Hope and Courage to the Peopleby Andy Davis / 23.12.2013
Originally published on 26 June 2013
Dodo beer is a remarkable thing. It comes in a bottle South Africans may remember from the 80s, we used to call them dumpies. It’s inelegant, but cool in a retro way that fits this place. And because of the rounded neck and dumpy shape, it’s almost impossible to use one Dodo to open another, which immediately makes a South African with any kasi smarts feel somewhat exposed. Like we’re drinking martinis or some fancy shit. Like we should be sticking our pinky in the air with every sip. Here, now, a cold one sits in my palm, sweating in the tropical evening and it tastes fresh and golden as you’d expect it to. Zoom out and you’ll see me lounging at a wooden table in the grounds of a plush hotel under a grove of coconut palms, being regaled with stories of life in the ‘money trench’ the ‘long plastic hallway’ of the music industry by some of the world’s nicest industry players. The pool sparkles a lumious blue, set in the black velvet backdrop of the night garden. The good life.
Earlier this evening I listened to a showcase of musicians from Madagascar, China, Mauritius, Reunion and Mzansi. Tomorrow I’ll surf the perfect waves of St Leu on my lunchbreak between conference sessions about how to take your band to India and a forum on African music festivals. Around me the 250 delegates are doing similar things, talking shop, sealing deals. Beer in the evenings, coffee through the day. Later I’ll get a crash course in the new ways brands and the music industry are collaborating, catch an update on the state of Indian Ocean electronica and watch showcases from top quality ‘emerging’ Maloya and Australian bands. Then Thursday the big fiesta kicks off with Manu Chao followed by three days of Salif Keita, Féfé, Cody Chesnutt, Groundation and about 60 other acts punctuated by more of these beers, some tasty gallettes, island curry, pork kebabs and an endless slew of mojitos in the VIP, on the beach, at the festival. It is, as H.L Mencken, the Baltimore Sun journalist, said: “journalism is the life of kings”. The cold beer in this bottle attests that to be true. The wind through the palm trees reiterates the fact. Now where are the hammocks?
But what am I actually doing here? Surely someone must be paying for all this? This is not heaven, or some kind of halcyon dream. This is reality, I pinch myself. An exchange of sort must be taking place. Surely an entity has some kind of expectation on what I am to do in exchange for all this, how you say in French: largesse?
Dance with me, while I do my best to explain.
At first impression, Reunion is a tropical island about 2800 kays North East of South Africa; a spectacular volcanic outcropping in the middle of the Indian Ocean that is basically a suburb of Paris. Yep, don’t let the the palm trees, the rum nor the warm turquoise waters fool you, Reunion Island is a French département which makes it, effectively, the closest first world country to South Africa. Back in the mid 90s, a guy called Jérome Galabert, with a keen interest in music and the role of culture in changing society, set up an organisation, Le Séchoir, (The Dryer) in an old tobacco drying warehouse that they converted into a theatre in an area known for its unemployment and relative poverty. The local naysayers said it was destined to fail, but the organisation still exists and runs festivals like Leu Tempo, which we reported on last month. Back then, they used to organise big live gigs at a venue in the surf town of St Leu, in a massive parking lot type thing cut into the walls of a ravine (with amazing natural acoustics). Then they started doing exchanges; bringing different acts from around the world, including Bongo Maffin in 2002, Waddy Jones and the post Max Normal Constructus Corporation in 2003 and Lucky Dube in 2004, the same year that Jérome and co. launched the Sakifo festival.
Sakifo, is the creolification of the phrase ça qui faut, which means ‘that which must happen’. A bold statement of intent for an island with fewer than a million inhabitants. Today it’s a 3 day music festival, boasting 66 acts of both international quality and local relevance. There’s also a political and social dimension to the Sakifo festival that involves asserting Reunion’s position as an Indian Ocean island with stronger and more logical geographic ties to neighbours Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and the continents of Africa, India and Australia, rather than the 9300 kilometer umbilical cord that connects it with Mama France on the other side of the globe. An intention that has grown into a music market and conference known as IOMMA, currently in its 3rd year.
“You know we’re living on a beautiful island, but this island is facing 40% unemployment, 65% unemployment in the youth.” Says our protagonist Jérome. “The young people are getting more and more trained but they still don’t have any prospects. I think one of the things with culture, and music specifically, is to give hope and courage to the people. Here we are on a musical island. The people here are releasing 360 new records every year, which means almost one a day. Which is huge.” He smiles. And suddenly it’s all coming into focus. The how, the why, the striving for connection. This is not some paternal hand out from colonial Europe, but a bonafide reconfiguration of the old powers, based on geography and logic rather than historic impulse.
