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The Bedouin Erect

by Timothy Gabb / 30.09.2012

Part I

“Piel soos ‘n koevoet,” Carl says to me, grinning, his different coloured eyes darting, blazing, as he greets me under a clear Helderberg morning. I get into his Isuzu Fleetside, a dirty single-cab work-horse of a bakkie with ostrich feathers and crystals colonising the rear-view mirror.
“Piel soos ‘n koevoet! Right-O, let’s go!” And with that we zoom off into the labyrinthine termitary of an urban morning. Koevoet, a fierce mass of metal with a sharp bottom, a pole-type stick of steel which one drops into a hole in the ground to loosen the ground for the spade to have effective action. Koevoet, the Afrikaans word for crowbar, was also the name of a brutal paramilitary unit, synonymously known as Operation K, in Namibia during the 70s and 80s bush war. Jack Parow has added this little gem of a phrase to the South African lexicon, a zesty contribution to the already seasoned vernacular of the youth today. Little did we know that the next two weeks would shape this phrase into a hard working esoteric mantra…

We’re on our way to the outdoor venue for “The Village: Spiritual Synaesthesia”, a trance party organised by Carl and three other friends and partners of the company. I am helping them out with rigging the party, which happens over 12 days or so.

We leave Somerset West early morning and dash through the traffic like kiewiets dodging stones, manic juggernauts trudging through space with a burning desire to arrive. Outside Stellenbosch, next to the fish shop, we stop to pick up four casual labourers to help us out. We pull off the road some distance from the masses of eager and desperate men waiting for any chance at work, and are within seconds bombarded to the point of being overwhelmed. We need only four guys to help for the week. Carl gets out, and speaks to some; there’s shouting and grabbing, wriggling and wreathing, and numerous fits of frantic action. Carl opens the bakkie canopy, and the blue-overall tide of humans start rolling into the gaping bak. Four guys are in, and others struggle to secure a place. Carl is now holding guys back, as I come to help him. The scene is not unlike a rugby match, a ruck or maul, the physical expression of the will to survive. We get the door closed, and manage to get back onto the road.
“Jissie, ous are fucking hungry!” I gasp as we jolt back into the stream of open road.
“Ja, it’s always like that hey. I’ve had to physically pull guys out of my bakkie before; they refused to get out, and just packed in and squashed all my decor.”

We arrive at the farm, and I vaguely recognise this space without it’s neon garlands and psychedelic trinkets, banners and fathomless visuals suspended in every which way one could. It’s a terraced piece of dry land snuggled at the foot of a dam, and surrounded on all sides by alien forest: looming gums, wattle and pine. There are a few poles planted systematically around the area, a crew quarters’ structure has been built and boarded with pine planks, and there is a tepee rising into the air, boasting eight ten-meter gum poles cut last week by Carl and bound up at the top with myriads of ratchet straps which flap confidently in the fresh morning air. It towers over the rest of the infrastructure, its praying hands kiss the blue belly of this rural firmament.

I meet the crew gathered. Syd, a strong blonde-haired young man, who helped start the now-expired party production, “Electric Garden”. He’s living on a farm outside Stellenbosch, starting out as a handyman, and loving reggae since a devastating break-up with his fiancée, some six months ago. Strobe, the blue-eyed golem of gees and potency, an electrically charged operator on the job; he’s been to rehab on numerous occasions, and still bears an element of overwhelming insect-like speed about him. He too was one of the founding members of another psychedelic production company. Then there’s William and Phil, the other two partners of The Village. William lives in Tulbagh, and is opening a backpacker/boutique hotel with his girlfriend on an isolated smallholding on the verges of the town. He’s a surfer and BSc student, and exalts in the splendour of birdlife and local fauna. Phillip is working as bartender in Gordon’s Bay, and has a crude fascination with lewd and inappropriate jokes. Out of Philip was born the phrase, another maxim of our localised vernacular, “awkward is the new confident”. Then there are the Zimbabwean Village staff. These are old partygoers by now, and are loving the work environment they have managed to secure their place in. Hard working and managerial, they engage in the party dynamic with a mature movement; a cultivated understanding of the rhythms of being-in-the-world. Owen, who has been working trance events for four years, is the electrical coordinator. He wires the world so by night it glows with a luminance which eases migrations around the village itself. And Tanashi. He has been on the scene more briefly, and knows how to pack a massive tent with mechanical precision.

