Oppikoppi | Dustbowl Confessionsby Nechama Brodie / Images by Kevin Goss-Ross / 12.08.2011
You want a music review? Read the Mail & Guardian. You want to know what the bands “sounded” like? Buy the fucking album. If you think that the only way to write about Oppikoppi is to talk about what goes on, on stage, you’re missing the point.
If you’ve been to a rock festival, you’ll know it’s only partly about the music (because, let’s be honest, if you were all about the sound you’d be at home listening to the CD not the MP3 file, and setting up your speakers “just so”; and, for what it’s worth, the sound wasn’t always great, even good, at the Koppi this year – something that should be fixed, mostly because it fucks up the musicians’ enjoyment of their performance). Some people go to Koppi just because they love camping. I don’t like camping, but I do love Koppi because it’s as much about what happens offstage as on – from the crazy characters that come along for the ride (the girl in the Cinderella ballgown; the boy in the superhero tights; Haddad Viljoen in his princess outfit on the back of a motorbike) to the motley crew of musicians that play because: a) it’s cool to play Oppikoppi and b) it’s even cooler to jol at Oppikoppi; and the serious music journalists and photographers, the ones who have been to 13 out of 16 Koppis, who know much more about music and performers and the koppie itself than I ever will, but share knowledge as generously as smiles and booze and cigarettes. Going to Oppikoppi makes you part of a secret fraternity; there are no handshakes – just the signature red-brown dust on your car as you drive back into Gauteng – on which one of your neighbours will have scrawled with a finger “Oppikoppi” or “fok”.
There’s a remarkable alchemy that happens on that farm outside Northam, something that makes Oppikoppi work. I wrote about this last year, for the Sunday Times – the mix of musicians, how integration happens on stage, first, and then filters through to the audience. This year there were noticeably more black people. I hate how white liberal that sounds but it’s true, and it’s important. Because they didn’t just come to see stupid white kids getting off their tits. They came for the music. And to get off their tits.
I’m no serious music journo. I can’t compete in the battle of words over bands. All I know is what it felt like to be there. I can tell you that I would have driven all the way, and even stayed in a tent, just to see Zakes Bantwini perform. That if anyone else tried to sing the lyrics Inge Beckmann does, they’d just look silly. But she owns that stage, she is a force, a muse, a goddess. And Lark Electro’s set was so overwhelming, so depressing I felt alone, standing there under a tree with people in the branches, for the first time all weekend.
In the two days I was at Oppikoppi (and, in retrospect, I seriously wish I’d been there for all three), I also got to see Bittereinder (power start, slightly anthemic towards the middle, so I lost interest); Black Hotels (excellent live – great sound; possibly because they travel with their own sound man; also, this will sound all wrong but the bass player has really good boobs); Dan Patlansky (the bushveld was made for blues). I heard snippets of Desmond and the Tutus, Not My Dog, Die Heuwels, Karen Zoid (who I met over breakfast one morning, and – unbiased – she is really, really cool, and drove around in a loaned “steak” Hummer all weekend). I rocked out to Michelle Shocked, right at the front of the stage. I danced down the other side of the mountain to reach the Red Bull electronic stage (where I spent hardly any time this year, and wished I’d had a clone so I could have danced more).
For me, Oppikoppi has also become an anniversary of sorts: it marks a place and a time where I have met new people, made new friends. Some of them have become good friends. Last year, a Koppi virgin, I knew only a handful of people; I spent a lot of time on my own wandering around, watching the crowds. This year there were familiar faces everywhere; and people I’d met for the first time became companions, bearing gifts of conversation and silly jokes (and occasional drinks). We celebrated: being there, listening to the music, being together. It’s not “you had to be there”. It’s: “you have to be there”. Screw gap years and trips to Europe.
Oppikoppi veterans, those who were there in the early years, tell me the festival has changed. They don’t say it in that “things were better during apartheid” tone; just that Oppikoppi has become a bigger beast than when it started. But the organisers do a magnificent job of containing the wildness, putting on the shows that they do, creating a space where people can get fucked up without really getting fucked up.
That said, a few things came up this year:
1. There are not enough women on stage. Karen Zoid, Michelle Shocked, Lark and… erm, yeah. We need more female voices. And if, as one of my wiser journo buddies observed, the problem is there <aren’t> enough women performers to choose from, then I think it’s part of the Oppikoppi mandate to find them, to make them, to give them the breaks – you’ve done it with different musical styles, you can totally do it with the girls.
2. Bad sound is not okay. Sipho Hotsix Mabuse’s set was marred by erratic sound levels (you could hardly hear the keyboard on “Burn Out”) that persisted until right at the end. I also watched Laurie Levine – a multiple SAMA nominee, with a new album out – try and play a gig at the tiny stage next to the small bar. She’d driven up from Joburg and was fighting flu, her keyboard player had flown in for the show, Dan Roberts had driven up specially for the performance (he was to be on mandolin or banjo)… The sound was so bad Dan gave up after the first song; Laurie and Lize bravely struggled through, unable to hear themselves half the time, Lize’s backup vocals coming through louder than Laurie’s lead… That they managed to sound good at all, at the end, is a testament to their professionalism and Laurie’s songwriting skills. Musicians know that gig conditions are often less than ideal, but this was out of the ballpark and was unfair to the performers more than it was to the audience.
3. This point is open to debate (and I think it should be debated), but there were more than a few murmured suggestions that Oppikoppi should separate the electro “stuff” (i.e. A vocalist with someone on a drum kit) from the live bands. The Red Bull stage has already proved wildly successful, and it works as a separate domain (side note: the Red Bull stage looked and sounded incredible this year). I hear rumours Oppikoppi’s going to supersize in the next year or so, and I wonder if that will translate into little sound villages…
I learnt something else too: on Sunday night I was first in line to make snarky comments about Die Antwoord (because they blocked off the media area, and no one was allowed in before they went on stage). I was joined by more than one musician in matching the tone of my comments, which I can best sum up as: do they think they are better than us? I was, politely, schooled on the drive home when my travel companion pointedly wondered why there was such local resentment towards Die Antwoord and said she’s only too happy to call Waddy “Ninja” (even though she’s known him for years) because that’s what he’s asked for and he’s earned that right, through 20 years of hard work. “Journalists like to own bands’ successes,” she said. “It’s always ‘I saw them before they were big’. But they didn’t make Die Antwoord. No journalist could have done that. They’ve made a choice, to be Ninja and Yolandi, for the period of time that they are Die Antwoord. They won’t always be that.” It was a very grown-up thing to say, and made me feel pretty childish by comparison. I’m okay with that, and I’m sorry I missed them play.
That’s the other thing about the Koppi, you know: you never get to see everything, you’ll always miss something cool, something your friends will tell you about, something you will kick yourself over for years to come. And that’s why you go back. Because you know there’s magic to be found there, next year. Want to know what the music sounds like at Oppikoppi? Buy a fucking ticket.
*All images © Kevin Goss-Ross.