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Own the Stage

Own the Stage

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / Images by Mpumelelo Macu / 12.04.2013

It’s the second day of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. At the tail-end of a tribute to Madala Kunune, about halfway through Thandiswa Mazwai’s set, it becomes clear that this will be no run-of-the-mill performance. She’s chanting now. Incantations. Stomping her right leg as calls on something bigger than us, more than this festival. More than a ridiculous 5 o’clock time slot. More than a silly one hour set.

Why put Thandiswa Mazwai, arguably one of the best performers and vocalists South Africa has had to offer the world this side of the millennium, as the opening show on the Kippies stage? And why, on the souls of all the God’s of Jazz, would you only give her a single hour to perform? And then harass her off the stage in full view of the paying public? “It doesn’t matter what time I play,” she said earlier when probed about her early performance. “As long as I kill it!” She was right. And she was wrong. Thandiswa had no problem commanding that venue. From the moment the band started up, when she walked out in a modernised isidwaba and burnt a bunch of imphepho, she came to commandeer that stage. But the time slot though – the allotted hour – mattered.

Thandiswa Mazwai
Image © Ignatius Mokone.

It meant that what would’ve have been a packed venue (we’ve seen Thandiswa fill out venues double this size in less time) was only, sorta full. It also meant that the sound wasn’t right. It was okay, but she deserved better. It meant that over a decade of musical proweress had to be compacted into 60 minutes. She tried her best, managed to fit in a quick retrospective glance to her Bongo Maffin days, a nod to Red, and a tribute to the heroines who carved out this path to her. Miriam Makeba. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Busi Mhlongo. No Thandiswa show is complete without an acknowledgment of the Urban Zulu. It’s always there, explicit or tacit. Implied in her falsetto yodelling. Her spiritual growls, mestacised belly-deep.

audience

They should’ve have anticipated the booing though. We were riding the escalation, the constant climb to climax. Building up a riot of kinetic energy, where the hell did they think it was going to go? The friction and fervour burning up inside of us. The clashing chords uncontained and unchanneled. So we booed. We booed when she left the stage. When the MC’s came out. We boo’d when they announced Jill Scott and complained silently when a few more lost minutes appeared for Ms. Scott, but not for Thandiswa.

And for the first time throughout the festival, they finally got the sound right. The rhythm section for Jill Scott was so loud, so impactful, it overrode our heartbeats. She walked onto the stage to the crowd erupting. Waves of bodies swarming forward, hoping to get glimpse of her. Opening with ‘It’s Love’ off her first album Words and Sounds: Volume 1, she used her time to traverse a 13 year career in the mainstream. Weaving into the melody, a dramatic diva-esque narrative off love, heartbreak, 808s and beatdowns.

stage

Kippies, the main stage of the Jazz Festival, has always had horrendous sound. On the Friday, during Zonke’s performance, it was probably at it’s worst. An unkindness of bars and notes swarmed angrily and directionless overhead, bouncing off the steel rafter up top, never quite reaching the back. Empty sound and 1/3rd full audiences seemed to haunt many of the stages. Never adequately filling the spaces. Huge hollows of emptiness. Gaps between the percussion and the strings. Every single section was a different line. A lonely melody. Even at the Bassline, the open-air stage outside The Cullinan hotel suffered. Normally one of better stages sound-wise (with a more authentic festival feel), the tarpaulin erection put up this year tunnelled the music, making it sound distant and tinny.

This year The Bassline hosted Mi Casa, P.H.FAT, Ben Sharpa and Pure Solid, Khuli Chana and AKA and Brother Ali. The actual performances (what you could make out of them) were solid, but at least 30% of the crowd left halfway through the shows either because of the acoustics or the jam-packed scheduling that meant you were always missing something. The Baseline was also the entry point, the border jump, for a few illegal non ticket-holders who snuck through the wire fences behind the restaurants, or next to the potted outbursts of greenery that lined the silver gating.

Then Louis Moholo (with 4 blokes and 1 doll) and Afrika Mkhize won over Friday night, which was in general, a bit meh and drab in comparison. Most festival-goers wouldn’t openly admit to being bored, but all the responses I canvassed lacked as much conviction as the line-up itself. Nothing was particularly spectacular, and anything that dared to be was efficiently sabotaged by the reluctant sound. The music even failed to distract the Red Jacket “security specialists” who took to dragging off drunks and people who’d snuck in, more as a way to entertain themselves than a dedication to their jobs.

