Bushfire – Day One, 5/26/12
The theme of the 6th annual Bushfire Music Festival sponsored by MTN was “Bring Your Fire”. An apt statement as the first night's acts heated up and the temperatures outside dropped. Swaziland has been my home for the past year. Even though I am technically a foreigner in the Kingdom, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride as my country played host to a renowned cast of local and international musicians and artists from Africa and beyond. As the emcees reminded the concert patrons that the theme “Bring Your Fire” referred to more than simply warming yourself; “Bring the Fire” was a call for social responsibility and giving back to the community. This fire radiates out; out into Swaziland as 100% of the proceeds from Bushfire went to support the Young Heroes Orphan Scholarship Program.
With so many Swazis living hand-to-mouth it is sometimes easy to forget how much creativity, honest exploration of art and talent Swais possess. Friday night was a perfect example of this; and it started with a bang. Although the crowds didn't arrive en masse until late in the evening, Swaziland's own poetry troupe Rooted Soulz opened with a multimedia performance that fused poetry, music and art. The Swazi spoken word artist/poet ,Qibho tha Intellektual was backed by a live band as he poured out some of his soul rending verses against the steady groove of bass line and some beautiful tremolo picked guitar. Qibho's verses were treading a thin line between poetry and hip-hop as he was joined in a beautiful duet on the poem/song “You”. During the performance two artists flanked the stage creating mixed-media art pieces as a direct response to the music and words coming from the stage.
House on Fire hosted two stages which staggered acts between the outdoor main stage and the smaller, more intimate (and warmer) amphitheater. The first main stage act was the popular South African jazz fusion act Mango Groove. Consisting of a three piece brass ensemble, three dancers, a steady rhythm section and led by commanding voice of Claire Johnston, Mango Groove took the stage playing some of their radio favorites including “Special Star” and covers of “Give Peace a Chance” and an extended jam on “In the Jungle” riling the early crowd up to near boiling point. While the three dancers onstage moved to music in precise timing, the fire dancer on top of the venue drew most attention early in the show.
Moving back into the cozier amphitheater Doster and Engle meets Dusty and Stones, was an inexplicably great collaboration between the American country/folk duo Doster and Engle and the Swazi country group Dusty and Stones. I am not sure how many country bands there are in Swaziland, but I am pretty confident we heard the crème de la crème Friday night. The set started with a tribute to Nelson Mandela complete with a full youth choir from the SOS Village. In the prelude to the song Greg Engle stated that what most people in the West hear about Africa is famine and war, when in reality Africa “means optimism and opportunity”. Doster and Dusty traded off between original songs before the group ended on a particularly rousing rendition of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire” that got the patrons out of their seats and onto the dance floor.
As Doster & Engle meets Dusty and Stones were wrapping up, Nancy G. & The Human Family were getting to work on the main stage. Nancy G. was by far the most inspiring Swazi-born artist I saw that night. Commanding the stage with her rich tenor and incredible guitar playing, Nancy G. reminded me of a female Live From Mars-era Ben Harper. Unlike most African guitar playing I have heard which relies on light, upbeat arpeggios and clean riffs, Nancy G. played angular and jagged power chords and wasn't afraid of letting some feedback and distortion ride out her ringing chords. My jaw was on the floor well into her acoustic set where she unplugged and opened up a bit. Her backing band rocked out on some tight grooves while her drummer moved between powerful rock drumming and more jazzy time signatures during the calmer songs.
The next main stage act to whip the crowd into a frenzy was the internationally acclaimed jazz/hip-hop fusion act MXO which took the crowd by storm. MXO delivered with a high energy performance with astoundingly tight choreographed dance moves. MXO's main vocalist's reedy baritone moved freely between singing and rapping, and earnestly conjured Bob Marley during their extended jam of “Wait in Vain”. Joe Nina, the impulsive and energizing singer, joined MXO for the last stretch of their set. Joe Nina boasted an impressive set of pipes and even more impressive dance moves. It was difficult to tell whether the crowd's reaction to Nina had to do more with his high-energy performance or blindingly bright red suit.
