Stumbling Aroundby Roger Young / Images by Michael Ellis / 07.08.2013
A year ago today I was on a train; the Hotbox Express to Oppi. It was my fourth Hotbox Train but my first time at Koppi, for someone who professes to be a music journalist this was a major gap in my education and, of course, I tried to downplay it by telling myself that Oppi couldn’t be that great, or that dusty. I was writing, on this occasion, for Rolling Stone South Africa and was there to wrap up a feature article on Fruits & Veggies, as well as do some interviews for Google+, and to write about Oppi for RS. I did the first two things but by the time I had finally finished my Oppi story I had missed the print deadline. This year I won’t be able to do Koppi, for a variety of reasons too self-centred to go into here. But I am vain enough to think that this piece of writing shouldn’t be lost, so I offer it up to those about to Koppi, those who are traveling now, at this moment, toward the Bewliderbeast.
“Where’d you get that, hey?” He lurches at me out of the Thursday night throng, seeming as unstable as everyone else who is still trying to find their sea legs. But he’s not unstable, he’s perfectly at home, and he wants to know what was in the little plastic bag he caught me licking out. MDMA is the answer and Beast is laying down piercing concrete waves of spazz metal funk; I’ve taken the Hotbox Train to Oppi and I’m just getting my groove back after 30 straight hours of drinking and traveling and other bullshit. I’m not interested in this skinny long haired hyperactive douchenozzle, who I soon realise is Andrew Winer ex 7ft Sound System. “Let me buy you another one,” he jabs his finger into my chest, “take me to a dealer and I’ll buy you all the drugs you want.” And suddenly I have time for him; for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to come to Koppi without any cash money dollars, to see if I could survive, have a good time, etcetera. What I’ve already discovered this means is that I will be spending proportionately more time with people than listening to music. Fuck it, Beast are fantastic, but I need to bolster my stash.
Winer can’t decide which is more important, do we smoke a joint with Inge, or do we venture into Mordor to get the MDMA, or do we smoke a joint with Inge, or you know maybe we should smoke a joint with Inge, or maybe we should smoke a joint with Inge. “Stop fucking saying Inge,” I scream at him and he smiles like some kind of insane golden retriever, “Inge it is then.” He bounds off toward backstage, I have no choice but to follow. I should never have spent a hundred rand on a packet of cheese and onion chips on the train, I had been somehow very drunk even if Cuervo had totally failed us in the one bottle of tequila per person department. I should have been more judicious, I, fuck, sigh…
Winer, it is now clear, does not have backstage access. “This is the first year I haven’t had a backstage pass, it’s just not right!” he exclaims loudly. Then he bribes the security guard with a hundred rand note and in one flat second is pestering Inge with marijuana. It’s embarrassing, yet I hang around. It takes me an hour before I abandon the Winer ship, when he’s finally found out that the dealer is no longer in the trance 4×4 but up on the koppi, about 50m’s away from the guy who first gave us his number hours ago. I wonder back through the artist camps, someone tells me I look glum; they put some acid in my mouth. Lying awake and watching my tent swirl mildly I hear the cajoling and singing of the guards at the mouth of the tunnel to Mordor. Fuck, the security guards at Oppi sure know how to party.
Let’s get the obligatory dust paragraph out of the way. They warned me about the dust. I didn’t listen. Having never been to Oppikoppi I thought I would be able to handle the dust. By Friday afternoon I’m coughing up enough clay to build a rondavel. The End. Part of why I’m at Oppi is to interview people, it’s not going well, I’ve almost fallen off my chair onto the Shadowclub guys, I’ve been called a sociopath, and discovered that I was deeply stoned while talking to Fruits And Veggies. Deeply and magnificently stoned from the joint I was passed in a crowd, I’m sure it was laced with psychedelics, too stoned to be sitting in a container at a festival talking kak to bands. Out there is a festival, out there is…
BLK JKS just freaking melt my mind, utter size and sound, sometimes it is the only way to understand this band. I can’t stop thinking how deeply mind shifting for so many people it would be to put them on after one of the main internationals. They have an entropic force, a deep space delirium that tunnels deep into your third eye. I am also still very stoned from earlier.
