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The Freaks Will Have Their Stage

by Max Barashenkov, images by Kevin Goss-Ross / 16.08.2010

Everyone is drunk, beyond drunk, beyond even doos dronk, the rhythms escalating at an exponential rate, from timid whiskey-swayings to full-on Red Bull and Windhoek Draft beastings. The need to slow down, to latch onto at least some kind of semblance of rationality, becomes more and more pressing. Unlike the Cape Town festivals, where herbal stabilizers are everywhere in abundance, Oppikoppi is far too dedicated to the cult of drink to be bothered with smoking the green. Those in need, they are a sad bunch, sniffing the air hopefully, meticulously studying burning fags in the fingers of others, trading yearning glances and raised eyebrows. Then the alcohol clouds part and Jah shines down on us in the form of two guys from Mozambique, eyes blood-red, hands caked in dirt, mouths stretched into welcoming smiles.

“We came here by bus, with nothing, nothing but pot,” one of them grins and shows me his pockets, crammed to the brim with the stuff, “and we’ve been living like pharaohs – we got a tent, we got food, we got beer, we even got a cooking pot.”

They heap me a generous handful, only for the fact that I listened to their story, and slink away to trade their goods for other material comforts around the Bushveld stage. Freaks among freaks. Indeed, this smaller stage attracts a much more interesting and interested breed of festival-goer, faces here are older, less adorned with make up, less smudged with booze. There is a quest burning in their eyes, a search for something more, something that only they can define. Compared to the relative hollowness of the main stage crowds, these people are the gods of better taste, disciples of creativity, mongers of the fresher sound. It’s the same at Red Bull stage, but there the fiends are primal, pure in their electro frenzy, stripped raw of pretentiousness by bass. It’s a strange dichotomy – the fracture between the two smaller stages and the two main ones, a division built on the unspoken (and, in the media, zealously overlooked) understanding that the FHM and the James Phillips stages generally peddle recycled shit, while Levis and Red Bull deal in something more unique, something more valuable and lasting.

Sure, the big stages do offer some acts that are breathtaking, both in terms of performance and in terms of music – the easy pop-punk vibrations of the Rambling Bones, the teeth-breaking brutality of Facing the Gallows, the euphoric country-pop of Wrestlerish, the speed-freak twitches of Philadelphia Grand Jury… but the rest are mired down in their attempts to provide a locally-flavoured foreign sound. Spectacular failures all around. The prevailing trend in South Africa, amongst the so-called ‘rock’ bands, is catchy soft-rock-indie swirled with a little something something to make a limp stab at originality and uniqueness – Son of a Thousand mix theirs with supposedly old-school blues, Die Heuwels Fantasties with cliché electro-pop, New Holland with diarrhea. Their eyes are not set higher than the NME Top Ten and thus their climb up the rock Olympus is nothing more than a tedious slide into mediocrity.

Headlining acts are similarly doomed to disappoint – from Billy Talent it is almost expected; but for the utterly over-played Jack Parrow you wish a more extensive vocabulary than “Parrow” and “poes”, and for the metal mammoth of the Narrow – some decent songs. With the too-practiced snarl, the one-knee drop of the lead guitarist and the jock-Sonic spazzness of the bassist, the Narrow deliver the most driving show on the big stages. Their music leaves much to be desired. I just don’t believe them, this projected well-timed energy, I don’t know why, but I just don’t believe it. They look like Metallica – old men going through time-tried and tested motions. “Lonely Lonely” is unleashed, as arguably their only great song, like “Enter Sandman” – and so good it is that they spread it out, slipping a whole other song in the middle of it, and just when the rubbish begins to show they bring it back to the fantastic ‘lonely lonely Sunday morning’ refrain. Talk about one hit wonders, not much better than Prime Circle who preceded them. Get off the fucking stage, stop offending our imaginations.

At the Bushveld stage, meanwhile, the freaks are getting down to the tight afro-pop of the Gang of Instrumentals and it’s like ambrosia after the mainstream pummeling at the big stages. The atmosphere and bands here reflect the soul of the festival itself – its bashful abandon and disregard for societal norms in Tumi’s fiery Rage-tinged rap; its suave and undeniable cool in the BLK JKS; its mad, macabre, yet enthrallingly beautiful lust for total chaos in the Terminatrix silent-film rendering (it’s them! the hundreds of demons pouring out of hell’s anus – it’s the thousands of drunk bastards who descended upon the kopi! I know their faces!) and its all-sweeping friendliness and openness in the great foreign imports of Gemma Ray and Lucky Fonz III. It is this former sense of brotherhood that is so prevailing at the smaller stages and at the campsites where you stumble blind-drunk into warm arms of strangers and into their warmer bottles. It is what makes Oppikoppi so damn real and tangible – the lack of cliques, the lack of we’re-better-than-you looks, the understanding that everyone here is for the same reason – to cast off their paper faces and release the bottled-up insanity that is within us all – at the smaller stages it is just actually hinged on real music.

As you drive away, you see a post-apocalyptic scene – dust swirling, crooked thorn trees breathing sighs of relief, bottles, bottles, empty bottles as far the eye takes and a burning couch, a no longer needed relic of the weekend. You also see one of the guys from Mozambique, still going strong on a Monday morning, he raises his fist at you and shout: “I’m a freaking king!” And indeed, he is.

All images © Kevin Goss-Ross.

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