Musical Tyrannyby Kallak Jonesic / 11.06.2011
Tipo Tinto is Mozambique’s favorite rum. On its label it says “Estrela do Oriente,” which means Star of the East and below that, a Japanese woman holds an umbrella. It is lurid-red in color and sweet on the taste buds, and may just be a little hallucinogenic…
The Bush Fire festival, 70 kilometers due south of Swaziland’s capital Mbabane, is the country’s only. So I was told by the two brothers I travelled with from Joburg. The brothers own a little furniture store somewhere in Manzini and often travel back and forth to affirm insufficient sales. We’ve been friends for many years. They also tell me that Swaziland carries a disease involving oily-skinned government officials and large throne-like, black leather office chairs. “Great props!” says the younger brother. “Large chairs are great props if you want to get some business deals going in Swaziland. They all love Idi Amin’s furniture here.”
And although this vapid disease may run rampant through every mountain, creek and valley, The King holds the most potent of antidotes: he is the trustee of the country’s wealth and only a few sycophants get to sit in them – the rest eat stones. He is fat and sagging and his head is pear-shaped. King Mswati the Third has a penchant for young pussy and Mugabian luxury and is not afraid to show it. He is Swaziland.
And when South African acts Black Coffee and Caiphus Semenya boycotted the Bush Fire Festival, due to pressure from “pro-democracy groups” (in reality the ANC Youth League), I felt like giving them all a raunchy kiss and congratulating them on a well executed PR exercise. But it’s hard to tell if this is an exercise in solidarity between our grass roots labour movement and the Swazi pro democracy groups, or an example of spectacular hypocritical expediency; our cronyist faux-commies (who too operate under a polygamist fat cat) attempting to exert pressure on a similar elitist grouping across the border, to curry favour with the powerful grass roots labour movement? After all, the proceeds from the Bush Fire Festival are destined for Swaziland’s Aids orphans – those artists who think that we should involve children in political clusterfucks, must think again.
We got there on Thursday night because we thought the border at Oshoek would be too congested on Bush Fire’s opening day. No contraband was discovered by dogs or humans alike. The festival’s grounds are girdled by a bed and breakfast and it’s fanned out sections, a cozy bar and restaurant, and a well known Swazi Gaudi-esque structure called House on Fire. The latter was to become the festival’s dance floor, alas most DJs were too inept to get enough people onto it. On the other side of the festival’s grounds beyond the porta-potties, thousands of stalks belonging to an enormous sugarcane plantation; and beyond that, in the distance, some of the most spectacular mountains you have ever seen.
I’m glad we arrived a day earlier – that way we got to meet the festival’s more avid patrons; the ones that want to be there longer than everybody else. We met a Spaniard who had come from Tofo, a few giggly South Africans, a French guy that helps out with the festival’s more creative tasks, and a drunken expat who had her tongue down the older brother’s throat as soon as we got there. “I found a new boyfriend, a new boyfriend,” she screeched over and over again and clasped his burly torso. Then they disappeared in the toilettes and soon after she came out sober; and the next day when she saw us, she acted like we’d never met.
I am reluctant to discuss the music in too much detail since most of it was run-of-the-mill. I also base my conclusion on the South African kids hired to play Sound Engineer. They just couldn’t deal with a feedback frequency, probably somewhere around the 1500 Hz region, for the duration of the festival, and had compressed the sound so tightly, most of the bands sounded like a sadist squeezing the air out of a stray kitten. No one had tuned the drums, until Oliver Mtukudzi’s drummer did them the favor on the Saturday evening. Then, halfway through their ballad-laden set, the Zimbabwean maestro said, “music is like food. You can have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner…” These people must be very hungry, I thought.
The band that opened the festival the night before were called Spirits Indigenous, a Swazi tourist band, that doesn’t find the importance in tuning the rest of their instruments to their marimba, and so their entire performance went on out of tune. Then Gazelle showcased, as if attending some depraved fashion show, a visual modus operandi similar to Mswati’s; and although in this particular setting their routine may have looked like satire, it wasn’t. Xander Ferreira’s vocals are weak and androgynous and often dwindled to squeaks in the freezing Swazi air. Perhaps the only thing that kept people bobbing up and down was DJ Invisible’s electronica, but that alone wasn’t enough to deem the act worthy of a callous autocrat. Reading Roger Young’s Gazelle review is a good place to start if you feel like knowing more.
More kittens were deboned with Goldfish, who’s “Simunye! We Are One” approach has become tiresome for most. I don’t feel like discussing this band because it’s futile – we all know what Goldfish is about.
After that the DJs took over and we made our way back to the campsite where we sat around a communal fire and talked to the many nationalities gathered there. We played djembe and darbuka and slurred from the whiskey and laughed like children, and in the morning, as we trudged around the tents, we heard only the South Africans bitching about how they couldn’t sleep because some assholes played drums all night. I promised a little group of thirty-somethings that I would do my best to find the culprits and bring them to justice. “Tonight we play harder,” I quietly told the brothers as we walked away. Then, ten bottles of Tipo Tinto came, brought over by the Spaniard’s Swiss friend, a lovely surfer girl with the wildest hair and tan, and most beautiful of smiles. We all fell in love with her that weekend.
I went back to the entertainment an hour or two before sunset and witnessed the most fraudulent act on the African continent. Hot Water is a band that must be publically gathered, whipped and tortured – no two ways about it. The guitarist and vocalist look like a couple of well-heeled frat boys in some Southern State and sound much, much worse. Their sound is corporate, unimaginative and a deception only fit to serve events such as World Cups and SAMA ceremonies. And these bastards got the sundowner slot when all you want to do is watch the sun vanish behind the mountains and escape to a dream world before the horridness of the rum kicks in. No luck this time, champ.
After watching some Giant Puppets I spoke to some rather pathetic prostitutes trying to get a buck out of anyone, and later whilst watching the Champions League Final at the bar, I could hear more tourist-sounding Swazi bands. When the game was over we watched the best act of the weekend, Tidal Waves. The band is super tight, sensual in their transitions and downright honest about what they do – an element every other band failed to achieve over the three days we were stationed there.
For us the festival ended that same night when an insensitive twenty year old Afrikaans guy came to sit at the communal fire. First he wanted to fight with people, including me for playing drums, and then he chewed off an American guy’s ear by telling him that all Americans are fat, ugly, loud and stupid. The American was of South Korean descend and currently studies at MIT. He is a little overweight. The poor guy just sat there and took it, and every time someone wanted to say something, the big guy would say: “Jesus, where does that stupid accent come from, hey?”
Legendary Malian guitarist and vocalist Habib Koité played on Sunday afternoon, but when we heard that he was only doing a one-man performance we decided to catch the light and get home safely. Drums and Tipo Tinto pounded in our heads as the brothers and I drove and watched the mesmerizing Swazi mountains hulk over us. People hitchhiking on the road to town and the many blank faces in complete servitude meant nothing at all. Silence.
*All images © Kallak Jonesic.