More Fire in a Boosh Fireby Sydelle Willow Smith / 09.06.2011
Last weekend I found myself back in the topsy-turvy mosaic world of House On Fire, hired to photograph and film the Bushfire Music festival in Swaziland. Due to our superior status as “media” the rest of the film crew and myself were flown in directly to Manzini airport, a fifteen-minute drive away. No experiences of five hour delays at the border. No mud, no tents, no queues for port-a-loo long drops carrying that familiar stench of humanity – fondly known as poo. Plus I was paid. These days, as a photographer, my festival experiences tend to come from behind the scenes, a voyeur of the festivities stationed predominately backstage or in the pit. I am not complaining, I much prefer cold ceramic against my backside to plastic, but if you want a blow by blow drunken (or cynical) account of the debaucheries of weekend away – I am afraid this is going to leave you a little disappointed.
One of the reasons why I am always keen to attend Bushfire, besides the fact that it is in Swaziland, is the line up. This year the main stage hosted Malian legend Habib Koite, Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Mtkuduzi, Hot Water, Tidal Waves, Goldfish, Nomfusi and the Lucky Charms, Gazelle, Bhaloja, Jamaican Dub Poet D’Bi Young, Croc E Moses, Tonik, and of course my favourite Swazi female vocalists – Spirits Indigenous- a powerful trio mixing musical styles (and fashion) ranging from Erykah Badu to Busi Mhlongo. They even served as Gazelle’s backing vocalists for their set alongside two of the 340ml boys who drove in straight from Maputo. The line up looked promising regardless of attempts at a boycott.
My belief that there is “More Fire in a Booosh Fire” does not appear to be shared by comrades at COSATU. They persuaded South African acts Black Coffee and Caiphus Semenya to withdraw from the line up, in solidarity with the Swazi Democracy Campaign’s calls for a cultural boycott of the festival (now in it’s 5th year). Their stance being that festivities such as Bushfire would send out the wrong message in a crisis stricken country. I personally do not see the point of upholding an absolute monarchy in the 21st century, where a King procures himself a new virgin wife at every Reed Dance. But hey, I study anthropology, I can also respect traditional customs and values, no problem, its when they are patriarchal and misogynist that I lose a bit of my rationale and let my feminist emotions get all riled up, or when they are contextualised by the fact that they take place in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS rate per capita in the world. But as the days rolled by and I spoke to more people I learnt that a lot of Swazi’s do not see The King as the issue and respect the traditional values he upholds. It’s the government that they view as the problem.
“Cultural acts” such as art, music and performance, offer some of the best platforms for effective freedom of expression against the “state” and other external institutions of authority that oppress them. The Bushfire music festival is one of the only examples (that I know of) where locals can celebrate, spend money, bring their kids, drink, dance and be merry knowing that 100% of the profits are donated to the Young Heroes initiative – a charity scheme that assists over 900 homesteads affected by HIV/Aids in the surrounding areas of Malkerns where House on Fire is situated. We were taken to one of the homesteads that benefits from profits. We drove for half the morning, through the rolling hills and bubbling brooks of a pretty much idyllic Swazi countryside. Eventually, after spending hours in a Toyota Tazz with a man who considered himself something of a rally driver, we arrived in small village where we were driven to the house of two aging grandparents. We had to wait outside for half an hour while UNICEF officials decked out in sky blue uniforms paid the family a visit. Sensing a bit of territorial pissing, we didn’t want to get in the way. It did give us some time to get some establishing dolly shots for the video we were making. We wanted the video to have a stronger focus on Young Heroes than last year, due to the sense that there was a need to highlight Young Heroes’ partnership with Bushfire. Some of the bands and festival goers we spoke to in the past were not even aware of the connection, an issue we encountered again this year. Hopefully further exposure of the Bushfire festival on viral platforms to a wider audience will aid in bridging this gap.
Talking with the elderly grandparents who had lost their children to HIV/Aids, leaving behind ten orphaned grandchildren, the one thing they kept repeating was “thank you Young Heroes. Thank you.” Being of a sceptical (post humanities degree) nature I wondered if this display was due to the presence of our cameras and the Young Heroes officials, but I must admit the overall response felt genuine and heartfelt. After a few hours we packed up and said our goodbyes returning exhausted but elated as the afternoon set in and the festivities picked up. I drank some beers and walked around House on Fire hoping to shake the uncomfortable memory of interviewing a young orphan at the homestead and being unable to make her smile. Feeling a bit like a middle class moron, healthy in body and bank balance, I decided to shift my attention to the music, shaking my collision with the realities of HIV/Aids off my skin.
