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The World in a Town

by Ts'eliso Monaheng / Images by Jonx Pillemer / 16.11.2012

The inaugural Cape Town World Music Festival kicked off in earnest on Thursday with a two-day series of workshops covering topics ranging from the music of performance to a panel discussion aimed at unpacking the term “World music”. The premise of the festival was simple, an ‘accessible inner-city music festival showcasing the best in World Music in a format that is crafted to enlighten, entertain and engage.’

Friday night, the name of the game is waiting. Inadvertently or otherwise, this is a travesty to mankind; we always find ourselves at some transit-point in anticipation of the next ‘thing’. In my case, it was waiting for Bateleur’s set at the Nu World stage only to discover that Pops Mohammed would be playing; just another glitch in what proved to be a perfectly-coordinated, expertly-executed series of delays. Still, the show had to go on. Flanked by Olefumi (the saxophonist in his Millenium Experience band), Pops Mohammed gave a lesson in ‘world music’ as it applies to a more futuristic setting. This is the man who spent time in the Kalahari trying to understand the ways of the San people; the same man who jammed with musical greats such as Sipho Gumede and Basil Coetzee, both of whom are now late, under the moniker Sakhile. The music was loose, ‘we deliberately do not have a percussionist, so there is more space in the music – giving it more breath’ he had stated in an interview.

Next day, same venue. Madosini is soundchecking with Derek Gripper. She is South Africa’s version of Bi Kidude, the baroness of polyphonic Xhosa rhythms with a musical styling which draws on a rich tradition of mrube players. Gripper accompanies her on classical guitar, a succinct deluge of kora sounds somehow managing to escape through its hollowed-out body. But his near-academic workshop just a day earlier, landed a mechanical undertone to this alliance of minds. At times, the collaboration felt forced, almost difficult for either party to come to terms with the other’s cultural and musical nuances. But still, Gripper’s skill on the guitar cannot be undermined, and Madosini’s throat harmonies left those in attendance in wonderment. She spoke of loliwe, the train. She gave a lighter shade to, say, bra Hugh’s musings about the train in his timeless piece, ‘Stimela’. Her tale was of the journey from Umtata to the Cape Town train station, the joy of seeing family after a long time.

Festivals are always thwarted by waiting, walking and coordination. I curse the scheduling woes before leaving mid-way during Madosini and Gripper’s set in order to catch Sylvestre Kabassidi. His act consists of a drummer and two guitarists. Congolese music, perfect for the afternoon. The audience takes it in, scattered claps fill in the silence in-between songs. And then, as if by divine intervention, we get transported to another plane.

Bholoja! His music sounds like what Ismael Lo would sound like if he was from Swaziland and played with a four-piece band. His vocal range and the band’s musical finesse are the reason why festivals are the perfect destination to discover cutting-edge acts whose music one might not have been aware of. Although leaning a tad towards the ‘clean sound’ that world music has increasingly been associated with, Bholoja’s act managed to impress with its high-energy delivery and unparalleled precision.

While waiting for Bateleur to ascend the stage, a lady tells me about her one trip to Zim more than fifteen years ago. It involved US dollars, being trapped in no-man’s land and discovering a petrol station in the middle of nowhere en route to Harare. “The fuel thing on the car was leaking and I was quickly running out,” she said, before jumping to the bit about how “warm and loving those Zimbabweans are”. I gave a polite smile, half-interested in her story, slightly over-compensating for that with a few too many oh’s. Nic van Reenen, Bateleur’s guitarist kicks off with a jubilant: “hello!” before the entire band drags us willy-nilly into their universe of instrumental complexity; layers upon layers of beauty, scintillating melodies, half-sung hummings and a cover version a Christian Tiger School’s ‘Trapped in the jungle’ to drive everything forward.

Shane Cooper speaks of the connection between band and audience thus: “when the music really gets going and the band connects, there becomes this huge bubble of energy that you’re a part of. And if you get it right, that bubble expands and includes the entire audience.” The bubble did not take long to expand and fill the room when Babu was on stage. Like an adrenaline-filled jetstream, their Indian-infused psychedelic jazz managed to bend the attentive ears of an appreciative audience. This stuff is rock ‘n roll for the belligerent jazzhead. Kesivan Naidoo, the modern-day Roach, refusing to be silenced, upright in his resolve to hit everything in sight until a sound comes out. Reza Khota, his skill drives the mind’s attention away from the music to a space where it wonders how he makes those sounds on his guitar. Ronan Skillen’s dexterous gymnastics on the tablas and Cooper’s proficiency on the upright bass bring a wholesomeness to this collective that is unsurpassed by most.

The smoke emanates from the stage, a symbolic offering to the gods – a prayer, perhaps a chant, a request for blessings – sikelela. Or perhaps a war cry by warriors of what frontman Siya sees as the “last nation who were pulled out of apartheid and colonialism” – kicking and crying as it were. “That was the most incredible band. The Brother really does move on.” That statement, one of the many heard when doing the walk and wait parade to the next gig, pretty much summed up the energy The Brother Moves On brought during their performance. Minds blown.

But if audience size and reaction are to be the barometers of a successful show, then Oliver Mtukudzi’s flawless appearance shattered all manner of gauges. He was at ease, joyful. He interacted with his audience like one does with a long-lost acquaintance. He played all the right songs, said all the right things. Tuku smiled, told tales, shared stories, and acknowledged music’s ability to diffuse tension. And the people, oh the people! Someone had quipped how Zimbabweans would flood the main stage during his performance; but I saw everyone jamming along to his songs, singing some parts, mouthing others, and getting lost in a sea of sonic perfection that is Tuku’s music.

The first ever Cape Town World Music Festival chose a true world music hero, from across the Limpopo, to break the proverbial ice and warm up the Mother City’s cold shoulders… I can’t wait to see who comes next year.

*All images © Jonx Pillemer / Cape Town World Music Festival.

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