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The River | Oppi 2014

by Milton Schorr / Images by Chris Preyser / 15.08.2014

Oppikoppi is a river running through the bushveld, swirling in a circle. In the river are souls, each topped by a pair of eyes, marveling at the sights as they flow by. And always, there is music.

“This is my happy place, right now, right here,” says the guy with the wild-haired girl in his arms, the girl smiling and sighing as he holds her. “Don’t fucking agree with her!” shrieks another girl. Her face comes swarming out of the crowd, bloodshot eyes. “I’m trying to support you. You motherfucker! Fuck you, I’m done, I’m done!”
“F-uuuuck!” says the guy, “right through the heart! I thought I was happy, but Satan is standing on the edge!”
“Oppikoppi!” shouts a young thing, up high on the big stage with a microphone clutched in her little hand. “Are you having a good time?!”
“Yeeeeaaaah!” roars the crowd. 
“Are you ready?!”

A kick drum begins to kick, a bang louder than loud. Gertjie Besselsen of Mr Cat and the Jackal strides out, looking at the Oppi multitude gathered like a sea between him and the koppie. 
“Is it the Apocalypse?!” he bellows, his voice born for this, deeper and more jagged than a human voice, sweeter and higher and more pure – a cry against the sunset sky. Laughter, commotion and shouts of “Yeeeeaaaaassss!”
“Well, this song is about the end of the world!”
His band gets in behind him. A rolling thunder of beautiful sound.

20 000 have gathered on the farm, Oppikoppi, for three days of ‘love the dust’, of ‘music first, music last’. Seven stages, 150 acts, a freewheeling, merry-go-round of music.


“Howzit man?”
“Hey man.”
“How you doing?”
“Alright, and you?”
“Well thanks”

This guy is a big one. He’s wearing a checked shirt, carries a beer, and has a big, round back. He’s slid ‘the back’ right in front of me, in a tiny gap, filling the view of the stage as we wait for Van Coke Kartel. 
“If you give a shit, you get shit,” says Armand, a new friend with dark, curly hair. He is correct. There are two choices at Oppikoppi, always. Try to stand like a rock against the river, try to swim against the flow and hold on to what’s yours, or go with it, find the camaraderie and sometimes, the love. 
“Christina Storm kan haar tiete vir my wys en ek sal nogsteeds nie Van Coke mis nie!” declares Armand’s friend, mouth slack, eyes loopy from brandy. “Wie de vok is Crazy White Boy, anyway?”

Crazy White Boy is on the Red Bull stage right now. You can only be in one part of the river, at once. 
Case in point is the cruelty of the fact that Springbok Nude Girls are directly after Van Coke on the James Phillips Stage, which is a long trek away. As is the want of the river, as is the habit of Oppi, if you want to get in front you’ve got to get there early. Van Coke Kartel start smashing it. Moregloed is deeply beautiful. The sound is crisp, massive, it rolls, turning in the perfect night air. 
“Julle sing vrrreeslik mooi vannaand,” says Francois van Coke. Verily, it is true. 
The river flows. Souls move on, chasing dreams through the thorn trees.

“They played the first 10 Oppikoppies, and they are back tonight. Ladies and gentlemen – the Springbok Nude Girls!”

The lads stride out wearing dresses. Theo Crous is massive, his guitar a toy in his riven hands. He starts to play, pulling the notes that shaped the youth of a generation into the amplifiers, and out across the sea. 
“Goddank vir klank,” says Arno Carstens into the holy microphone, and the pit erupts. 
It’s a South African pit, innocent and shy, a core of boys who want to break free. The music has started a heaving and a freedom. Men go down, fall, curl up like a child between the mashing feet, and they’re pulled back up again – no soul left behind. The swirling pit pushes and pulls at the river, creating waves that ripple out and lap at the edges of the throng.
Every set ends. Every band leaves the stage hot with their singing, vibrating like a sacred rock in the desert, slowly cooling until the next gang stride out with something new. 
Then daylight.