Glasper Crowd

A last minute stage change saw the Robert Glasper Experiment moved to the smaller Moses Molelekwa stage, at the back, under the highway. Robert Glasper is like a crazy scientist working frenetically in the background behind a mothership of keyboards. Seated behind these keys, to the left of the stage, he conducts his madcap methodology with ease. Sparking the live wires of jazz and hip hop, the seams raw and bleeding, stitched and held together by Casey Benjamin on the keys and the vocoder, and Chris Dave on the drums. MF Doom came, MF Doom went. The performance would’ve have blown the roof off any club or contained gigging space, but there was no roof. And the strains from Buena Vista at Kippies, and the hum of the highway and the aircon units lingered on the peripheries. As a result the show was just about as flat as the crowd’s reaction.

And maybe that’s the problem with the Cape Town Jazz Festival as a whole. There’s too much A-grade quality music squashed in too limited an amount of time. The live circuit in Cape Town is generally a meandering backwater featuring the same hardworking local bands, ageing international comedians and the odd Big Concert stadium bejazzling and then the Jazz Fest hits like a two day hurricane of amazing international and local performances. Most of these artists deserve to headline their own events. Mashing all these acts into a two day festival is unfair on the artists, who end up playing to half filled auditoriums, and the average punter, who ends up like some ADD pinball ricocheting from stage to stage trying not to miss out, but invariably not really engaging or enjoying anything completely. So let’s just take a moment to breathe here, space it out. Make it a longer festival, take as much time as you need Mo! A month of weekends. 6 weeks. You can have the whole of winter. Because if there’s one thing we’ve got in Cape Town, it’s time.

* All images © Mpumelelo Macu.

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RESPONSES (4)
  1. Don Dada says:

    That why i don’t go anymore, the sound is embarrassing for the artist and the punter and makes for an awkward interaction.
    Got comped late on Friday so i decided to go, watched Buena Vista and BNH go through the most ridiculous sound problems, and left early.The most important thing about ANY music festival is the sound, and for 14 years i have witnessed the dumbest sound problems re-occur at this festival. I have played at it thrice already, and the artists complain backstage but nothing happens. This i find is due to the arrogance of the production dept. They think that selling out 2 weeks in advance makes for a good festival and then their jobs are done. The stages are tendered out to different sound companies that all have their own ‘quality levels’ – engineers are passed around like cheap whores and the urgency of the schedule just messes the whole vibe up. When i got their i thought i was at some outdoor mall, people just walking around taking pics and twitting, not even there for the music, just there to be seen. Kak sad.

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  2. Dplanet says:

    I don’t know what you expect the organisers to do. Someone has to perform at 5pm. Why not open a big stage with a great act? I’d rather not have all the headline acts at the same time later in the evening.

    The sound on the Bassline stage was pretty terrible on Friday for everyone apart from Mi Casa who, I’m assuming, must have brought their own sound engineer. I really struggled through Brother Ali’s set because the sound was killing me. It’s a real shame because he’s a great artist. My ears were still ringing the next day. I find it amazing that the sound engineer at the Bassline couldn’t hear how bad it was but maybe there were other issues I’m not aware of.

    We were lucky on Saturday because the sound at the Bassline was much better, although still nowhere near what we have got used to in Europe. The only crap thing for us was that we were on at the same time as Jill Scott so the crowd was pretty small for the first 20 minutes of our show. But that’s the nature of being a small act at a big festival – there will always be a bigger act on at the same time as you.

    You mentioned that the crowds got smaller throughout the sets on the Bassline stage – that’s not strictly true. Mi Casa had the place solidly packed for their whole set. They probably should have been on a bigger stage. From photos I’ve seen it looked like Khuli and AKA had the place pretty full too.

    It is a bit frustrating that you have to choose between lots of artists you’d like to see but that’s the nature of festivals. I just wish we had more festivals like this is SA.

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  3. Tebogo Makama says:

    Amazing experience, amazing artists and amazing images by mpumelelo macu

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  4. nothappy says:

    Same thing happened last year. Lauryn Hill was on stage but noone could make up a word of what she was saying and the band came out as just plain noise.
    And the year before…and the year before that.
    I think its unnaceptable that being the best music festival in the country, they have the worse sound and they dont seem to do anything about it.

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