We get to work erecting a series of Bedouin tents; we knock the long pegs into the ground, and sure as hell, the phrase of Jack Parow’s echoes through the out-of-breath chuckling.
“Moer hom in, ‘n piel soos ‘n koevoet!”
“Jissie bra, last night in Stellies…”
“Jy stink van suip boetie!”
“Aweh… Haha… Deep throat last night bra, lemme tell you about it…”
“Ja, Strobe gave a guy deep throat last night, hahaha!”
And the mixed fynbos vernacular rolls off the panting tongues. The ten-pound hammer clangs through the air as it collides with the steel peg, overriding the shrill squawks of Jackal Buzzards, and the constant clamour of smaller birds resting in the tree-tops.
“Soos ‘n koevoet. Net soos ‘n Koevoet.”
The next thing we know, we all have bruised fingers, stiff backs, and the tents are up. We camp on the farm for the rest of the week. Hash chillums in between scaffold towers and ratchet straps. The desolate terraces slowly evolve into a circus arena built for a psycho-duidelike gees fees!

The tents are up. And how beautiful they stand, with their prickly backs surmounting the landscape. How organic they seem to fit, and how flexible they are to design. The “stretchy tent”, or more officially known as the Bedouin tent, embodies the ideas of travel, exoticism, movement and escapism. To trace the etymology of the word ‘Arab’, we find that it contains many meanings in the Semitic languages. What we notice though, as a concept relevant to the present discussion, is a definition, contested yet agreed upon, that an approximate translation is “passerby” or “nomad”. Bedouin, as a term, means “those in the desert”. The tent in general, and the concept of the Bedouin in particular, excites this theme of nomadic wander; of escapism – why are people today restless, curious, and eager to explore? When material comforts and social stability in the civilised reaches of an urban environment satisfy the upper reaches of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, why uproot, even temporarily, such structures and reduce one’s social existence to the seeking of shelter in a new environment, the lower orders of Maslow’s hierarchy, the orders closer to the base level of survival?

Wandering, as expressed by Bruce Chatwin, is a characteristic inherited from the vegetarian primates, from who we evolved. Yet, as modern wanderers, there comes a point on our wandering where we begin longing for our security and comfort again, our social nest of familiarity. This, according to Chatwin, is a characteristic inherited by our carnivourous antecedents; our emotional and biological need for a base, cave, den, or home. The word nomad derives from the Latin and Greek meaning ‘to pasture’. These days, with all agricultural needs catered for by a monetary system of exchange and the providence of well-organised market places, we as a modern people still have a primordial urge to wander in search of greener pastures, be they psychological, physical or emotional. We seek experiences which nourish our being, and environments which feed our souls. We seek an affirmation of our being, an expression of our being-in-the-world, and our experiences of being human.

Travel excites the mind. Routine and complacency dull the senses and hide the true nature of things. Let us revue the relevant words of two great Williams.
Master Blake:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Master Wordsworth:
“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.”

By refreshing one’s sense-data through exploration and movement, we stay alert, receptive and alive. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholia, understood that movement and travel is the best cure for melancholia: “The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and flow… to teach us that we should ever be in motion!”

Ah, motion. This is it! The decor is up. The final touches are being seen to. It’s Friday afternoon, and the music is about to start. I am up the scaffolding with Simon, a Zimbawean veteran of the trance scene, aspiring DJ and main operator on the sound system being set up. Helping us is Oscar, a Ghanaian property developer, who now also works for the sound company. We are cable-tying the UV and other lights to the scaffold towers which will provide a laser show on Saturday night.
“Hey, pass me that shifting spanner you silly man,” says Oscar to Simon.
“These things, sheet man, they fucking heavy.”
“Simon! Hold tight – don’t be stupid man! Hayi!”
“Alright, I have it…” I pipe in my assistance, as I guide a ratchet strap with a R40 000 light tied to it up five meters of scaffold. We get it done.

The music has started, and I am up a ladder, wrapping industrial glad-wrap around the join between two extension cords, which have been tied to a cable which supports the shading canvases above the dance floor. The gathering ephemeral commune is centered on this dance floor, with different locations branching out from it. There are spaces for camping, an ablution area, a medic tent, stalls, paths for hikes, a dam for swimming, a security force, electricians, mechanics on the generators and a financial crew dealing with huge amounts of money at the entrance to the party. An entire Village is set-up for a weekend of barefoot revelry and hedonistic escapism.

The tepee is dressed. A smoke machine has been attached inside it, and it gushes coloured vapour out of its abdomen into the cool evening air. The partygoers arrive and the evening begins.

Stay tuned for Part II.

*All images © Timothy Gabb.

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