“Can you imagine?” He continues. Snapping me from the reverie. “This is significant, it means something. So what I’m saying to the people here is, listen we’re never going to have a big industry. We’re facing difficulties regarding tourism because there is Mauritius next door doing 1 million tourists a year and I’m not even sure that can be very good for the island. But we need to develop and the creative industries are generating work for a lot of people. Culture changes the image of the country and you can give work to people. People here, especially if they’re young people, they’re already into it. You can see with those recording, they’re into it. They’re doing it already. So what we have to do is structure the industry.”
And with that my mind wanders to immaculate glass and chrome boardrooms populated by suits like Barry Weiss (Def Jam), Jimmy Iovine (Interscope) and Doug Morris (Sony), instantly sapping my enthusiasm.
“No!” Jerome shouts, bringing me back to the island again. “When people use words like ‘the industry’, they think about big things. And that’s not correct. Those days are gone. That model failed. No. We’re talking about small business acts, small things, individuals.” He pauses and looks at me square. “You were talking about a mission earlier. I suppose the mission is to put Reunion on the map. It’s a dual thing, we’re saying to the world: ‘Hey guys, we’re here!’ And on the other side we’re saying to our people: ‘Hey guys, you can do it!’”
And they’ve been doing it for 10 years now. Over this time Sakifo has hosted a long list of South African musicians (Johnny Clegg, 340ml, Tumi and the Volume, Lark, Mix n Blend to EJ Von Lyrik, Ben Sharpa and Bongeziwe Mabandla). Other festivals on the island, following the precedent set by Sakifo, have brought the likes of Spoek Mathambo, Fletcher and most of the Gugulethu ragga artists (Teba, Crosby, JJ, Black Dillinger) who made up the African Dope Sound System.
As Jerome reckons: “I always invite artists from South Africa because there’s a lot of good music and I have always believed that we should increase exchanges between Reunion and South Africa. The only rule is that the festival guideline is eclecticism. Difference is our power”
And that ideology permeates the Sakifo line-up, which is always a quality mix of international acts, local and international reggae, a variety of contemporary and traditional African music, some shit that defies categorisation, discerning French pop for the punters and a dedicated showcase of local Maloya and other regional artists who really capture and translate the essence of these islands. Highlights from the last 10 years include Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Cesaria Evora, Tinariwen, George Clinton, Amadou and Mariam, Nneka, Ayo, Patrice, Asa, Steel Pulse. For South African bands to get a hook up to Sakifo offers an amazing step up to a global platform. Impress here and you open up the possibility of breaking into new, more lucrative markets.
But for many years this has been a one way street, the flow of funds from the EU, to support Southern African artists in Reunion and vice versa. But this year, for the first time, the festival organisers of Sakifo, the Harare International Festival of the Arts, Azgo in Maputo and Bushfire in Swaziland – got together and decided to align their dates to create the first ever regional festival circuit, called the Firefest Route. Meaning that they can create a collective bargaining power to attract and share top quality international and regional acts and attract bigger audiences. This year Columbia’s Bomba Estereo played all the festivals while Reunion’s Nathalie Natiembé and Mzansi’s Brother Moves On and Bongeziwe Mabandla played Bushfire, Azgo and Sakifo on consecutive weekends. Next year will grow further.
Suddenly all the big festivals are collaborating instead of competing; HIFA, Azgo, Bushfire and the IOMMA conference run consecutively in April, May and June; followed by Oppikoppi, Moshito and Rocking the Daisies in August, September and October; bring in the Cape Town Jazz Fest and Joy of Jazz and you can start to feel that with all this momentum building and all these opportunities opening up, the live music scene in Southern Africa is reaching a significant tipping point. And what that means for disgruntled cultural pundits like us at Mahala is simply more choice and better quality. Soon the live music landscape won’t be dominated by the Big Concert’s parade of has-been international stars (Bon Jovi, RHCP, Dave Matthews) punctuated by the international pop crud of Bieber and Gaga. But even more important than all that, as Monsieur Galabert so eloquently emphasised earlier; thriving creative industries create jobs but can also change the image of a place quite rapidly. Most importantly, vibrant cultural industries invigorate the people with hope and courage. And right now, we could all use another round of that.
*Stay tuned for part 2 of the series.