Quite possibly the most surprising and exciting group to rock Friday night was the internationally scattered group Napalma which boasts group members from Mozambique, Brazil and South Africa. Drawing a large crowd of Portuguese speakers who sang and danced along emphatically to every song, Napalma brought audience participation and a sound that was unmatched by any group that night. Consisting of three percussionists, one vocalist and an electronic musician playing accompanying percussion through his laptop, Napalma filled the stage not only with the immensity of their set-up but their unmatched energy and enthusiasm. The vocalist could not keep still during the percussion heavy numbers, constantly bounding across stage or calling for more audience participation which the capacity crowd was more than willing to give. The three percussionists wove beats around each other like smoke rings through fog, each filling in for the other and shaking the small amphitheater with a massive all-percussion sound. Napalma was the most welcome surprise of the entire evening. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself traveling to Mozambique to catch another one of their sets.
Running concurrently with Napalma's set was the legendary twin-brother DJ group Revolution who kept the crowd moving well past midnight with classic and cutting edge house cuts that didn't allow dancers any break as they moved from one hit to another under striking violet colored lights. George and Joseph Mothiba must share some kind of spooky ESP between them as they traded DJ'ing duties and chose the set-list without any break in the music. Their performance legitimizes the hype they receive as revolutionary DJ's.
Local Swazi DJ's took the party going late into the night (or early into the next morning) playing some classic hip-hop cuts (I think I heard Kriss Kross in there) and R&B tracks along with House favorites. As patrons stumbled out into the chilly night, sweat soaked and rapidly losing body temperature, everyone had the same look on their face. This was a good night. A great start.
Bushfire Day Two
Day two of the legendary Bushfire Music Festival was going to be epic. The evening line up was stacked with big names making waves in the Southern Africa and International music scene and the day was filled with thought provoking lectures and poetry. When someone studies Africa in the west we learn all about Africa's great oral tradition of stories and wisdom passed from generation to generation by the means of talented storytellers. If there was a common motif for the sixth year of Bushfire it was the power of the spoken word. The festival opened with a spoken word performance by Rooted Soulz, then dedicated ample time for local and international poets and played host to Saul Williams, arguably one of the biggest performing poet in the world.
While the day, night and well into the next morning were filled with rich messages embedded within the rhythm of speech. Day two began with the wordless delight of the Giant Puppets of Mozambique who returned to Bushfire. The festival did a great job of providing family-centered activities throughout the day for young children. Not only did the giant puppets delight, but the Kids Zone with its art activities, blow up slides and mini-quad racing satisfied bantfwana all day long.
One great addition to Bushfire this year was the construction of The Barn, a converted barn that housed artwork from Yebo Art gallery, sculptures and a giant chalk wall for patrons to add their own messages and artwork. The Barn, however, functioned as a public space where vigorous discussions of some of the most pressing issues in Swaziland were heard. The first guest speaker was Dolores Godeffroy owner of eDladaleni restaurant in Mbabane which specializes in local, indigenous food. She addressed food security and argued pointedly against the introduction of mono-cropping cash crops while so many of our citizens are going hungry every day. The spirited lecture inspired equally spirited questions and debate during the question and answer period on topics ranging from GMO foods to mismanagement of arable land.
Later that afternoon Joy Ndwandwe a.k.a Prophet Ndwandwe gave a fascinating lecture on African Relational Humanism, or more basically, an examination of the traditional values of Swazis. Using King Sobhouza as a model, Ndwandwe described the Swazi worldview as, “I am because we are”; a fascinating idea coming from such an individualist culture that I come from.
The Barn hosted not only discussion groups and invigorating lectures, but it also was the place to hear some of the most soul-searing, inspiring, heartbreaking and hilarious poets this side of the Atlantic. Nomfundo a.k.a Mocats gave a voice to the silent pain of a country as she recited several heartfelt poems that centered around the loss of her mother. She was followed by the provocative South African poet Phillippa Yaa De Villiers whose poems focused on the politics of language, race and sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa. Her observations of the silent gaps between two people, two races and two classes ranged from intentionally hilarious to devastatingly accurate.
The Barn's morning programme featured women from a variety of disciplines whose words all seemed to focus on their and their country's place in a changing world. Kudos should go to the progrmming director for putting together an enlightening and cohesive line up.
One of the things that Bushfire does well is displaying local talent from an incredibly wide range of styles and disciplines. The 100% Seriously Swazi Programme was no exception. While local Swazi DJ's such as DJ Toxik, DJ Chuidy, DJ Muscle and DJ Mfundo rocked the party on both stages, the House on Fire Amphitheater played host an eclectic cross-section of Swazi artists. Acts ranged from the blues influenced +268 to the reggae group Swaziloution and others. I was proud to have my new country represented by such talented and diverse musicians.
