB, my sanity is wearing thinner than those patchy tyres. All the busses were allegedly fully booked when I arrived at Park Station: luckily, I got a tip-off that a steaming bag of Nando’s can make tickets materialise, out of nothing, into the sticky afternoon air. The only disadvantage of boarding the shittiest bus was finding myself stranded at the last pit-stop before the border at 3am, clutching Cheas-Naks in a sleep-drunk haze. A hasty rollie’s worth of contemplation assured me that braving the allegedly tsotsi-rich road on foot trumps abandonment in no-man’s-land.
Anyway, four hours late, here I am. HIFA is being held in Harare Gardens, and I begin by being impressed with the veneer of functionality. Like many South Africans, my general image of Zimbabwe was one of children playing with crap-smeared billion-dollar bills, I dunno, maybe in burnt tobacco fields? This is organised. Everything is neatly sign-posted, the streets are clean-ish and only vaguely pockmarked, some buildings have even been freshly painted. It takes a few days before I notice the sociological tics of this made-up face: the constant eye-flickers, the frowns if words are not meticulous enough, hush-hush-laugh-we’re-having-a-good-time. Cameras abound, but media passes are hidden under bracelets and impractical wrist-warmers. Everyone assures me that this is a great time to be in Zimbabwe. Things are stable. You can use US dollars and rands interchangeably, though there are no American coins, so supermarkets will give you sweets in lieu of change. HIFA is the best festival in Africa, they say, the words forming fists in the air, grasping at cultural straws.
At the free stage I catch Thatchroof Carousel, who are the only musical blot on my musical horizon. The Canadian lead singer has a whiny-John-Lennon-punch-my-face voice and the vigour of a used condom, and won’t shut up about how they’re from Malawi. What a pity: I’m fresh out of third-world Noddy badges. I quickly tire of the standard indie-rock fare, and skulk off to Jamaram at the main stage. Their tight, energetic German reggae-ska melts the bus hangover like overpriced butter in this heat, and we are even charmed into copying a wiggly-fingered “green-leafed tree” dance. Primary school be damned. Towards the end there’s a collaboration with local artists which brings the crowd energy up to a screaming roar, but my hackles rise at a patronisingly unnecessary keyboard lesson. Oh, thank you for letting me touch your fancy equipment, baas. Maybe next time I’m in Germany you can jam with me.
We leave the festival for the best known live music joint in Harare, Book Café, where (finally) the Zimbos outnumber the Germans and Americans. I am bowled over by the talent on show, as artist after artist lights up the stage. A Senegalese rapper called Awadi plays the original “Waka Waka,” and invites random audience members on stage. There is no shame in the ensuing cacophony, and I’m torn between appreciating the collaborative enthusiasm and grimacing at the occasional discordance. The range of taste is pretty impressive: the whistling and grooving has continued through the sort of musical diversity that South African kids would not tolerate. This is one of the unexpected advantages of a prohibitive economic climate: people don’t take live music for granted. Zimbabweans appreciate whatever music they can get, wherever is still open. The excitement ramps up a notch as a punk rock outfit with electric mbira sets up. The limelight has emboldened some of the least tonally gifted ladies to jump on stage at random, so Chikwata 263 gains an involuntary chorus line. Either this is a participant-driven melting pot of community music, or a fragmented cultural scene trying to maintain some illusion of coherence. I’m still not sure where to place my bets. My lasting image of Book Café, and perhaps of Zimbabwe in general, is a glorious moment when a poet wearing a “Resist Repressive Media Laws” t-shirt was dancing next to a hideously disguised CIO agent with a white glove and plastic bling. I have never seen an entire crowd holding its breath so nonchalantly.
The next few days go past in a blur of beer and music, and suddenly it’s time for the last performance. Oliver Mtukudzi (aka “Tuku”) is something of an institution here. He calls guest after guest onto stage, and regulates the solos with grandfatherly winks. He’s sometimes difficult to hear: this crowd has powerful lungs and has grown up listening to his discography. Finally he’s joined by Ismael Lo, and we go berserk as fireworks light up the sky. It’s the best show I’ve ever seen, probably because they’ve been let off at a dangerously low altitude, and awe quickly turns to anxiety as hot shrapnel lands on upturned faces. A little boy next to me hits the floor as the first explosion goes off, and it takes about twenty minutes of coaxing French to pry him from the dirt, shaking and wary. Are all kids naturally afraid of fireworks, or does he have a past that I can’t imagine?
After I am told of a sniffy rivalry between HIFA and the National Arts Festival, I can’t help but see similarities between them. The majority of Grahamstonians can’t afford to go to their festival either, and can only benefit from the tourists’ pockets with arts and crafts and occasional beggary (no-one has yet, at HIFA, cottoned on to the fact that if you paint the streetkids’ faces white and teach them rudimental mime skills, you can artify even the most heart-breaking Third World inconveniences). Grahamstown locals who have some cash to spare will go to a show or two, sponge up the gaiety at the Green, maybe buy some caramelised cashew nuts, but certainly they are not the target market for the cashmere blankets, the semi-precious jewellery, the expensive clothing. Both are festivals celebrating local culture at a price that the holders of local culture can scarcely afford.
The difference is that, despite its exclusivity, HIFA represents more than a financial opportunity for Zimbabweans; it seems to be a genuine symbol of national pride. Every car-guard I meet wants to hear energetic praise of Tuku, and tells me about the auditory morsels that made it over the festival boundaries. In the context of Zimbabwe’s past, every triumph must be placed carefully in the display case of national memory, and polished often. HIFA 2012 was definitely such a triumph, but it is the last year with founder and Artistic Director Manuel Bagorro at the helm. Now we hold our breath, hoping that the political landscape of 2013 smiles upon its continued brilliance.
*All images © HIFA