Sometime on Thursday night, I’m huffing my way up the steep hill, holding onto the rope and wheezing. It’s a hard climb made no easier by Evan Milton who is strolling up the hill next to me, chipper as fuck. He’s filling me in on a few things I need to know about being an Oppi virgin when it hits, the sudden realization that I’ve been here before, maybe sometime in the early zeros? But I know this rope and I know this hill and then we crest at the top bar and I have no idea what the fuck, below lies the bumble tumble; about fifty meters of forty five degree decline toward a thatched stage, an ankle break waiting to happen of slidey sand and sharp rocks peppered with okes having it large. It looks far too frightening to contemplate, there is no way I’m ever going down there. But Milton himself is something of a freak as well, I realize, he’s impeccably neat, astoundingly sober, and has the confidence of a man who has been here many times before and knows not to venture into the wormholes that gen pop will. It’s admirable, and disturbing.
One thing that I have always noticed as a feature in any writing on Oppi is a sense of dazedness, of the blur of it. I now understand why. You’re being caught on eddies of people, whirlpools of intent and freedom, drifted and dragged through masses, everyone is going somewhere, no one is going anywhere. You’ve leant the difference between bees kak and bos kak. You’re fighting the current, the dust, the schedule, the drugs people keep handing you are sending you in all other directions and you have a bottle of whiskey in your pocket, in your pants, your pants are wet from the… why are your pants wet?
A cardboard box Aztec eagle is flapping at a dustbin liner dervish, The Brother Moves On are performing a psychedelic funk cleansing ritual, throwing out the ghosts, invoking the ancestors, being the opposite of earnest, yet as serious as a Jim Morrison poetry reading. We’re at the far stage, furthest away from the morass. We had to fight our way through a solid wall of Albert Frost devotees but we are here, transfixed. The Brother are deeply absurd, poignant and they know how to dance. Like an East Rand burial society high on peyote and politics, they tunnel deep, lulling you into repetitions and then breaking out into chaotic deconstructions. “Remember, this is your government,” Siya mocks the crowd, while a pantomime black diamond butterfly flaps around the stage, chanting chanting into elevation. Hours later I will wake up just before sunrise, a shaft of the performance bolting me upright, and I will mutter to myself, “Yoh, yoh, yoh.”
Dazed by it all, wearied by the dust, the crowds, the sense of displacement, having not seen anyone I know for hours, I’m on a couch just trying to process. It might, it occurs to me, be the aftermath of that joint. Then, out of nowhere, I meet, via Donny Truter, Surf and Turf. I have no fucking idea who these two women are but within moments I’m off my face and dancing to Haezer. Dancing, nay, I am raving to Haezer, halfway down the bumble tumble, I’m practically shirtless and suddenly there are friends from the train all around me, wearing glowsticks. And a refugee from a trance party, a tiny lady in a white vest with a third eye painted on her forehead, she’s dancing on a rock and keeps falling off, airpunching like a jock, dancing like it’s 1996 in Silverstroom. Everything is fluorescent, somewhere inside me a voice is crying “You’re raving to Haezer!” and I can’t work out if it’s warning me or spurring me on. Surf And Turf, those fucking bitches, have pulled me back up the koppi. When it emerges later that my loan phone has a Kevlar backing, I will be seen wandering around Klein bar, trying to find a gun, craving explosions, violence, anything but the cold of my tent.
Saturday morning, and I am heaving up a mince vetkoek when I look out the porta toilet window, up the main drag from Kreef bounds Evan Milton, he is fresh as a daisy, looking once again chipper as fuck and immaculately dressed, the cunt, I think, how does he do it? He’s the Anti-Koppi, a perpetual motion opposition to the chaos around us, if Milton didn’t exist, we’d all be sucked back into the Stone Age.
I’m on an inflatable couch trying to choose between braai and Vusi, unable to get up, having a conversation about how the minor internationals, like Bombay Show Pig, Kronkanor, and Circus Maximus are the real gift of Oppi, not the bloated stampede of the headliners. I’ve hit the point where hard drugs have become soft drugs, whiskey is as potent as a smoothie and the edges are very blurred. I have fifteen rand in my pocket, enough to buy an Oppi debit card and then a cup, but nothing of real value. I must find Surf And Turf, maybe they’ll have booze. Booze is such a lovely word.