As the afternoon wore on and the sun began beat down relentlessly, I was grateful that Bushfire provided so many great options of spoken word and music outside off the main stage. It was the main stage, however, that really began to heat up as the shadows of the afternoon began to lengthen.
Jika Nelanga is an innovative jazz-fusion group that featured impressive flamenco guitars and tabla percussion, giving the patrons, who now began arriving in numbers, a funky groove to dance to.
Around 4:00 as the sun began sinking behind the hills Jeremy Loop gave a performance few would ever forget. Loop, as his moniker suggests, incorporates a deft use of a loop and effect pedals to loop his instruments, voice and even kid's toys to create full-fledged compositions using only guitar and vocal chords. While a virtual one man band for most of the set, Loops was joined by saxophonist Jamie Faull during some of the more rousing numbers and was later joined by rapper M.O Lecko who whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
While Jeremy received a warm welcome to Swaziland, nothing would compare to the fervor and adoration eSwatini has for its local legend Bholoja. Bholoja is a fixture at Bushfire and his appearance was welcomed by every Swazi who had his songs memorized and could belt them at the top of their lungs. Although his set was disappointingly short due to a lengthy interlude, his impact was palpable. At first, the vocalist Velemseni warmed up the crowd with some laid back numbers before Bholoja took the stage. As the sun set, Bholoja and his extremely talented band took the crowd through some of the stand out tracks in his catalogue including his well known track “Zero to Hero” that was warmly received by this mixed audience of internationals and locals.
Ayo took the stage next. Moving freely between guitar and piano, Ayo held a commanding stage presence in front of the building crowd. By her accounts, however, she would have preferred a more intimate setting. To make up for this she climbed the fence and concluded her cover of Bob Marley's “Three Little Birds” walking amongst the adoring crowd with her resonant voice and lyrics.
The main stage acts had been wonderful and extremely talented; however, nothing prepared me for the sheer mayhem of what was going to come next. The Brother Moves On is a young group from Johannesberg who play blistering rock music with an embattled punk spirit, free-wheeling psychedelia and strong roots in traditional African music. After hearing their work on a Spoek Mathambo mixtape earlier this year, my expectations were high for this group and they delivered on every front. By the end of the intense soloing, the lead singer's frenzied calls for peace amidst a swirling cacophony of well constructed destruction, the crowd came together in a sweaty mass of positivity and admiration. Did I mention that each member wore skintight, gold, lame tights? It was over the top and amazing.
I had been looking forward to seeing Saul Williams perform ever since it was announced that he would be coming to Swaziland. I have followed William's career from his 2001 release of the album Amethyst Rock Star, his movie Slam and his various collaborations with artists as diverse as Blackalicious, Janelle Monae and Nine Inch Nails. My expectations were met on every level. Backed by a full band, William's poetry weaved in and out of his soulful crooning, undergirded by the politics of punk rock and the vocal chords of a soul legend. While most of his set focused on recent releases, such as his 2011 release Volcanic Sunligh,t that steer more towards a punk-blues direction, Williams treated the audience with a few impassioned recitations of some of his most well known poems. For those who came to hear Saul Williams for the first time were lucky to hear him in such an inspiring context.
The stage was set for the biggest name in the festival, Mi Casa, to take the stage. Before the got underway, however, the Mozambican reggae star Ras Haitrm took the stage to the delight of the Mozambique contingent in the audience and avid reggae lovers.
Mi Casa, the award winning South African trio (rounded out to a quartet for Bushfire) played through a medley of original songs and genre-spanning interludes. Mi Casa is a fascinating combination of jazz, kwaito, house and latin influenced sounds that come together in a style completely their own. At this point, as the clock chimed past midnight, the crowd was packed to overflowing, giving Mo-T's trumpet and J’Something's soaring falsetto love on their most well known tracks and dancing without reserve throughout their entire set as each track effortlessly blended into each other under the deft hand of beatmaster Dr. Duda.
There is a phrase in English to express extreme fatigue. That phrase is being “bushed”. I have no idea where it came from but by the end of the festival, I was 100% bushed. I was exhausted but I had never been happier in my time here in Swaziland. The spectacle and amazing sounds I heard were second only to overwhelming feeling of positivity radiating through the international crowd that shared different languages and culture, but each bringing something indispensible to the event. They brought their fire. –Ryan Hall