Coffee. That is the mission. Not breakfast, not yet. Paper Slam has the best. The cup of caffeine-shot-milk massages the broken body and irons the kinks left by the hard ground. It’s too early for bands. Now is a time to view the river of Oppi from a different light, to watch it wake, slowly eddying in the morning sun. 
Walking through Mordor, sights revolve. A couple, booze swollen, holding each other under a black and white duvet on a mattress in the open air. Feet peeking from the tailgate of a bakkie, a lonely wild man seated in his Campmaster, watching his fire. The Offspring mingles gently with his smoke, and drifts.


“50 bucks for hippie pants,” croaks a guy draped over the door of a van. “You want?”
“That’s the last thing I want. How you doing?”
 He grins. He gets it. 
“Come, let us drink H2O.”
The water from his 5l can is sweet and pure, and cold. 
“Did you see the naked guy at Van Coke last night?”
“What? No, I left early to go see the Springbok Nude Girls.”
“Jack Parow is coming.”
“Really? I didn’t see that.”

His eyes are red and deep in his head. His cheeks are swollen, there are flecks of spit on his lips. He wishes me only good things. “It says Valiant Swart, and friends.”
 He drinks, deeply of the water. On the edge of the campsite the open veld stretches away, untouched.

There are two distinct, contrasting poles to Oppikoppi, two sides of the same coin. The first is the wild splendor of Mordor, where chaos reigns. The second is the artist dressing rooms, located in a neatly struck line of tents in the media village. Inside each is a table laid with instant coffee, tea, fruit, drinks and folded cold meets. There is a couch in each room, a black thing placed just so on a carpet of wood shavings. Each of these rooms is ordered, and empty.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in one of those,” chuckles Jaco Venter of Fokofpolisiekar, sitting at a table in the hubbub of the general area, wrapped up in a big jacket.
“What are you thinking about, when you’re just about to go on stage?”
“Don’t fuck it up,” he smiles, pulling his practice pad closer, this man that’s been around, and around again.
“Don’t fuck up,” agrees Laudo Liebenberg, Jaco’s band-mate.
“What makes a good performance?”
“You can’t quantify it,” says Venter. “I could think it went well, but the audience thinks it was kak. The mix could have been bad, but we didn’t know. We could be too raw, or too perfect.”
“Too good, they could say you were too good.”
“Ja, ha-ha, it could be flat.”
Venter is called away. Liebenberg says: 
“What I want is for the audience to enjoy it. They must be digging it. That’s a good performance.”

“Tsjtaaa, doef, tjee, doef, tjee, doef-tjee, tsssta!”
 Three bandmates sit clustered around a small, white-topped table. Their leader drums in the air, showing his compadres just how they’re going to do it, the plan to make their coming set sing. It’s a good plan, their wide smiles confirm it, their shining eyes. This is the heart of playing. It’s not about entertainment, it’s deeper. They’re after beauty. Entertainment is meant to get you through the night. But playing here, being here, that has to get you through the year. Oppikoppi was created one night 20 years ago. Koos Kombuis and Valiant Swart played at the top bar stage, so the story goes, to a few friends. The mission was music then, beauty, and today it’s the same.

The river flows.


Sitting watching the fire, exhausted against a bale of hay. The flames dance, shimmering blue and orange. 
“It’s a 25-inch,” says a boy-man with a scraggly moustache, “it’s full HD.”
 He’s staring at the flames too. His friends laugh. One of them throws in a log that sets off a shower of swirling sparks. Time wheels, the night river flows. The boy-man disappears and is replaced by a younger version, this one 16. He’s got a red and cream shawl in his hands, and he has a look on his face. He’s staring at the flames and he’s holding the shawl up, to warm it. He holds it out further and further, opening the delicate material wide, closer to the flames. The thing’s going to catch fire, doesn’t he know? But he does. It’s in the pinched tension in his cheeks, the tightness in his breathing. He wants to throw it in. He wants to see it erupt in flame, he wants to see it burn. But he’s afraid. That kind of violence, that kind of loss of control, that kind of beauty, it’s too free. He’s a man on the edge of a bridge looking down into the water thinking, “Jump, I will die, but it will be beautiful, and what an adventure death will be?” He reaches out, further, further.