The Frown are beset with technical problems. Their set delayed by, it seems, faulty microphones and a pesky systems preference panel being projected on the giant LED behind the Red Bull Stage. It’s an odd choice putting The Frown on here, and as the technical fucking around stretches to nearly thirty minutes, maybe not a wise one. The crowd is here, at sunset, to fuck out to electronic nonsense, and Eve Rakow looking like a Roodeport My Little Pony stalking back and forth across the stage doing frustrated mic checks isn’t helping anyone. And then everything suddenly works. Rakow explodes onto the stage like a confetti bomb left in the sun; the music is, at the same time, irredeemably saccharine and stunningly hard case. Gone is The Frown of yore, gone is the creature that hides behind masks, Rakow works the crowd into a frenzy of sorts, an incredibly homosexually fashion conscious frenzy, but frenzy nonetheless. It’s the combination of tinny eighties synths and hard sub bass that takes them somewhere further, somewhere else, somewhere playful without sacrificing the fractured damage that makes The Frown so fascinating. Maybe all the Y ever needed was a proper stage and a fuck off rig.
The dude from Eagles Of Death Metal says “Can I get an amen?” just one too many times and I have to escape. Up at Klein bar Matthew Van Der Want and Shotgun Tori are the perfect antidote to that pompous shit; subtle, disarming, heartfelt folksy elegance. Tori guests for a few tracks and then Van Der Want is all on his own, cracking jokes about being a lawyer if anyone needs representation, talking about Oppi history, singing songs about his first divorce. Maybe there are forty, maybe fifty people up here, but it’s fucking beautiful. Van Der Want performs with the resignation of a man that knows nothing will ever work out right. Behind him, from backstage, you can see Oppikoppi stretch out, from the people still arriving at the font gate, this late on a Saturday night, to the far reaches of Mordor, fires burning in the inky blackness, the red lights of the medics vans picking out the lanes, a police helicopter circling, the street lamps of Kreef, this temporary city of people who came here to seek only one thing, temporary freedom. And by what taxonomies do you judge a festival in South Africa in 2012? The international acts? The size of the crowd? The toilet facilities? The standard of the local acts? In the end, it is personal freedom that counts the most, a lack of fences, freedom of movement, the freedom to fuck out, the freedom to not be judged for that ridiculous bodypaint, the stupid hat, the public hook up with the chubby guy from Philosophy101, the freedom to pass out on the rocks at 11pm and know that you will somehow make it home.
Surf and Turf and I are trying to break into the now closed Cuervo platform, when we spot him. He is passed out humped over a rock near the platform. It doesn’t seem like he’s breathing, less than ten meters away is a security quad bike. I am more concerned than them, and they disappear into the night while I get the security guys attention. He promises me the guy is fine. Later, when hanging on by my fingernails at Klein bar, this security guard will tell me that the guy’s mates came looking for me and their was nothing to worry about, he will be repaid for this kindness with Hennie, Laudo and Loopy trying to steal his quad bike, while they kick and fuss, he smiles at me, holds up the keys and then calmly removes the bike to a safe distance.
But then, standing at the top bar, looking down on the patently schmangled crowd I have doubts about the man on the rocks, I feel a glumness coming on, Diplo is on and he’s okay, I guess, not as kick ass as Haezer, playing all the obvious tunes. I feel a bit of a downer coming on. I slump against a table, and then from nowhere, I am surrounded by a bounce of ravers, “You look like you need a group hug,” they giggle and surround me and squeeze like the MDMA motherfuckers they patently are, the group hug guides me off to the side, deposits me on a small incline, leaves me with a handful of ‘shrooms.
I stumble away from the bumble tumble, thinking Klein bar, when I see it. From the Koppi down you look directly onto what must be about twenty thousand people at least crammed in front of Bullet For My Valentine. The shrooms must have kicked in fast because it is the single most mind melting thing I’ve witnessed all weekend, the size of it, the sheer mass of humanity, like some kind of sea anemone, lit in pink and blue, waving in the current. Dotted over the koppi are groups of people in similar awe. I discover friends. We smoke a joint and she says to me, “Did you see Vusi?” I did not. She looks disappointed in me. “All I wanted to hear the whole festival was ‘Weeping’ and when it started up I was so happy and so sad at the same time. Karen Zoid and Albert Frost joined him on stage. It was so fucking beautiful. If you didn’t see that, then you weren’t really at Oppi this year.” It makes me feel like a bit of an idiot, excuses won’t do, it is too late and I have missed large chunks of this festival, this is the nature of the thing. Her friend suddenly stands up and says to her, “Ek will n random vind en vry maar net. Kom.”
* All images © Michael Ellis