Swazilandingsby Syd Willow Smith / 09.06.2010
The Swazi/South Africa border Friday afternoon. The queue stopped moving after about half an hour. People pushed and shoved, children moaned. I looked up ahead at a big white sign that declared: “South African Home Affairs. Giving you a world-class service.” I chuckled. The excitement in my belly beginning to grow, being a virgin festivalgoer to Bushfire. Thoughts of bouncing to the likes of Blk Jks, Toby Two Shoes and the fact that a friend was lending me their beautiful beast of a camera, the CANON 5d Mak 11. These thoughts let the petty annoyances of the South African bureaucracy wash over me, aided by the bottle of whiskey warming in the car.
The Thorn Family at the wonderfully quirky venue House on Fire started the Bushfire Music Festival four years ago. It has been described by organiser Jiggs Thorn as a cross between The Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda and a Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – a labyrinth of mosaics, sculptures and walls decorated with Rumi quotes. The venue which holds private functions and gigs during the rest of the year is home to a restaurant or two, an amphitheatre where many acts such as Clowns Without Borders, The Silent Conductor and Nibs Van Der Spuy performed, and various nooks and crannies to sit and soak in the festival vibes watching the passers by – a diverse group ranging from young to old, fashion styles ranging from Swazi traditional gear to skater threads.
After the pain and suffering of the South African Home Affairs Department, a cold beer or four was in order. Local favourite Sibebe was ordered at R10 a pop, and Friday night missions began. The vibe was relaxed, few people had arrived, and the Swaziland evening chill began to set in. The first thing that struck me, besides the unique architecture of House on Fire, was the mellow atmosphere. Gone were the expected young rogues bellowing through the crowds with brandy in hand screaming: “Ek is a tyre naaier” (Oppikoppi 2005), replaced by families crowding around the food stalls and small groups of early birds queuing for piping hot gluhwein. After exploring awhile it was time to pick up the camera and start collecting images and opening my ears. First up were local favourites, Thobile ‘Makhoyane’, a mix between Erykah Badu and Busi Mhlongo, the bopping crowd at the main stage began to steadily grow. Sadly Blk Sonshine had to cancel last minute so they played an extended set giving the audience ample opportunity to get into them. They opened the festival on a resonating note.
The Parlotones hit the stage fuelled by the sound of hundreds of teenage girls screaming their name. They are not a band I am that familiar with, apart from hearing snippets on 5FM, the familiar crowd loved them and their style of melodic rock was met with great enthusiasm. The frontman’s iconic makeup smeared, their pinstripe suits sweaty, they left the stage with the crowd basking in their catchy pop afterglow. Day one was off to a good start, from leaving Cape Town at 5am to catch a flight to Jozi, to drive five hours through the back roads to the Swazi border (thank you Mr. GPS), I was more than ready to say hello to my pillow, with a little help from a Golden Swazi friend.
Day two kick-started with a congealed ice cold English breakfast at a local lodge. Hit by a dreaded flu and a friendly hangover things took a slightly fuzzy turn. Recollections include an overflowing craft marked where I bought a beautifully beaded belt from a woman adorned from head to toe in Massai Jewerly. Later highlights included witnessing various ‘traditional acts’ performing for the crowds and exploring the mysterious crannies of House on Fire in the daylight, interspersed with participating in interactive performances in the Amphitheatre including the Silent Conductor, who turned the audience into a human xylophone, aided by varying lengths of plastic pipe. Assisted by a combination of whiskey and Corenza C the fuzz began to subside and things picked up. The evenings line up included Jazz infused Indian Classical Quartet, Babu, Drummer Kesivan Naidoo providing his usual array of incredible solo tricks backed by the powerful rhythms of tabla player, Ronan Skillen. Next up, local favourites Freshlyground belted out their usual array of infectious tunes as well as something a little new, from their album Radio Africa. My view slightly slanted, growing up ‘the little sister’ of the violinist, Kyla Rose, their music has formed part of the background soundtrack of my life for the past eight years. Their new album carries some of the original sounds of Jika Jika, the crowd bopped and jived, hanging on Zolani’s words. After the set I disappeared into the VIP bar to purchase more Sibebe, and ended up sinking a few beers with my Dad. Lira’s set passed me by in a bit of a forgotten blur.
Personal favourite were the Blk Jks. I saw them a couple of times in Jo’burg, a memorable gig included their album launch at The Apartheid Museum, but I was always left unsatisfied, so close but just not enough. This time their sound threw me, a combination of the Swazi feeling emanating from Bushfire, the day’s events, the new friends made and the mix of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin-esque, maskandi infused riffs, got me jumping up and down in the pit, in between snapping away. Their sound is raw. An eclectic fusion respecting influences from the struggle era as well as moving forward with a new adventurous style, iconically represented in powerful numbers like “Mzabalazo”. An added bonus, is that the band members are more than easy on the eye.
Toby Two Shoes was his usual, sufficiently fabulous self. He got the amphitheatre jiving with a mix of Balkan, Malian; kwaito house beats. The dance floor took on grinding rhythm. Attempting a power nap in the corner I opened my eyes to tequilas, accepting my “medicine” with little protest. The festival kicked into full swing. Toby’s set must have carried the crowds for a good couple of hours judging by a few of Sunday’s bleary faces.
The main events ended, Sunday’s vibe mellowed, and the crowds began to disperse. The rain set in, early coffee drinkers were treated to the soothing voice of world renowned poet, Coleman Barks reading Rumi poems that have formed a key inspiration behind the artistic concept of House on Fire. Later in the day I was privileged to engage with the charity side of the Bush Fire Festival, Young Heroes. An organization that provides assistance to a multitude of orphans left parentless by HIV/AIDS. One critique relating to the social awareness aspect of the event is that a lot the bands I engaged with were not even aware of the charity aspect nor were a lot of the people in the audience. A potentially powerful platform falls flat when possible spokespersons remain unaware, and hopefully this side of the festival will be given a greater push in years to come.
Local favourites Bholoja closed the festival on a resounding note keeping the crowd singing along for more than an hour and a half. A welcomed surprised appearance from Stimela’s legendary performer, Ray Phiri had the crowd enthralled. His quirky style of playing: buckled legs, chicken dancing across the stage, had myself and the other photographers going wild.
All in all, I was more than impressed and will be back in years to come. The atmosphere throughout the weekend was far less aggressive than some South African festivals I have experienced, in terms of the levels of nihilistic hedonism and racial tension. I am not saying that Swaziland is a utopia, having the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, more than 10% of the population are orphans and the King has some interesting thoughts regarding gender equality, homosexuality and practices such as abortion. You can however definitely tell that the bitter aftertaste of Apartheid felt in South Africa is a somewhat alien concept in this little kingdom. These thoughts and slightly less serious ones ran through my head throughout the weekend and every now and then I would catch my self pleasantly surprised by the sights and sounds before me, as the proud catchphrase of organiser Jiggs Thorn “There’s more fire in a BOOOOSH fire!” continuously rang through my head.
All images © Syd Willow Smith