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Art, Culture

Illuminating Poison City

by Samora Chapman / Images by Luca Barausse and Samora Chapman / 10.10.2012

It’s springtime in Ethekwini. The Jacarandas are covering the streets in purple petals and it’s already getting so hot that you can sleep naked and go surfing in baggies. Springtime is also Interpret Durban time. Interpret Durban is kind of like our own little Academy Awards. Except without the red carpet and expensive suits. But it’s our turn to act like movie stars, to celebrate our burgeoning art and music scene and remind ourselves that there aint no place like Poison City.

In case you don’t know, Interpret Durban is a mufti-faceted creative contest conceived by Street Scene, and partly funded by the city. September was the month of hype, as artists, photographers, designers and filmmakers scampered around the city in search of the ‘essence’ of Durban.

The preparation finally came together with an exhibition, prize giving and gig at the Bat Centre – the historic home of Durban art, jazz and culture – nestled between the beastly inner city and the oily harbour.

I arrived on Saturday night tasting the salty air on my lips and headed straight to the photography exhibition with my heart in my throat. I had entered a portrait of a Snake Charmer shot on Grey Street. The ego is really a demon, and I’d almost been losing sleep with anticipation of the big night. It was time to check out my competition.

The theme for photography was ‘What is a postcard’. The standard of work was excellent, encompassing all the most striking Durban icons, from Art Deco architecture and Indian spices to some sidewalk surfing and several generic beach shots. Micaela De Freitas of Humans of Durban has been on fire – her blog of Durban street portraits gathering a huge following. She was in the mix with a portrait of a kid and his skateboard. Sheldon Wins had a killer shot of a spice vendor in the Victoria Market.

But in the end it was a moody photograph of the ocean and cityscape on a typically idyllic Durban afternoon by Marcel Duvenage that took first place. Third place was a meticulously staged and well-lit shot of a mime artist on the beachfront that looked a little familiar. Author by the name of Allister Starke.

I took second with Snake Man… just one of the small perks of not having a real job. Viva Mahala and thanks Interpret Durban! Pity I gotta sell my prizes for food money.

Onto the mixed art competition, which was themed ‘Windows of Durban’. And I must say that the boards provided by Street Scene were smaller in size and stature than a James Brown LP. The diminutive canvasses were painted with some precise artistic skill. A couple of good pieces brightened the mosaic – especially the portrait by Taegan Cuniffe, which placed first.

By contrast, the t-shirt design competition was totally off-the hook. There were almost too many great pieces to mention: but I loved the old sea-dog by Michael Dos Ramos, the Ricksha crab by Shaun Oakley and Wesley van Eeden’s transformer pigeon zooting into the clouds – which took a deserved second place. Jared Kieser’s banana rikshaw driver took second and Stathi Kougianos took the crown with his epic surf combi titled “Parking Off”, which I want on my chest right now please!

The theme for film was: ‘A moment, a place, a time’. On the video trigger finger – Luke Mason was leagues ahead with his music video set at an inner-city pool table. Two sharks battle it out for a R10 note amidst the buzzing traffic of Warwick Triangle. The cinematography was classy, the colours contained the misty warm hue of blazed vision and the pace sucked you right into the city vibe. ‘Insomniac’ by Coals of Juniper provided the perfect backing track. The entry was actually an excerpt from a Coals music video directed, shot and edited by Luke. Unfortunately, the vid got rejected by the band due to its unholy content. Luke is building a reputation for his ugly/beautiful cinematography and is making waves in the local film scene. Lance Lutge and Richard Gorven took second and third places respectively.

Ten Rand from Luke Mason on Vimeo.

After sufficient cultural consumption it was time to hit the Bat Cave where Luminati were making a frightening amount of noise. The fine line between emceeing and shouting was being boldly violated and the band added a calamitous sonic attack to complete the aural destruction. The concept for the music comp was for the bands to perform a track with a guest artist and get judged on their collaborative effort. Wesley, the cat from Explosion came on stage with Luminati and added some classy guitar solos in an attempt to salvage the music.

Fruit ‘n Veg put on the show of a lifetime to a crowd of die-hard fans. Purity even toned it down for a moving emo ballade about unrequited love. Umbilo’s beloved punks took the crown in the music comp for their collaborative track with Project B.H, winning a trip to CT courtesy of Red Bull, to record at the Red Bull Studios, again. On top of that, the Veggies get a music video courtesy of iKind Media. Viva Fruit ‘n Veg! The Veggies made out with each other on stage in the name of victory and free love.

Coals of Juniper performed a tight and powerful instrumental rock ‘n roll type set. The music delved into some tumultuous emotional depths when the bassist switched to keyboard. I know it’s wrong of me, but I can’t help wishing the Coals had a vocalist – something eerie like Beth Gibbons. But the lack of vocals means that you almost have to turn off your brain and just let the music move you. It’s a kind of communication that transcends language, and is in that way universal. The Coals produce a dramatic atmosphere that surges like an ocean and hits you in the gut like a Nick Cave song. They did a track with Portia for the comp, and while it had moments, it wasn’t quite Portishead.

To top it off, Big Idea came out of hiding to set the night on fire – the dopest hip hop/jazz band to ever come out of Durban. Except for maybe Percasette, who are so deep underground that nobody even knows them. I was a young hip hop head when I first saw Quincy perform at The Bat in about 2005. He drank red wine straight out of the bottle and serenaded the mic for hours with his deep raps and soulful choruses. A rapper that could sing. And Q’s lyrics always hit home.

Who could ever forget: “We are street corner sages / The best thing outta Durban since the poison made the place famous! / Hip hop and marijuana / my moral misdemeanours!” And their classic underground anthem ‘Aweh’


Big Idea pulled out all the hits. It’s weird but the songs seem to have grown in stature in the years since they disappeared. Amplified, perhaps, having been played a thousand times in the bedroom’s of graf kids and aspiring emcees; at house parties across the city. Hell, we even dragged Hot Box across the planet, popped it in boom boxes in Berlin, London and Marrakech and said: “That’s what Durban sounds like!”

Isn’t it ironic that Durban cats are always leaving in search of greener pastures and better opportunities. But no matter where we go, we’ll always take a bit of the poison with us. And we’ll always come back home.

Interpret Durban Party from INTERPRET DURBAN on Vimeo.

*Images © Samora Chapman and Luca Barausse.

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