The river flows.

“Hey, you look like someone that knows,” says a stranger, suddenly keeping step up the hill to the koppie. 
“I’ve met this chick, and I’m really into her, but there’s this other chick, and I think she’s into her. Wait, tell me while I piss.” He’s got the look of the shawl boy on his face as his water splashes on a low brick wall, cascading onto it, his dick in his hand. “What should I do?”

“I’d say go for it, but slowly. Then if anyone has a problem you can step back and no one can prove anything. But if no one steps back, keep going, drop the shawl in the fire.”
“Ja, fuaaack! I just met them today.”
“That’s perfect, so you’ve got nothing to lose. If they freak out, so what?”
“No, dude.” He puts out his wet hand, reassuringly. “I like this chick. I’d like to phone her after, you know. Maybe we can go for coffee.” He shouts a happy shout. In his mind’s eye the shawl is burning and it’s beautiful. He’s going to try and do it with those two girls. Maybe he is going to make a memory forever. 
“Cheers bruuuuu!” as he runs.

They keep coming, all the faces, the eyes, the streaming cascade of people in the night all lit up by the chance at beauty. All of us migrate, make the pilgrimage from one ceremony to the next, drinking the scenes, the cascade of the nighttime carnival.

“Clark, bru, are you OK?”
He looks up at the long, slow, echoing sound. His pupils are the size of his eyes. His face is rubber, loosely arranged in a smirk as his rubber hands grasp gently at the railing. His brain hears, he responds. His hand rises, spreads, twin fingers growing up out of his hand.
“Two,” he says.
Everyone laughs, the whole line waiting to recharge their cashless cards. Watch a human face moving, and in it you’ll see everything there is to know.


There is a young one against the railing with an aKING T-shirt plastered across her chest. She is dizzy, giddy, waiting, as the four take the stage under the lights, and start kicking it. She’s screaming, jumping up and down. She’s as happy as can be. 
“Safe as houses!” shouts the man next door. 
“Guilty as sin!”

The band is loud, and they are on it. The air is wild. Oppikoppi is winding down, even though the night is picking up. Since Thursday, performance after performance has hit the stage, then left, another block gone on the programme. There are only a handful left. The devastation that is Oppi on Saturday at midnight is brutal. There’s nothing to do with the rubbish but kick it, and keep going.

“Dames en here, ladies and gentlemen, this is the last fucking gig of Oppikoppi 2014. I give to you the man that started it all – Valiant Swart!”

The legend steps up onto the Top Bar Stage, the place absolutely packed. He’s a boy next door with the devil in his smile, and a drink in his hand. He invites us to stick around because this is going to be a two-hour conversation, “Now we are going to kuier.”
His band strikes up around him, jangling boere blues, beautiful. This is how it all started, this is how it ends. The river is slowing, evaporating into the clouds. Finally there is nothing left to do but go home. 
The thorn trees preside over the now empty Oppi town. The trash is gone, the workmen and women are already returning this place to the veld. The last drunkards are tumbling home to their tents. 
The bull’s head above the James Phillips stage is still there, unlit, keeping vigil. The big, pulsing platform that held just today the Bandeleros, aKING, the King – Hugh Masekela, and last night the Springbok Nude Girls, is silent and dark and empty. The security guard is sleeping. 
‘Take it easy, but take it.’

There is a curved ramp that goes up the back. On the stage cables lie coiled up, sleeping. Boxes are half-packed. The drums were here. The singer stood here. This is where it all happened. This is what that packed Oppi crowd looked like, cascading up the koppie. The lights click on.

“Now, this is now,” is the only thought left, the only one that matters. 
The world, like a shawl held over a fire, begins to burn. The first notes ring out. The kick of the kick-drum kicks the koppie, and kicks every heart. Another anthem rings out, another slice of beauty to be stored away, as the notes cascade. Till next year. And always, there is music.

God. Dankie, vir klank.

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*Images © Chris Preyser

**Note from the Ed: our photog, Chris Preyser contracted E. coli during Oppi and had to go to hospital… so forgive him if he missed your favourite band! #getwellsoon

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