Friday night, Gazelle and Goldfish opened the festival with all special kinds of dance electro funk flourish. Gazelle’s set got the crowd aptly warmed up – I think it had something to do with Paulo Chibanga being stationed behind the drums. The medium sized crowd comprised mostly of young girls who screamed and writhed for the duration Goldfish’s set. Their familiar brand of happy house flavoured with double bass and sax got the festival going at a good pace. Saturday morning rolled by and the crowd slowly trickled in. The evening line-up included a variety of acts from Hotwater to Tidal Waves, and the big crowd puller – Oliver “Tuku” Mtkuduzi. Being a huge fan of Oliver, I felt honoured to be in the pit up close and personal (allowed for the first two songs) to stick my camera up his nostril trying to get the money shot whilst jiving to his Tuku Music. The evening came to a close with Tidal Waves rocking out their usual fabulous reggae inspired tunes. A special highlight is always the dreadlocked drummer, Sam Shoai, and his unique vocal style. I wandered over to the indoor arena – the amphitheatre, and witnessed the spectacular Iggy Pop inspired performance of the frontman of local Swazi rock band, The Lions. Filming him in slow motion on my Canon 7D while he moved on stage in a trance like state, left me grinning from ear to ear a definitive money shot for the edit.
Sunday morning, slightly hungover and experiencing withdrawals having accidently flushed my Corenza C’s down the toilet the night before, I woke up drinking coffee and watching Pedro the music man telling music inspired African folk stories to a group of enthralled children. I am of the Kideo generation, so seeing Pedro in action brings a tingling of excitement to my bones. Next up I moved onto the Tonik tent to experience the silent performance of Ronin Skillen and Jann Krynauw. Every audience member got a pair of headphones, and sat for an hour entertained by the beautiful improvised dialogue between Skillen’s tabla/digeridoo kit and Krynauw’s keyboard. It was quite an experience to watch a multi tasking Skillen hit rhythms into tablas while achieving a succinct circular breathing solo on a didgeridoo. Malian Habib Koite and his band kept the crowd entertained with their acoustic riffs and talking drum, inviting women from the audience to come up onto the stage and dance, causing further chaos in the pit by inviting Oliver Mtkuduzi on stage for one of the songs.
Later interviewing Habib about Bushfire’s proceeds being donated to charity, he aptly commented in broken English “it’s good to be good”, himself a UNICEF ambassador for Mali. As the evening came to an end, and filming was about to be wrapped, Nomfusi and the Lucky Charms closed the festival. She got the dwindling crowd up on their feet and jiving to covers of classics from Bra Hugh and Miriam Makeba. Meeting afterwards to interview her about her thoughts on Bushfire and its charitable intentions proved eye opening. Nomfusi was orphaned at twelve years old; both parents dying from HIV/Aids related illnesses. Her’s is a genuine pop star rise to fame kind of story, and we were elated to hear that she was heading out to some of the Young Heroes Homesteads in the morning to hang out.
My experience is one framed from behind the lens of my camera. Next time I would like to go as a festivalgoer and see it all from the other side of the fence. From what I did notice I’d say that Bushfire is a bit like Splashy Fen except there are no hippies in tepees, more black middle class people and a lot of international travellers dancing in the dust. Sure the cost of the ticket for the weekend is roughly R500, so only a particular demographic is attending, or they are working, but one can say the same for most festivals held in South Africa. How many farm labourers do you get down with at Rocking the Daisies? In response to calls for a boycott, I am not denying that Swaziland doesn’t have the highest HIV/Aids rate in the world, I met some real life orphans- happiness did not shine from their eyes. The connection between themselves, Young Heroes and Bushfire is not solving all their problems as they struggle in the everyday – but it is a start. There are, invariably, some grey areas when it comes to the Swazi political situation. So another year of Bushfire, with eminent plans to extend my African festival experiences further afield to Suati Za Busara in Zanzibar and Lake of Stars in Malawi. Do I understand the complexities of the Swazi political situation and the feasibility of having a cultural boycott against events like Bushfire? Definitely not – but hey I am just a photographer.
All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.